Cyberspace and the planet cash

Stephen Pritchard begins a new column on finance over the Internet by looking at the web sites that may help to improve your money management
ANYONE who bought a home computer for Christmas or in the January sales knows that it can blow a hole in the household budget.

An appropriate way, therefore, to recoup some of that money is to put the PC to work managing your finances. The Internet, especially, is becoming a useful mechanism for improving your financial wherewithal, although there is also plenty of worthless rubbish knocking around cyberspace.

A survey published last year by Mori on behalf of ICL, the computer company, says that more than one-third of British adults expect to use a computer for at least some of their banking and financial transactions within the next five years.

All the clearing banks and a host of smaller lending and savings institutions have web sites, electronic banking or both. The logic is clear enough: for most of us, managing our finances is a chore. If computers or, specifically, the Internet, can make that quicker or easier, then people will use them.

Connecting to the Internet is cheaper and easier than ever. Most new PCs come with a free trial period with an Internet service provider. Armed with a modem to connect the PC to a phone line, this is the best way to see if the Net is useful. Subscriptions start at as little as pounds 5, for services such as that of AOL, but most cost closer to pounds 10 a month.

The best way to find a service provider is by personal recommendation, or through a specialist publication such as Internet magazine or .Net.

There are thousands of financial web sites. The Net's size is at once its biggest downfall, as well as its greatest advantage. Even experienced users can find it hard to locate a particular web page.

Unless you know or can hazard a good guess at a site's name (also called its URL) the best starting point is a general web site covering the field, or a search engine.

Search engines are the Internet's librarians. They let users hunt for a site by keywords, using huge databases of Internet addresses. Search engines including Lycos, Yahoo!, Alta Vista or Excite (www.excite.co.uk; www.yahoo.co.uk; www.lycos.com) will produce hundreds of suggested sites if you type in "money" - one of the most searched-for terms after, you guessed it, sex.

Specialist personal finance sites are another rich seam of information. Some are commercial, but all contain lists of other web sites, or links. Moneyworld (www.moneyworld.co.uk) is a slick and professional web site, with regular financial news updates, and links to share information, posted just 20 minutes behind the London Stock Exchange's "real-time" (up-to- the minute) pricing. A quirkier approach is MoneyWeb (www.moneyweb.co.uk) which has its own, sometimes opinionated, views on the financial industry, as well as an excellent set of links.

The high-street banks and large insurance companies have their own, often highly corporate, sites. Barclays (www.barclays.co.uk) offers a little more, with connections to its Barclaysquare electronic shopping mall, while Nationwide (www.nationwide.co.uk) customers can carry out the vast majority of standard banking tasks using the site's link to their current account. Would-be house buyers can also use Nationwide's web site to calculate their mortgage repayments.

Insurers are experimenting with on-line quotations for travel, motor and household insurance, but there are few places, as yet, where you can buy more complex financial products on-line. Legal & General (www.legal- and-general.co.uk) operates a system where its sales staff will call you back and Norwich Union (www.norwichunion.co.uk) encourages visitors to e-mail their details, for a more detailed quotation.

Elsewhere, if you cannot find a cashpoint, but have access to a computer, Link, the cashpoint network, has a search facility (www.link.co.uk/machine/html).

Property owners are catered for by a growing band of estate agents listing their wares on the Net. Winkworth's, the London estate agency chain, (www.winkworth.co.uk) scores for being comprehensive, with a fast search engine and a useful mortgage calculator, even though the details sometimes lag behind London's overheated housing market. Firms with a wider geographical scope include Chancellors (www.chancellors.co.uk) and Woolwich Property Services (www.wps- property-seeker.co.uk).

The Net has a reputation for the off-beat, and on-line finance is no exception. If windfall hunting is your bag, the pressure group Members for Conversion (www.carpetbagger.com) lists seemingly every building society, along with the probability of conversion and the minimum deposit required.

The wider economy is not forgotten, either. Predicting the Government's next move is an inexact science, but if you want to outwit Gordon Brown, Be Your Own Chancellor, a tax simulation provided by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, is safer and cheaper than standing for parliament. The site (www2.ifs.org.uk/byoc97_in.htm) lets you vary the tax and benefit rates at will. My attempts to set a 5 per cent basic rate of tax and keep benefits level resulted in instant crisis and a call from the IMF, but I still have a while to hone my policies.

Over the coming months this column will monitor what is new, what is good, and what is bad, in finance on the web.

If you come across any sites you either love or hate, feel free to e- mail the details to me: stephen.pritchard@dial.pipex.com.

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