The Dow's recent> plunge below 8,000 and reports of a record number of layoffs make it hard for anyone to forget that they need to keep their finances in good shape during these tough economic times. However, some regular, less panic-inducing reminders can also be helpful, too.
Now consumers can sign up for a range of free, customizable alert services that promise to help keep both their budget and bills in check. Offered by third-party web sites and individual companies, these services send registered users emails and text messages reminding them about everything from upcoming bill dates to price drops on purchases. "People can't stay on top of everything," says Edgar Dworsky, founder of consumer advocacy site ConsumerWorld.org. "If you're booking travel, how many days in a row are you really going to check airfares to see if they've dropped? That's where a good alert can kick in."
Also, if you choose text messages over email notifications, be sure you have unlimited texting on your cellphone plan or are reasonably certain that you ll receive only a few alerts. Otherwise, you will end up paying for extra text messages, says Alicia Rockmore, founder of Buttoned Up, a personal organizing company.
Here are seven types of alerts that aim to keep you in good financial shape:
Alert: Price Changes
Stop scanning the sale ads for a deal on that cutting-edge flat-screen TV you ve been drooling over. Price-comparison sites like PriceGrabber and NexTag will notify you when the price of a given item has dropped. DealAlerter (a companion site to Dworsky s ConsumerWorld) emails you when the price falls below the price you set.
Use these alerts even after you make a purchase by tracking price drops that are eligible for the retailer s price-adjustment policy. PriceProtectr.com lists policies for more than 140 retailers, and tracks the prices of items they sell.
Staying on budget doesn t require balancing your checkbook with every purchase. Free budgeting sites like Quicken Online and Mint track bank, credit card and investment accounts. You can also arrange warnings for when you go over budget in certain categories, including groceries and books.
Alert: Change in Account Status
Getting an alert that your checking account is running low can save you from a nasty overdraft fee, while being alerted that a credit-card balance is dangerously high could keep you from overcharging. Offered by banks, credit-card issuers and other financial institutions, account status alerts such as these are a great way to stay on top of your accounts. Just don't get too attached to using them, cautions Jean Anne Fox, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocate. "It's not a substitution for careful management of your accounts," she says.
Alert: Secondhand Sales
Alert: Cheap Airfare
With so many pesky airline fees tacked on, travelers are even more determined to find the cheapest possible tickets these days. Fare-search site Kayak tracks flights by date and specified cities and emails you when it spots deals in your price range. Expedia (EXPE)
Already booked your flight? Sign up for the airline s flight notifications so you re automatically alerted to any delays or other problems, suggests Ed Perkins, a contributing editor for travel advice site SmarterTravel.com. There s absolutely no downside to signing up, he says.
Alert: Credit-Card Deals
Tell BillShrink which credit cards you use and what rate you re being charged, and it will continuously look for credit-card offers that carry a better rate or rewards. Just answer a few questions about your spending habits -- whether you pay off your balance, the average charged each month, big spending categories. The site emails you new recommendations as issuers change the terms of your card and others in its database. (BillShrink offers a similar alert service for cellphone plans.)
Alert: Reminders and Other Deals
Whether you want to get notified about the best discounts on deal site FatWallet or hunt for a job, check out all-purpose alert services Alerts.com and Yotify. You can even create custom alerts for say, the day your rent is due or friends' birthdays.