All In One Sites Have Some Missing Pieces

When someone throws money at you to become a customer, should you? The other day in Atlanta, outside a Charles Schwab office, promoters of a new Web site called invited me into their plexiglass "cash booth." It sat next to their sweepstakes prize, a $60,000 Range Rover loaded with $20,000 in cash. The booth was littered with money, too, all fake except for two real $5 bills. When a fan went on, swirling the bills up around my face, I had 10 seconds to grab a real fiver before it hit the ceiling.

I failed, but I swear it's not sour grapes that left me wondering: Is a free site that aims this year to spend $250,000 in cash promotions and prizes worth your attention? is one of a growing number of sites (table) that promise to make our financial lives easier via "account aggregation." That's Webspeak for gathering on one page your bank, brokerage, and credit card balances, plus such other stuff as frequent-flier points and phone bills.

How does this work? From's home page, I registered for free by giving my name, ZIP code, and e-mail address. Next, I set up a "MyAccounts" page by giving my online user names and passwords for such accounts as my American Express Optima card and BellSouth home phone service. When I was done, one page showed me how many frequent-flier miles I have on three airlines, how many messages I had waiting at America Online, how high my Optima card bill had climbed, and the cash balance in my brokerage account. Each time I returned to OnMoney.-com, I could see all that, updated, with just one password.

The sites vow to protect privacy, but it's still a long leap of faith. passes along permission to use my passwords to VerticalOne, the partner that does all of the actual account aggregation. VerticalOne does so by entering your banking and brokerage firms' Web sites under your name and plucking out the key data. Rivals, linked with AltaVista and Intuit, and Corillian, which serves Microsoft's MSN MoneyCentral, work similarly. The sites and aggregators swear up and down to keep your trust, but VerticalOne limits its liability to $100,000 even if it's grossly negligent. Many people will reasonably find all of this too creepy--way too X-Files.

I didn't. In fact, I found it neat to capture in one glance some, if not all, of my personal balance sheet. Just the same, I can't recommend that people spend time at these sites yet. One reason is that all of the bugs aren't worked out. For instance, VerticalOne couldn't deliver to the right balance for my Bell South account. A January bill, long since paid, showed up in late March as "Balance Due." Not a confidence-builder.

Worse is the fact that the information you get by aggregating is of limited use. No site I found would let me export data to a spreadsheet, where I might compare it with my financial position last month or manipulate it in other ways. At Schwab's site, you can do a cross-account transfer--moving money from a bank account to a broker's money market fund, for example--but you can't do that at an aggregator's.

Such tools and services are coming. CEO Vince Passione says that by June he expects the site to offer such functions as cash-flow analysis of your bank and credit-card transactions, with comparisons of your financial habits against benchmarks for folks in like financial situations. That way, you can tell if you're spending too much on, say, housing.

Tighter integration with bill-paying will also help hook users. "We're betting on Bill Pay," says MSN Money Central product manager Erik Jorgensen. "It's really going to take off." I agree. As these sites add tools and tie features such as bill-paying closer to bank balances, they'll fly. But for now, there's no hurry to get on board.

Questions? Comments? E-mail or fax (321) 728-1711