This is a review of OnTrees: a web-based money management tool that allows you to link all your accounts, budget and compare financial products.

One distant cold and dark November evening in Sofia my mum, just before she got on the tram to go back home, looked at me and said:

‘You are on your own now and I can think of only one thing to say to you: learn to control money because otherwise it will control you!’.

I had just started my university degree and this was my first night away from home. Over twenty five years later, the humility of later life remembered what the arrogance of youth failed to recognise: my mum gave me the best advice for life ever. Learning to control money, or money management, helped us pay off an embarrassingly high amount of debt in pleasingly short time.

Money management is important, there is no doubt about it; and to manage money, or indeed anything, effectively and efficiently one needs information. At a minimum, one needs information about:

  • How much one earns;
  • How much one spends;
  • What on;
  • How much debt one has;
  • What payments need to be made.

And here, as I found three years ago, is the problem. Our financial lives, just like almost anything else, have become far too complicated. We don’t only have a bank account; most of us have  a number of current (checking) and savings accounts; we have credit cards and debit cards. When we were scoping our financial situation, we found ourselves staring at a good inch high pile of cards – no wonder it took us a month to add it all up (and John is a mathematician). I am not even going to start on the information about out spending; but it never even occurred to me that I used to spend over £100 ($160) per month on coffee at the office (and it is not good coffee at that).

When we had to do all that we did it manually; then being the nerds we are, we designed some fairly basic but useful spreadsheets for tracking spending in sufficient detail so we can take decisions. Why? Because we were unable to find something that operated in the UK (in North America there was Mint, of course) and ‘did the job’! Frankly, after experimenting with some of the apps around, we just decided that out spreadsheets may not be much to look at but would have to do. We stopped looking and achieved simplicity by simplifying what we do.

OnTrees offers the option to simplify your financial life and have access to all the information you need to manage your finances by changing how you do things. Let me expand on this one!

What is OnTrees?

OnTrees is a free online service that allows users to link all their accounts in one place. This means that you can add your different accounts using a simple and straight forward form (let’s put this way, even I didn’t need help with it and I am a known luddite) and get aggregate information. It also means, that if John and I spent adding up a good few weeks (well, it was so boring that we needed breaks as well), were we to use OnTrees for the same job it would have been done within about 30 minutes, or as long as it would have taken us to fill in the forms for all accounts.

What does OnTrees do?

Once you have linked all your accounts on OnTrees, you can do four things that are absolutely key for money management. You can:

  • Get an overview of your financial situation accounting for all accounts you have. This, I would like to emphasise, is a big time saver when it comes to money management.
  • View all financial transaction you have made over specified time period and across all accounts on OnTrees. Without this tool, aggregating financial transactions across a number of bank accounts can be a time consuming, boring and neglected practice.
  • Look at your spending history by category so that you know at any time where your money goes. This also allows you to work out patterns of spending. Having your accounts linked means that there is no space for forgetfulness and/or delusion: if you spend a lot on eating out you can’t hide this on an obscure credit card, the statement for which you rarely look at. Having this much information may not be good for the ego but can help mend your ways.
  • Use the budgeting tool to set limits to your spending in different categories and follow continuously how are you doing. What I liked about this one is that it is about budgeting rather than having a budget. In other words, it is very flexible and one can take decisions about and change, when and if necessary, their budget.

Now, some of you may be thinking that you can do all these things without OnTrees. True! But it will take so much time and effort that most either won’t do it, or do it once. Effective money management demands readily accessible, complete information!

Apart from that, working out all this information using OnTrees is not only fun; it is also important that this system works with you. For example, you can choose the format in which to view your spending trends. Why is this important? Because, I see what the information (data) means immediately on a line-graph and get very annoyed and confused looking at a pie chart.

The verdict

I have a bit of a problem here because any simple, personal judgement won’t do OnTrees justice. Did I like the look of it? Yes, it is hard not to like the design which conveys an attention to detail I found impressive. This includes the professional, stylish, helpful and very cleverly constructed ‘welcome’ message I received after signing up on the system.

Did I enjoy ‘playing around’ on it? I certainly did; then again, I really love testing (understand trying to break) new tools and nosing about different sites. Could I see its usefulness? Immediately! In fact, my first thought was ‘I wish this site was around three years ago; it could have saved us so much time and tedium.’ Although, the usefulness clause doesn’t apply equally to all facilities offered by the service – one I was not that keen on is the section comparing different financial products. But one doesn’t need to go there if one doesn’t want to!

Can I recommend that you use the service? No, not based on my likes and dislikes!

This is why I decided to go for a different approach and think about how my experience measures against the OnTrees’ own creed: simplicity, accuracy, honesty and safety.

Is it simple? Yes, I said that even I could do all that was necessary. But even more importantly, using OnTrees will simplify your finances by changing not what you do but how you do it.

Is it accurate? From what I have seen it appears so.

It is a bit harder to make up my mind about honesty and safety: a) in the case of the former, it is more a peripheral pledge regarding advertising and sponsorship rather than something that affect the core functionality of the site; b) regarding safety, I did trust the site enough to enter several of my accounts on it, if this counts for anything.

OnTrees is definitely an easy to use and useful tool for money management; and the services it offers are free. Worth a go, I would say!

But please remember that OnTrees is only a tool that will enable you to have easy, timely and accurate access to the information (data) you need. Working out what are the messages this data conveys and judging whether you are doing the right thing, the right way is a different matter altogether.