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Innovation Economy

New tools put financial data at your fingertips

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2011

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John Prendergast likes to talk about the “kitchen table’’ problem: financial statements spread across a flat surface and scoured by stressed-out spouses. That doesn’t always lead to the best decisions.

His Cambridge start-up, Blueleaf Inc., is building a website that will support smarter analysis across the multiple accounts most families have. And Blueleaf is just one local company trying to apply new technology to improve the way consumers manage their money.

Here’s my run-down:

PerkStreet Financial Inc. is a Boston firm that offers a new kind of online checking. It has no fee (assuming you make at least one transaction every month) and offers free online bill payment and free use of 37,000 ATMs, more than Chase and Bank of America combined. But PerkStreet’s biggest differentiator is a debit card that offers up to 2 percent cash back on purchases. (You can also choose to get cash back as Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards, iTunes credit, or Amazon.com scrip.)

To get 2 percent back, you’ll need at least $5,000 in your account — any lower and you’re downgraded to 1 percent. But the company also picks special “PowerPerk’’ categories each month, like home improvement and tax prep services in March. Use the debit card to buy goods and services in featured categories and get 5 percent cash back. PerkStreet says the typical family receives more than $600 in its first year using the card.

The catch? PerkStreet’s checking account doesn’t pay interest, although a company spokesman says PerkStreet may introduce a savings account that does.

Phillip Fremont-Smith isn’t yet sharing many details about his Cambridge start-up, ImpulseSave Inc., except to say he wants to make “impulse saving’’ as common as impulse spending. “People know that they’re not saving enough, but the current mechanisms for saving don’t meet them where they live,’’ he says. “Our brains have been pickled with these messages about living richly, and how spending is empowering.’’

One aim of ImpulseSave, Fremont-Smith says, is to make it easy to move money into a goal account (saving for a wedding, for example) “on the fly, instantly from a mobile device.’’ He says the company wants to make saving “more game-like, more social, and more immediately gratifying.’’

Fremont-Smith says ImpulseSave is currently conducting a small beta test of the service, with plans for a wider launch later this year.

For stock market investors, Trefis.com offers interactive charts and graphs that let you explore different scenarios about where a company’s stock price may be headed. Click ing through various business units that make up Starbucks Corp., for instance, you can see how Trefis’s in-house research team projects the performance of the company’s packaged coffee business. You can then tug on the trend lines yourself, and see what would happen to Starbucks stock price if those sales took a dive. Trefis also lets you see projections and comments from other users of the site, creating an online community of equity researchers (some students, some amateur investors, and some professional portfolio managers and analysts).

“We try to show you in a single snapshot what matters for a company,’’ says founder Manish Jhunjhunwala. “I used to think Priceline was all about flights, so when I looked at the Trefis profile, I was stunned that flight reservations don’t matter for them — 90 percent is hotels.’’

Trefis, with 10 employees in Boston and 10 in India, currently covers 150 companies. While much of the information is free, a $15 monthly subscription allows access to the entire site.

A2ZEconomy.com is a two-person Waltham start-up that develops apps for the iPad, iPhone, and Android platform to report about 1,500 economic indicators within a half hour of when they’re announced. Want to consult a chart of housing starts over the last 12 months? A2Z makes it easy, and even offers a list of the most recently updated data. A free version of the app offers a look at a few dozen indicators. The premium version ($15 per year) gives you all 1,500.

Fidelity Investments, one of the world’s biggest mutual fund companies, has deployed apps for mobile phones and tablet computers. Fidelity’s iPad app, for instance, is an elegantly designed collection of business news, charts, and maps that briefs you on world markets with a quick glance; it’s free, and useful whether or not you have Fidelity accounts.

“What we’re learning is that each of these different devices requires thinking about what you should try to deliver,’’ says Fidelity senior vice president Sean Belka. “There’s more of a focus on data visualization and video on the iPad, but on a mobile phone, you’re probably just trying to get a quote or market data.’’

While Blueleaf won’t be accessible to the public until later this year, an early look shows it goes a good distance towards combating the chaos of the kitchen table. (Prendergast says the company is extending a small number of invitations to users who want to be beta testers.) The site offers a unified view of numerous accounts at once, and lets you explore things like how much of your portfolio is invested in health care stocks across different funds and accounts. You can choose to give a financial adviser access to some information — just retirement accounts, for instance — or all of it.

The site can already help estimate progress towards goals like saving for college. Soon, says Prendergast, it will help with portfolio rebalancing, and present options of mutual funds similar to ones you own that might offer lower expenses. The company plans to charge a monthly fee for its service as well as offer it through financial advisers who would pay on their clients’ behalf.

Prendergast, a former investment banker, says his company is focusing on a customer who is a “regular person, not someone who thinks investing is fun, or does it as a hobby.’’

A pretty large slice of the population, no doubt.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.