You know about blogs, Facebook, and MySpace. But have you heard about Twitter? It’s rapidly emerging as the next trend in online communication. Think of Twitter as group instant messaging–with a twist: all your messages (called “tweets”) are limited to 140 characters or less. You sign up for a free account, and then pick which people you want to follow. (If you’re new to Twitter, Mike Hyatt has an excellent post titled “The Beginners Guide To Twitter.”)
We’re not talking about sharing the intimate details of how much of your paycheck gets frittered away at Starbucks. That kind of thing is best left discussed between you and your significant other. Or, god forbid, for actual financial transactions. But Twitter can be a useful way to stay updated on the latest news about the economy or to find ways to save money.
Here’s a quick rundown of Twitter as it relates to personal finances–six ways it might help, and four pitfalls to avoid.
Six ways you can use Twitter to help with personal finances:
1. Find deals.
Many companies such as Amazon (@amazon), Dell (@DellOutlet), JetBlue (@JetBlue), Woot! (@woot), and others are using Twitter to announce up-to-the nanosecond deals on everything from airline tickets to robot vacuum cleaners. Some of these deals, such as recent $14 coast-to-coast airfare are Twitter only so you’ll want to make sure you are following the companies whose products and services you are interested in.
Trent Hamm, author of the excellent blog “The Simple Dollar“, posted a list of ten Twitter accounts full of coupons and deals. These include everything from two-hour only Amazon Deals (@amazondeals) to DealUniversity (@dealuniversity) which aggregates a bunch of online steals on electronics.
Many other retailers offer great deals through their Twitter accounts. Walmart (@WalmartDeals), Best Buy (@BestBuy), and many, many others.
2. Get customer support.
More and more companies–particularly consumer companies–are monitoring Twitter to see what you have to say about their products and to help you use them. For example, eBay Motors uses Twitter (@askebaymotors) to answer questions and just let customers know they’re available to help: “@User Good luck finding a car on eBay! If you need any help, let me know!”
Similarly, the aforementioned DellOutlet and JetBlue Twitter accounts spend a lot of time answering people’s questions, not just posting deals.
If you are not sure where to find a company’s twitter account, try searching Google for “CompanyName + twitter”.
Caveat: Not every company is on Twitter, nor do all companies use Twitter for customer service. For example, Walmart has a great stream of deals (@walmartdeals) but no interaction with customers.
3. Get financial news.
Twitter is quickly becoming the go to place for the freshest news available. The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ), The Economist (@TheEconomist), and The Motley Fool (@TheMotleyFool) all stream news headlines via Twitter.
Not only is it a great way to avoid website clutter, sometimes news gets announced on Twitter before it shows up in an article. For example, this recent Wall Street Journal tweet “BREAKING NEWS: Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges.”
And the Rhode Island Treasury department (@RITreasury) recently announced that they will post total receipts and expenditures for Rhode Island–every day! There’s a 140-character step toward government transparency.
4. Find out how people are reacting to recent financial news.
Use search.twitter.com, or hashtags.org to see what people are saying. People can tag their tweets with “#” before a word to identify a theme. So whenever you see “#stock” in a tweet, it means the author is tweeting about something related to the stock market.
Unlike Google, Twitter search is real-time. So you can find out what people are thinking right now, not just hours or days ago. Often you can watch entire conversations occur in real time around a specific keyword–like “treasury“.
It’s a great way to quickly get a pulse on how people are reacting to an earnings call or announcement. For example, here’s the current results for Apple’s stock symbol “aapl“.
5. Follow your favorite financial bloggers on Twitter.
The world is full of noise, and sometimes you only want to follow people who stay on topic. Personal finance bloggers like Ramit Sethi (@ramit), JD Roth (@jdroth), and Trent Hamm (@trenttsd) all tweet regularly about money-related topics.
Be careful who you follow, as not everyone who tweets about financial advice is worth following–see the pitfall section below.
But it is a quick way to see the latest posts from your favorite bloggers, a few money-saving tips that fit in less than 140 characters, and to simply remind yourself to handle money carefully.
6. Follow Mint on Twitter!
We have our own Twitter account where we regularly tweet about new blog posts and Mint.com news, and–best of all–we do respond to people! Check us out: @mint. Most of us employees also have our own Twitter accounts, from our CEO Aaron Patzer (@apatzer), on down.
Four Pitfalls To Avoid:
1. Following people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
Like anything else, be careful who you listen to. Just because they say they know what they’re talking about doesn’t mean they do. Even having 10,000 people following them on Twitter doesn’t mean they know how to handle money.
Be especially wary of those who advise get-rich-quick schemes or risky investments. Most spend-to-save programs are scams.
Instead, look for people who preach spending less than you earn, saving for the future, and understanding Roth IRA’s and 401K’s.
Especially with opinions on stocks, recognize that anyone can say anything, and no one is moderating anything in Twitter land.
While you can certainly save money using coupons found on Twitter, recognize that you can never spend your way into greater savings.
If you have the patience and self-control, many big-ticket consumer goods can be found very inexpensively online. But for those struggling with impulse buys, following DellOutlet on Twitter won’t help you avoid purchasing a new computer on a whim.
Just as you plan your shopping list before going to the store, you should know what you need before following a Twitter account full of good deals on stuff you’ll never use.
And don’t hesitate to unfollow an account that tempts you to spend too much money.
3. Avoid the time trap.
Use Twitter, or it will use you. In our knowledge economy, time equals money. Every minute you spend catching up on the latest tweets is time you will never have again.
Particularly with Twitter, it’s easy to become lose focus because each distraction feels so small. Most veteran Twitter users advise treating the Tweet-Stream as a river to occasionally drink from, rather than trying to read everything.
Do a quick scan of Twitter once or twice a day, but no more. And certainly don’t leave it open when you’re struggling with a hard problem at work!
4. Getting too personal.
It’s just as easy for others to see what you tweet as it is for you to see what others tweet.
Never tweet information you wouldn’t be comfortable shouting from the top of a table at a party. Even when you’re directly messaging someone, be careful, as one mistake could have costly implications.
This person almost lost a job offer from Cisco for tweeting “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.” More details.
Used adroitly, Twitter is a concise stream of financial news, great deals, and customer service. Like any other tool, it won’t solve your financial problems or produce miracles–“money doesn’t grow on Twitter”–but it can help you on your way to saving money.
While he doesn’t tweet much about personal finance, Jeff Widman is on Twitter too (@jeffwidman).