Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA's experience with personal financial management software bolsters the argument that the technology could be an important new component of online banking sites.

The BBVA service, Tu Cuentas ("you count"), is a free PFM tool that was built on top of software from the vendor Strands Inc. Since it went live last year, it has attracted more than 400,000 users, including one especially busy week when 100,000 new users enrolled.

The software has made the $783 billion-asset banking company more useful to customers, and PFM users are now spending almost twice as much time on the Web site, said Atakan Cetinsoy, Strands' vice president of personal finance products.

"There's consumer confusion because of the economic downturn, people want new ways to understand their finance … they want to do something more than what they are used to doing," he said. Strands is in discussions to offer a similar application to the Dutch financial company ING Group NV.

"PFM's critically important, it's a vision of the future of online banking," said Emmett Higdon, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. Higdon said about 50% of the banks that Forrester has polled say they are interested in PFM services, a dramatic expansion from the early days of 2006 when Bank of America Corp. first used its Yodlee Inc.-powered MyPortfolio account aggregation service to deliver PFM.

BBVA, of Spain, joins a growing group of banks aggressively pursuing PFM. Another is Citigroup Inc., which is reportedly developing a service with Microsoft Corp.

Tu Cuentas is available only in Spain, but BBVA plans to roll it out in other countries soon. The service provides a graphical representation of customers' financial health, breaks down income and expenses — and charts the evolution of these data points over time to give people a view of whether they have done better or worse than planned in a given span.

The product also groups transactions into categories and allows consumers to use personal tags as a guide to help them make financial decisions. Consumers can also be compared against people with a similar profile to put their own financial profile into context.

Customizable alert features letBBVA notify people when they cross predefined limits.

Tu Cuentas also offers suggestions, such as tips to inform customers before they make spending choices, a short list of most-liked products matching each customer's spending patterns, financial products and services that may better address customer needs and relevant facts and statistics based on community behavior. Planned enhancements include greater use of third-party data to let users browse properties for sale or rent, including maps and different traits for properties — presented next to mortgage offers on the site.

Though several companies offer free online PFM services to consumers, many consumers would prefer to use their banks' sites instead, according to Mark Schwanhausser, a research analyst at Javelin Strategy and Research. "Banks are in the best position to offer these tools to consumers who want to consolidate their financial chores and simplify the financial aspect of their lives," he said.

Geezeo Inc. is one of those free online PFM providers, but Peter Glyman, one of Geezeo's founders, said it has developed a version of the technology that banks can offer. Stanford Federal Credit Union of Palo Alto, Calif., began offering the technology this fall.

Mint Software Inc. also offered a free online service, but Mint sold itself last month to Intuit Inc., which plans to incorporate the technology into its online banking software.

The demand for the service, given the economy, is clear, said Mint founder Aaron Patzer. "Every time the market would drop, our sign-ups would go up."