The Best Budgeting Tools Out There

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Are you struggling to stay on your budget? Maybe it’s because you don’t have one in place yet. Or maybe, it’s because keeping track of expenses is just plain tough.

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No matter the reason, there are plenty of amazing budgeting tools available these days, which can make the entire process easy to implement (and stick with). Some are for your smartphone, while others work best on your desktop.

Each of these tools has its own pros and cons, and will fit certain types of budgeters. Here are the top three that I most recommend, and why:

1. You Need a Budget (YNAB)

This is the tool that I use personally, which says a lot as I’m a bit of a passionate budgeter. It’s perfect for money geeks who like to get down into the nitty gritty of the family budget.

YNAB has a few great features, including:

  • Easy import – I personally am terrible at remembering to write down expenses, in order to transfer them to a manual budget-tracking option. That’s why I was so excited when YNAB rolled out automatic imports. It’ll bring your transactions over from your bank accounts and credit cards automatically. You just have to import and then categorize them.
  • Unlimited categories – You can set as many custom categories in YNAB as your heart desires, and name them whatever you want. Track your money however suits you best.
  • Rolling totals – YNAB lets you see how much you’ve budgeted in a month versus how much income you’ve brought in. You can also see your average Age of Money. This guages approximately how long money stays in your bank account before you spend it. The longer the better!
  • Rollover budgeting – YNAB is set up to be a zero-based, envelope-style budget. If you overspend in any given category, you’ll need to decide where to take that money from. For instance, if you spend too much on food, you might transfer some money from your clothing budget to cover it. If you under-spend in a category, the leftover funds show up on the next month’s budget.
  • Quick budgeting tools – If you’re anything like me, your budget looks similar from month to month, with some categories varying once in a while. I often use YNAB’s Quick Budget tools to set my budget to be the same for the next month. Then, I can go in and customize the budget by category if certain things need to change.
  • Goal tracking – You can use YNAB to keep track of certain savings and payment goals. This feature isn’t quite as intuitive to use as the rest of its features, though.
  • Budgeting ahead – One thing I used to hate about Mint when I used it was that I couldn’t create a budget for a month before the first of that month. I like to plan ahead and see where we’re going to have to spend money on things like car registrations. YNAB lets you budget pretty much as far ahead as you want. Go ahead and make an annual budget if that floats your boat!

Of course, YNAB isn’t perfect. It’s got some limitations, too, including:

  • Delay on importing transactions. I used to use Mint, where my transactions would show up in the budgeting software just as soon as they were no longer pending with my bank. Sometimes YNAB can take a day or two to catch up on transactions.
  • Cost. YNAB isn’t expensive — just $5 per month. I think it’s well worth it. But if you want a free option, there are plenty of those tools available, too.
  • No investment tracking. If you’re looking for a tool to track your whole financial life, including your investments, YNAB isn’t it. It’s just about your budget and will only track spending and saving.

Who’s it best for?

I would recommend YNAB for budgeters who want to change the way they interact with money and get a better handle on all the details of their spending. It doesn’t have fancy graphics, so you’ll have to be willing to look at the actual numbers rather than a visual overview of your budget. But it’s a very detailed option that has worked well for me.

2. Mint

This is the budgeting software I used to use, and it’s gotten pretty great with recent updates. Mint.com allows you to track bills, and you can also pay them from its interface. It’s primarily a budgeting software, but also allows for investment tracking. It even gives you a free credit score (updated quarterly).

Here’s what’s great about Mint:

  • Auto-import – Once you hook Mint up with your various accounts — including bank accounts, credit cards, and even installment loan accounts — it’ll automatically import transactions from those accounts. Many find it easier than trying to write down all the transactions in a spreadsheet.
  • Visual budgeting – This is an excellent tool for those who like an at-a-glance visual, instead of a bunch of numbers. Mint will give you slidebars for your budget category and your income; when you start to get close to the month’s budget, the bars will change colors to let you know you need to stop spending.
  • Custom categories – Like YNAB, Mint will let you create custom categories for all your budget items, but you can also group them together into broader categories. That way, you can tell how close you are to maxing out on your food spending, but that can include both groceries and dining out.
  • Goal options – With Mint, you can set goals for things like saving for a home or paying down debt. This is handy if you’re working towards specific financial goals.
  • Investment tracking – Mint isn’t as robust as Personal Capital, which we’ll talk about next. But it does let you track your investments and your net worth all in one place. If you’re a beginning investor focused more on budgeting and paying off debt than tracking your investments, this is a nice additional piece.
  • Free credit score – There are loads of places to get a free credit score these days, and Mint is one of them. It offers a score that’s updated quarterly.
  • Alerts – You can set Mint to alert you when you have bills coming up or when you’re over budget on a particular category. Alerts can come by text message or email.
  • It’s free! – Mint doesn’t cost anything. This is because they make money by giving you suggestions on products that you might want to buy.

As you can see, Mint is a really robust option here. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Here are some of the ways it could be better:

  • Some accounts don’t sync. The list of providers with which Mint works well is extensive, but it’s not all-inclusive. Some financial providers simply don’t work with Mint. Others that are supposed to work have trouble downloading transactions. You can add transactions manually, but that’s not as intuitive as it is with YNAB.
  • Categorization isn’t always perfect. Mint’s goal is to let you be hands-off when categorizing your expenditures. But it’s not always correct. Sometimes, you’ll have to change the default category of an item, though it isn’t that big a deal.
  • Goals and budget collide. When you set a goal through Mint, sometimes that goal will be tied to an account that also is part of your budget. So, if your goal is to pay off credit card debt, and you also plan out the card’s minimum payments in your budget, it can get double counted. It’s just a little squirrely, so you have to be careful how you set those up.
  • Ads and emails. Mint sends a lot of emails, and gives you tons of ads on how you can save. This is, after all, how the program makes money. This isn’t a huge deal, but it does get annoying after a while.

Who’s it best for?

Mint is great for those who want a somewhat detailed budget, but don’t need all the nitty gritty that YNAB offers. It’s also excellent if you’re a visual person and like to see charts and graphs, rather than numbers.

3. Personal Capital

What if you’re less budget-oriented and more about your big numbers, like net worth? In this case, Personal Capital might be best for your needs. This software features detailed investment tracking, and it’ll even send you alerts when your portfolio increases or drops. It also has a budgeting component, but it’s not nearly as robust as either YNAB or Mint.

Here’s where Personal Capital excels:

  • Financial dashboard – Personal Capital’s financial dashboard gives you an at-a-glance overview of your entire life. You can track everything from your IRA to your bank account to your mortgage, and Personal Capital will keep track of your net worth and other big financial numbers.
  • Financial analysis – Personal Capital is a little like the robo advisor options that have become so helpful in recent years. You can run your numbers through a variety of quizzes, including an investment checkup and a retirement planner. This will help you figure out where you’re lacking, and what decisions might be best for your needs.
  • Cash flow tools – Personal Capital isn’t a budgeting software, per se, but it does help you look at your cash flow. You can track all your income and expenses, and you can categorize expenses the same as you can with the above-listed softwares.
  • Investment management – Personal Capital will track all of your investing vehicles under the same roof. This makes it easy for them to give you advice on how to manage your entire portfolio — not just the piece of it they manage.
  • Auto import – You can hook Personal Capital up with a variety of financial products, including checking, savings, credit cards, and investment accounts. It’ll automatically download information from those accounts on a regular basis.
  • Free options – You can pay extra for investing advice if you have a high net worth, but the basic version is free.

Where does Personal Capital fall short? I don’t prefer it as a budgeting tool, for one. Here are some of the other cons with the program:

  • Budgeting is less intuitive and detailed. Personal Capital’s Cash Flow Analyzer is good for getting a big picture overview of income and spending. However, I don’t prefer it for a more detailed budgeting process. You can categorize expenses, though I find it less intuitive and less detailed than the other budgeting options.
  • Higher advisor fees. If you don’t have a high net worth, this isn’t an issue for you. But if you’re looking at robo advisor options, Personal Capital’s fees may be a bit higher than other software options in this category.

Who’s it best for?

As a budgeting software, Personal Capital is best for individuals who just need a sky-level overview of their spending. If you’ve already got your spending under control and are just working on tracking investments, it can be a great option.

Which is right for you?

Only you can decide which budgeting software is best for your particular needs and wants. You may want to try each of these options, or even use a combination. For instance, you could use Personal Capital to track your investments and net worth, but use YNAB or Mint for detailed budgeting.

Since they’re all free (or have a free trial), you can try each option in your quest for the perfect budgeting tool for your needs..

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