A generation ago, most consumers put pen to paper to track their monthly expenses. Back then, a simple math error or brief a moment of forgetfulness could wreak havoc on your check register.
With today’s modern budgeting apps, anyone with a smartphone can budget for the future, track expenses in real time, and generate intuitive reports.
Now, for many people, the biggest budgeting problem comes from having too many choices for budgeting apps. How do you decide which one to use?
Finding the Best Budget App for You
Modern budgeting apps can do a lot more than budgeting. They’re:
- Intuitive: Most apps monitor your spending with no input from you because they connect to your bank. Some even predict your financial behavior based on your past tendencies.
- Goal-Oriented: Many services encourage you to save money by setting goals and reminding you to follow through. Some even save money for you.
- Future Conscious: Some apps even help you invest either by directing spare change into a special account or connecting directly to an online broker.
The simplest budgeting apps help you track your expenses. They let you visualize your current financial situation. More elaborate options track expenses and help you decide how to shape your financial picture. A few apps can even decide for you.
To find the budgeting app (or desktop equivalent) best suited for you, decide first whether you want a simple option or something more elaborate. Some of the more robust options charge user fees, but if a specific service can save more money in other areas, you may not mind paying for it.
Some of the Best Options for Budgeting Apps
When you have a pretty good idea what you want your app to do, you’re ready to start looking at different options.
Here are seven of our favorites, in no particular order. We’ve tried to include a variety of services:
You Need a Budget
Many benefits of budgeting your money unfold from one concept: Creating the habit of paying attention to your spending.
Recording every dollar you spend makes you much less likely to spend money mindlessly.
The app You Need a Budget (YNAB) ushers this central tendency of budgeting into the digital age.
The app prompts you to assign every dollar in your account a specific job which discourages unplanned purchases.
You’d think this kind of scrutiny could slow down an app’s user experience, but You Need a Budget syncs directly to your bank and credit card accounts, creating a seamless interface.
And, goal-setting puts the details into a context which can keep you from getting bogged down in the minutiae.
- Best for: Someone who wants a thorough and detailed picture of his or her personal finances at any given moment.
- Cost: Free for a 30-day trial period then about $7 a month if paid annually.
Compare more in-depth, YNAB vs. Quicken!
If you like TurboTax, you’ll probably like using the tax software’s sister product, Mint, to manage your monthly budget.
You’ll get one of the most seamless user experiences on the market. You’ll also see a broader perspective on your monthly budget compared to You Need a Budget.
Mint focuses more on the bigger picture, and you can tie other accounts — your investments, mortgage balance, and credit cards, for example — into your dashboard to get an even broader view of your financial picture.
- Best for: Someone who wants a cutting edge interface and a broader view.
- Cost: Free
Note: Intuit was formerly the maker of Quicken, which was one of the most popular desktop money management apps. Inuit moved most of their focus toward Mint after they acquired it as a startup. Quicken was later sold to a Venture Capital fund. Read more about some great alternatives to Quicken!
Compare more in-depth, Intuit Mint vs. Personal Capital.
For an even more basic approach to budgeting, check out Wally. This app doesn’t connect directly to your bank account. Instead, you’ll have to enter your expenses and deposits manually.
This more hands-on approach appeals to people who want to keep a finger on the pulse of their finances.
And believe it or not, the interface is easy enough to use. You can set up repeat transactions and even scan receipts which makes the data-entry process less tedious.
If you can enter your calories into a nutrition app, you can handle Wally.
- Best for: Someone who wants to use an app to track expenses but doesn’t want to connect the app to financial accounts.
- Cost: Free
Back in the day, people who wanted to control their spending might cash their paycheck and distribute the bills into a series of envelopes.
You might have a groceries envelope, a gas envelope, and an envelope for eating out, for example.
When you’d emptied an envelope, you either quit spending or took some money from a different envelope.
The app Mvelopes replicates this system except without the paper envelopes or the paper money. Instead, Mvelopes connects to your accounts, including your credit cards, to track your spending.
The platform lets you set specific goals and customize plans to get out of debt. You can even get one-on-one coaching sessions with an upgrade to the most expensive option.
Mvelopes isn’t the slickest platform on the market, but its simple approach appeals to some users.
- Best for: Someone who wants a simple, categorical approach with the ability to visualize goals.
- Cost: Free for the basic plan; $100 a year for an upgrade; higher fees for one-on-one coaching.
The growing variety of budgeting apps has led to more specialization. Apps need a way to distinguish themselves in the crowded marketplace.
The app Digit appeals to people who want to save money but don’t necessarily have the discipline to make it happen.
The service analyzes your spending habits and identifies good opportunities to transfer small amounts of money into savings.
The app guarantees it won’t overdraft your checking account, and you can access the saved money at all times.
Typically, the app will move small amounts into savings every few days.
Digit works best if you use your debit card frequently because a higher volume of transactions gives the app more chances to observe your spending habits.
- Best for: Someone who wants to save money but can’t identify a pattern for regular deposits into savings.
- Cost: $3 a month after 30-day free trial
PocketGuard analyzes your spending habits and suggests ways to cut back. The service will even look for better deals if it senses you’re paying too much for a service.
You won’t be able to create a long-term plan or track every detail of your financial life with PocketGuard.
But the service will quickly answer the most basic of financial questions: How much money can I spend right now?
- Best for: Someone who tends to overspend and would like some electronic oversight.
- Cost: Free
This app stands out because it can take action for you. If you’re paying too much for cable or for digital subscriptions you never use, Clarity Money can negotiate with your service provider for a lower bill.
Clarity Money can even cancel your unwanted services for you.
The idea is to move beyond the most basic function of budgeting apps — tracking your past spending — and focus more on shaping the coming months’ finances.
The app also excels at integrating your credit card, savings, and checking accounts in one place. You can even transfer money between accounts from inside the app.
- Best for: Someone who wants help cutting expenses while tracking current spending.
- Cost: Free to use but the app will take 33 percent of the money it saves each year by renegotiating bills or canceling services.
How to Choose the Best Budget App for You
Whether you’re considering an app on this list or another service, find out some basic information before you sign up and connect your banking accounts:
- Does the service address my need? If you have a specific need such as saving or planning for the future, make sure the app can help.
- Is the service free? It’s OK to pay a monthly fee if you’re getting a service you need to save money month to month, but hey, we understand, free budgeting apps are always nice.
- Does the app work on my phone? All the apps listed above work on Android and iOS. If you’re looking at another service, check your phone’s app store before signing up online. For iPhone users, make sure your version of iOS is supported.
- What about privacy? Connecting your financial accounts can put you in a vulnerable position. Read the fine print to be sure the app won’t sell insights about your spending habits to third parties.
Budgeting takes time, but it can also create more financial freedom. Finding the right app can save you time and money, here’s an inside look as to which personal finance resources we like to use!