In our overview of the five best budgeting tools and apps below, we include the popular apps You Need a Budget, GoodBudget, My Budget Book, Pocket Expense Personal Finance, and the non-app paper envelope system. Any of them will help a consumer start and stick to a budget to control spending and take control of their personal finances.
Why Use a Budget?
Imagine packing for a trip without a suitcase. Further imagine that the trip’s duration and destination are a mystery. It would be extremely hard to know what to pack and how much. Now picture that someone hands you a piece of luggage and tells you to fill it with whatever you’ll need for one week in the Cayman Islands. Suddenly packing becomes worlds easier.
A budget is like a suitcase for your money. Simply put, a budget is a plan that says, “Every month, I’ll limit my spending in each category, and once I’ve reached the monthly limit, I’ll stop spending.”
Budgeting is crucial. Only one in three Americans follows a budget and the typical American has only saved $20,000 by the time they reach retirement age. That’s hardly enough to live on for a year, let alone the rest of your life.
Budgeting now is not only the first step toward getting control of your finances, it’s also the first step toward paying down debt and toward saving for the future. It’s nearly impossible to save for a home, for college for children or for retirement without a budget. In fact without a budget, spending is largely random and will leave most people feeling like they’re at the mercy of money instead of in control of it.
Below, we detail four popular budgeting apps for iOS, Android and desktop systems, as well as one non-app paper system that has stood the test of time.
1. You Need a Budget (YNAB)
4.5 stars, $59
You Need a Budget, though a little pricey compared to most of the other options on our list, is a fully realized, feature rich budgeting app.
The app is visually beautiful, with everything clearly visible at a glance, displayed graphically in charts and tables.
Budgeting in YNAB starts with creating spending categories like gas, food, electric bill and monthly rent or house payment. The app also lets users add “rainy day” categories like an annual payment for homeowner’s insurance or payments for car insurance that happen twice a year. Users then set a spending target for each category and the app adds up the amounts in all categories to arrive at the total monthly budget.
It’s easy to tweak categories and spending targets after they’re created.
In addition to creating spending goals, users can input their current spending and income. This can be done manually or by importing transaction histories directly from bank accounts in the form of OFX or CSV files. This process is secure, since YNAB doesn’t require users to input sensitive account information or passwords. To import a transaction history, a user just logs into their bank account online, downloads their transaction history, then clicks the “import” button in YNAB. The app does the rest, breaking the user’s spending down into categories and creating a handy pie chart that shows how much the consumer has spent in each place over time.
With YNAB, it’s easy for anyone to see how much they’ve spent in the past week, month or year. The app’s ability to display budget info for the current month or far out into the future makes it easy to stay on target for long term savings and debt repayment goals.
People who buy the app only need to buy it once per household. A license code lets them share it for free across multiple devices, from smartphones to tablets to laptops and desktops. That way any family member can access the same budget from wherever they happen to be.
The app has a bit of a learning curve, but it also has an online help forum and excellent customer service to answer any questions. The security of this app is top notch, since it never asks for sensitive account information or passwords and keeps all user information private.
4.5 stars, $4.99/month
The GoodBudget app offers expense tracking and budgeting features for both iOS and Android users. There’s no dedicated app for desktops or laptops, but the Android/iPhone version syncs to the GoodBudget website, so you can use the app’s functions on a desktop or laptop.
It’s a good app, but its $4.99 per month price tag makes it the most expensive app on our list. However there’s a workaround. Their “free forever” version is only limited by the number of categories for expenses (20). Many households find that’s more than enough to keep them on a budget.
GoodBudget allows users to create categories for expenses like gas, food and bills. Users then set a target amount for each category, and the app adds up the amounts to arrive at the total budget amount for the month. The app is basically a digital version of the time tested envelope system, where people put different amounts of cash in envelopes labeled by category to control their spending. We describe the envelope system in detail at the bottom of this article.
To track expenses, GoodBudget lets users input transactions manually or import them as a batch in the form of CSV files downloaded from their banks. Expenses are also broken down into categories, so users can see exactly how much they’re spending on anything from coffee to groceries to restaurants.
The combination of setting spending goals with tracking actual spending lets users get a good picture of how they’re performing. Money in vs money out is clearly presented in full color tables and graphs.
The simple, calculator-style interface makes budgeting easy. The home page shows the total budget amount, total income and funds still available for allocation at a glance.
GoodBudget is cloud-syncable, so a user’s budget is accessible from any other desired smartphone or tablet. This is handy when more than one person needs to access the budget, for example a spouse.
4.5 stars, $3.49
My Budget Book is another great app that helps users set and follow a budget. At $3.49, it’s the cheapest app on our list.
The My Budget Book app is clean and simple. The home screen shows spending goals and actual spending for the current year, broken down by month. Cash flow in each month is represented by an easy to grasp fuel-gauge type bar. Users can also select tabs for transactions, statistics, diagrams and budgets from the home screen.
The budget tab lets users create categories for monthly expenses like rent, groceries, gas and bills. Each category is then given a dollar amount to represent the target for monthly spending on each. The total budget amount is then added up by the app.
The transactions tab shows the current budget balance of money in vs money out as either a red or green number, depending on whether the user is sticking to the budget or not. This information is also visible as a simple pie chart, with unallocated income for each month represented in green and expenses in red.
Users can import their entire transaction histories with CSV files downloaded from their online banking accounts. They can also set reminders for bill payments – a handy feature for those who have trouble remembering.
The software is updated monthly so it’s kept fresh. As far as security goes, there’s no need to enter private account information to use the app, so it’s relatively secure.
4.5 stars, $4.99
Pocket Expense Personal Finance is a decent app and very affordable at $4.99. However, the need to enter each transaction manually may be a bit tedious for some users.
The home screen lets users see a top-level view of their net worth as well as a list of recent transactions. Users can skip to any day in the month easily. The app makes it easy to set up accounts, view reports and schedule bill payments.
Pocket Expense lets users create budgets by selecting categories like mortgage payments, auto expenses, gas, food and groceries and then giving each category a dollar amount. The app then adds up the total of all projected expenses for the month and displays it on the home screen as well as visually in the “reports” section.
Users can set up bill reminders with the app, and it’s easy to see how much money is left in the budget this month in total and by category.
One drawback of this app is that the budget categories are already created, so users have to choose from a list. There’s no option to create new budgeting categories. For example, if someone regularly spent money on Starbucks coffee, they’d have to file that under the “Eating Out” category. They wouldn’t be able to create a category called “Starbucks.”
The app’s interface is good, but it isn’t as smooth as the YNAB, GoodBudget or My Budget Book apps.
Transactions must be entered manually, which is a drawback for those who like the ease of entering entire batches of transactions in the form of OFX or CSV files downloaded from their banks. Those who would rather not use transaction history files and have the patience to enter transactions one at a time won’t find this a drawback.
Not an App
The envelope system isn’t an app but a powerful, time-tested budgeting tool that only requires a few paper envelopes to start using it.
It works by having users create an envelope for each spending category. So let’s imagine a consumer has budgeted $400 for groceries each month. Let’s also imagine they get paid every two weeks. When their first paycheck comes in, they’ll cash it and put $200 in an envelope marked “Groceries.”
The money in that envelope is then used to buy groceries and only groceries. When the month’s second paycheck comes in, another $200 goes in the envelope. When the envelope runs out of money, the budgeter starts eating leftovers and raiding the cupboards for macaroni and cheese.
Envelopes can be created for entertainment, restaurants, gas and other spending categories. When the envelope runs out of money, spending in that category is halted for the month.
People who don’t want to go through the hassle of using an envelope for every single category can just create envelopes for those spending categories where they tend to overspend. For example, if rent is the same every month, and the electricity bill doesn’t change much, but someone frequently spends too much in restaurants, they might just create a “restaurants” envelope.
The envelope system is a great way to curb spending and learn financial discipline. The big downside to it is that some people don’t like the idea of envelopes full of cash lying around.
Mint.com is a popular online budgeting tool. There’s also a Mint budgeting app for iOS, Android and desktop systems. While it’s a very popular, smooth app with a great interface, it has one major drawback. Namely, it asks users to input their bank account passwords.
Mint claims it is “triple secure,” but in a time when banks and even governments are hacked with almost routine frequency, users should use caution with any app that requires them to input sensitive personal information. Not to pick solely on Mint, consumers should avoid any app that requires them to enter bank account passwords in order to function. The apps and tools we outlined above offer good alternatives that don’t require users to share private info.
- One in Three Americans Prepare a Detailed Household Budget – Gallup.com
- Middle Class Retirement Savings – WellsFargo.com