Managing your money isn’t easy, so it’s no wonder that only 41% of Americans have a budget, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
A budget is the most fundamental financial planning tool out there, and with one, you’ll have a better chance of reaching your short- and long-term financial goals. And if the “b word” makes you bristle, don’t worry: The best personal finance software can make it surprisingly painless.
“Online banking is a great tool to pay bills and reduce paper statements,” says Dan Crimmins, New Jersey-based financial coach at Crimmins Wealth Management. “However, it cannot establish a budget or categorize your expenses. A financial tracking software gives you the ability to review how you are spending your money.”
Several personal finance apps and websites can help you plan and keep track of your spending. No one service is best for everyone, though, so it’s important to compare several options to find the one that works best for you.
To help, we’ve put together a list of the top three personal finance software options and how they can help you achieve your goals.
Best Personal Finance Software: The Simple Dollar’s Top Picks
- Mint: Comprehensive, free, and easy-to-navigate software; great for beginners.
- You Need a Budget: Hardcore budgeting for people who want to know where every dollar is going.
- Albert: Does a lot of the legwork for you and provides you with timely and actionable advice.
Mint has more than 20 million users, and it’s easy to see why. For starters, the software is free to use, and it automatically syncs your financial accounts so you can budget and track your spending all in one place.
Budgeting isn’t the only service Mint offers, though. You can also:
- Monitor your Equifax credit score.
- Stay on top of your bills.
- Track your investment accounts.
- Get alerts when you’re being charged fees or going over budget.
- View your home’s value (courtesy of Zillow) and track your overall net worth.
For budgeters, Mint’s most valuable feature is its automatic syncing. Just sign into your bank and credit card accounts through Mint’s platform, and you’ll get updates on each account every time you make a transaction.
When transactions come through, Mint will automatically categorize them based on their details. If the assigned category is wrong, you can update it and even split transactions into more than one category online or on the mobile app.
Based on your spending, Mint will also create a budget for you. But as with the transactions, you can customize your budget based on your needs and spending habits.
If you want a bird’s eye view of your spending habits, Mint has a Trends feature that shows you how you’ve spent your money by category over a set period. You can also compare two periods to see how your current spending compares with spending in the past.
While the service is free to use, Mint makes its money by recommending targeted financial products to its users. Depending on your tolerance for such ads, it can be frustrating to feel bombarded with the unsolicited advice.
“Most free financial softwares make money by providing product recommendations or having advertisements within the software or app,” says Dominique Broadway, CEO and personal finance expert at Finances Demystified.
Mint is a great option for:
- Beginners who are overwhelmed with the idea of budgeting.
- Hands-off budgeters who want everything in one place.
- People who don’t mind the ads.
You Need a Budget
You Need a Budget, or YNAB for short, is an intensive budgeting software with the goal of giving every dollar a job. The software is also designed to help users get out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle and live off of the previous month’s income.
When you first sign up, YNAB provides you with some general budgeting categories to start with, like Rent/Mortgage, Electric, Groceries, and other essential expenses. You can add or change categories based on your spending habits.
As you continue setting up your budget — either online or with the mobile app — you can add individual accounts and clarify whether each is a budget account or just an account you’re tracking, such as an investment account or auto loan.
While YNAB allows you to connect your financial accounts for automatic transaction importing, it doesn’t require it, allowing you to choose how hands-on you want to be.
As you use YNAB over time, you’ll have access to a few reports to help you make better financial decisions:
- Spending report: This gives you a snapshot of how much you’ve spent in each category over a set period. You can also view how your spending in each category has changed over time.
- Income and expenses report: With this report, you’ll get a detailed breakdown of every source of income, plus exactly how much you spent in each category by month.
- Net worth report: You’ll not only get to see what your current net worth is but also how it’s changed over time. This is valuable because your net worth is a good measure of your overall financial health.
If you have a specific financial goal you’re working toward, you can monitor your progress using YNAB’s goal tracking feature. Choose a target balance or a monthly funding goal, and the software will track your progress and give you some tips along the way.
In addition to giving you a platform to budget, YNAB also offers free, live workshops to give you advice on budgeting, paying off debt, saving and more.
The biggest drawback to YNAB is that it’s not free. When you first sign up, you’ll get a 34-day free trial. But after that, you’ll pay $83.99 per year, which comes out to about $6.99 per month.
YNAB is a great option for:
- Experienced budgeters who want a more hands-on approach.
- People who like to analyze their spending using reports.
- People who don’t mind paying for budgeting software.
If you prefer mobile over using your computer, both Mint and YNAB have mobile apps. But with Albert, all you get is a mobile app.
Like the other software we’ve listed, Albert allows you to connect your financial accounts when you first get started. From there, though, it does most of the work for you.
For starters, the app will automatically create a budget for you based on your spending, bills, and income. You’ll also get a personalized financial plan, which can help you spot ways to save more and meet other financial goals. If it spots something out of the ordinary, you’ll get an alert.
If you opt in, Albert will automatically set aside a portion of your money into a savings account each week based on what it thinks you won’t miss. Albert even helps you negotiate your bills, which can save you money on ongoing monthly expenses like your phone, cable, security, or other bills.
If you want more personalized service, you can sign up for Albert Genius, which allows you to text the app’s human financial experts and get advice. There’s a fee for this service, but Albert allows you to choose how much to pay. According to its website, most customers pay $6 per month or more for the Genius service, while the minimum cost to operate it is $4 per month.
Albert is a great option for:
- People who want to make better financial decisions but don’t have the time or desire to do it all alone.
- Budgeters who want to automate every aspect of their financial lives.
- People who like the idea of getting personalized advice whenever they need it.
How to Pick the Best Personal Finance Software For You
The best personal finance software is easy to use and helps you improve your money management. But with so many options out there, no single app or website is best for everyone.
As a result, it’s important for you to research these and other options and pick one that best serves your needs. Specifically, ask yourself how hands-on you want to be with the process and what kinds of tools and resources you’d need to make better decisions and stick with the program.
If you’re new to budgeting and feel overwhelmed by the process, it may be better to pick software that does a lot of the work for you. On the flip side, if you’re an experienced budgeter and enjoy getting into the weeds, choose an option that gives you more control.
Whatever you choose, expect to put in a bit of time at the outset to get yourself up and running. “Investing time in the initial setup is crucial to having the system work for you,” says Crimmins.
After you get started, you may think your work is done. But the real challenge becomes checking in with your budget software regularly, even if the app does most of the work for you. “Once you’re all set up, make sure you actually look at the software,” Broadway explains. “Many people will take the time to set it up and never look at it again.”
Most importantly, it’s crucial to understand that while the best personal finance software can help you make better decisions, it won’t, by itself, change your habits. As you take advantage of the different tools and resources available to you, use them to help you develop better spending and savings habits — so that eventually, making wise spending choices and sticking to a budget becomes second nature. It can take some time, but it’s time well spent.