I’m going to let you in on a secret: I used to hate Mint.
Every time I felt like I needed a better financial plan, I’d open up that Mint account I’d created a few years ago — and every time, I’d see that dashboard and all of those ads asking me to sign up for credit cards and I’d say, “No way.” (Then I’d check my online banking app to make sure I had enough money to pay the rent.)
But a lot of people love Mint. As of October 2017, Mint has a reported 10 million users.
Now, that number is “10 million and one.”
“Online banking is a great tool to pay bills and reduce paper statements. 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,” explains Dan Crimmins, a financial coach with his firm Crimmins Wealth Management in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. (He also has an award-winning financial blog called Roots of Wealth.) He’s also just one of the financial experts I consulted as I worked on figuring out what makes the best personal finance software, what these programs can teach us about personal finance, and if they can really help me — and you — do more with our money.
It took me about 25 hours of research and testing to choose the best personal finance software. I started by identifying 43 potential candidates and narrowing them down, one by one. I ended up with a Top 10, and created accounts with each of the programs to do some hands-on testing. After trying out the programs, my Top 10 quickly became a Top Three — with one honorable mention.
- Mint: Comprehensive and easy-to-navigate software that’s great for beginners.
- YNAB: Hardcore budgeting for people who want to know where every dollar is going.
- Personal Capital: Net worth is what counts in this investment-focused app.
- Quicken: Honorable Mention
The Simple Dollar’s Top Picks for Best Personal Finance Software
Mint has a robust suite of features that are easy to learn.
Once I started testing Mint’s functionality — instead of logging on, seeing an ad, and immediately closing the tab — I realized what a great program it was. Mint gave me everything I needed to organize my spending, create and stick to a budget, and include my long-term goals in today’s financial decisions.
I’ve been using Mint for about a month, and I’m already more aware of where my money is going — which means I’m spending less of it. I’m also checking the app every morning to see how every new transaction fits into my estimated monthly budget, which is something I thought I’d never do.
I love Mint. I think a lot of you will too. Here are some of the parts I love the most:
Mint makes setup incredibly easy.
I didn’t have to hunt around for anything when I set up my Mint account. Everything’s right on the dashboard: Here’s where to add your bank accounts; here’s where to add your credit cards; here’s where to add your investment accounts.
Mint also makes it really easy to figure out where to click if you want to categorize transactions, create a budget, or set a goal. Of all the personal finance software programs I tested, Mint was by far the easiest — and that was one of the biggest reasons why it became my favorite.
Mint understands that you need flexibility in your budget.
Here’s the other reason why Mint quickly became my favorite personal finance software program: It let me set up a budget that made sense with my expenses. I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy the same stuff every month. I pay rent and I buy groceries and I pay my bills, but some months I go out to eat five times and some months I only go out once. Some months I buy clothes, and some months I don’t. Some months I see Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens twice.
I can’t predict any of that spending in advance, and when a friend says, “Hey, want to go see Star Wars tonight,” I don’t want to say “I’m sorry, I already hit my one-movie-per-month budget quota.”
Mint understands. With Mint’s budgeting system, you make categories for every expense you have to pay — rent, bills, and so on — and once you’re done making your categories, everything else goes into a category literally called “Everything Else.”
That’s your “see Star Wars twice in one month; buy a new jacket next month” fund.
If you know that you spend $150 on clothing (or movies, or restaurants, or whatever) every month, make it a budget category. If your spending is as variable as mine, use that Everything Else category. It’ll let you know exactly how much money you have left to spend on… well, everything else!
Mint helps you plan for those every-few-month expenses — and those long-term goals.
I’m a freelancer, which means I need to save money for quarterly estimated taxes. (I pay a lot of taxes.) I’m also saving up for a three-month emergency fund.
Mint makes the process easy. Its budgeting system lets you clarify when your budgeted item will come due, so you can budget a little bit every month for your quarterly estimated taxes even though you won’t actually have to pay those taxes for a while.
The software’s goal function also lets you decide how much you want to set aside every month to achieve your long-term financial goals, and takes that money out of your available spending pool. I always put 10 percent of my income directly into savings, so the more I earn, the faster I reach my three-month emergency fund goal — and I’m hoping I reach it well before February 2017.
Mint isn’t the only personal finance software that does this, by the way. YNAB lets you budget for both long-term expenses and long-term goals. (Quicken does not, and neither does Personal Capital.) But Mint’s process was the easiest to figure out — I could click “Goals” and set a goal, instead of reading through YNAB’s Think Long, Act Now handbook to learn about its different types of goals and how they worked — which was why I liked Mint the best.
Mint even lets you know whether you’re going to run out of money before you run out of month.
I’m still finding great new features in Mint, like the part of the iPhone app that shows you how much money you’ve spent this month — and how many days you’ve got left. A lot of us have big expenses like rent at the beginning of each month, so it’s okay if your money bar outpaces your month bar by a little bit. Below, you can see my money/month bar in mid-May (top) compared to the last few days of the month (bottom), where my money and month bars are almost perfectly lined up.
Mint does slip in ads — I noticed one for Future Advisor at one point, which made me smile because I used to write for Future Advisor. (I write for a lot of financial blogs.) These ads are how Mint makes money — and it’s not the only software to do it. “Most free financial softwares make money by providing product recommendations or having advertisements within the software or app,” Dominique Broadway, CEO and personal finance expert at Finances Demystified, explains.
And yeah, the ads are still kinda annoying — but I’ll deal with them just to get the chance to log into Mint every day.
I love YNAB nearly as much as I love Mint.
Maybe exactly as much. Just because you aren’t using a particular personal finance software yourself doesn’t mean you can’t love how perfect it is for someone else, right?
YNAB stands for You Need a Budget, and the name fits because this app is all about budgeting. You aren’t going to connect your 401(k) or your mortgage the way you do with Mint and Personal Capital. You aren’t going to track your net worth. All you’re going to do is take every dollar you earn and — as YNAB puts it — give every dollar a job.
What do I mean by “give every dollar a job”? You’re going to figure out exactly where you will spend each dollar, starting with your most immediate expenses (rent, mortgage, bills, food) and working down to your discretionary expenses (dining out, music, Fun Money).
YNAB is great for people who have a lot of steady, recurring expenses. It’s also great for people who like to get really detailed about their budgeting. (It would never let you get away with piling $650 into an “Everything Else” category.)
Here are a few other things YNAB does really well:
YNAB only lets you budget money you’ve earned.
Not money you’re going to earn someday. Money you’ve earned. If you get a bi-monthly paycheck and that second paycheck hasn’t hit your account yet, YNAB won’t let you budget it. This forces you to deal with the money you actually have, not the money you think you’ll get in the future.
YNAB doesn’t let you go over budget.
If you spend more than you budgeted in one category, YNAB makes you take money out of another category to cover that overspending. There’s no, “Oh, I spent a few dollars extra; it’ll be okay” in YNAB. Those few dollars count, and you have to account for them.
YNAB encourages you to plan for future expenses.
Some people automatically think that any money left over after you budget is “fun money.” YNAB encourages you to think of that extra money as “cash you can put toward future expenses.”
YNAB calls this plan “Age of Money.” Essentially, if you earn money today and give it the job of paying your phone bill 15 days in the future, that money will be 15 days old when you spend it. If you follow the YNAB system and give every dollar a job, more and more of those jobs will be 15 or 30 or 60 days in the future – and your Age of Money will grow.
So will your financial security, by the way. Imagine knowing that you’ve already assigned dollars to the job of “paying rent two months from now.” If you lose your job tomorrow, you’ll still be able to pay your rent for the next two months because you already have dollars assigned to those jobs. Your money is, as the saying goes, working for you.
YNAB completely re-imagines the savings account.
YNAB also wants you to think of your savings account as “cash you can put toward future expenses.” Every dollar gets a job, so start dividing those savings dollars up into “vacation” and “home repair” and “holiday gifts” and everything else you might need to spend them on in the future.
With YNAB, you don’t save just to have dollars in the bank. You save so you can get things done and live the life you want.
YNAB’s free webinars are super-inspiring — and help you understand the YNAB system.
Unlike Mint, YNAB isn’t free. You get a 34-day free trial and then you’re paying either $5 a month or $50 a year. Before you start your YNAB trial, be sure to take the free Get Started webinar. I tried using YNAB without taking the webinar and I was hopelessly confused; then I took the webinar and was all, “Okay, this is amazing; I’ve never thought of money this way before.” (Seriously. If my income and expenses were a little more predictable, I’d use YNAB in a heartbeat.)
Personal Capital focuses on your net worth, not your budget.
A lot of personal finance apps focus on what’s in your checking account and how much you put toward small, everyday expenses. Personal Capital goes to the other extreme and looks at your total net worth: the amount of wealth you have when you add up all your assets (cash, retirement accounts, home, etc.) and subtract your liabilities (mortgage, loan, credit card debt, etc.).
I came very close to choosing Personal Capital instead of Mint as my personal finance tracking system. (I also came very close to choosing YNAB. The decision was hard.) I really liked checking my net worth every day, and I appreciated that the software was less about “did you spend two extra dollars on food this month?” and more about “what does your entire financial picture look like?” But right now, I’m still kinda painting my financial picture: paying off debt, getting that emergency fund set up, and planning for the years in which I’ll be able to take those paycheck dollars I’m currently putting toward debt and emergency funds and start putting them toward investments. Maybe then Personal Capital will be right for me.
Here’s everything else I liked:
Personal Capital focuses everything on your net worth.
Did you spend $500 on groceries this month instead of $450? Did you see Star Wars three times instead of two? Who cares? If your net worth is higher this month than it was last month, you’re doing fine.
Yes, Personal Capital gives you the option to compare this month’s spending against last month’s spending, in case you want to look at trends (or figure out exactly how much money you spent on movie tickets). But all Personal Capital cares about is the BIG NUMBER: your net worth. All of your assets, minus your liabilities, in one big pile. That’s the number you want to grow.
Personal Capital knows you might not need a budget to be financially healthy.
True confession: Every time I’ve tried calorie counting, I’ve gained weight. Why? Because I eat right up to the amount of food the app says I can have and then I eat more because something unexpected happens. Maybe someone invites me to brunch, or maybe I decide that I’m still hungry after my app-allotted cube of cheese.
Some people are like that with budgets. If your budget planner says you can spend $150 on clothing, you’ll always spend $175. That’s a quick way to overdraft your checking account — but it’s also a quick way to always feel terrible about yourself, the way I’d feel when I’d eat that second cube of cheese.
The only way I’ve ever lost weight is by listening to my body, eating when I’m hungry, and stopping when I’ve had enough. That might be what budgeting is like for you. Personal Capital makes it possible to stop focusing on, “I can spend $150, so I need to spend $150,” and start asking yourself what you really need, and if you have enough.
Financial health isn’t necessarily about spending less, either — just like physical health isn’t necessarily about eating less. Personal Capital looks at your total financial health: your assets, your liabilities, your cash, your investments, and your net worth. That’s what matters.
Personal Capital shows you whether your investments are going up or down.
If you’re interested in what’s happening with your investments, Personal Capital is ready to break it down. Check the performance of individual stocks, or sum everything up with the You Index, which shows you exactly how much money you’re gaining or losing, both in percentages and in real dollars.
Mint has this feature too, but Personal Capital puts it front and center — and it’s one of my favorite parts of the software.
Like Mint, Personal Capital is free. If you’re interested in checking out your You Index or taking a look at your net worth, give it a try.
Honorable Mention: Quicken
Quicken is a downloadable software program that’s been around for decades. It’s owned by Intuit, the same company that owns Mint, and a lot of the basic functionality is similar. However, it’s designed for a slightly more experienced audience. Quicken doesn’t teach you how to set financial goals, for example; it trusts that you’ll figure out how to incorporate long-term goals into your monthly budget.
Because Quicken is a paid downloadable program, you won’t get stuck staring at a dashboard full of ads. However, you will pay for the privilege: The software runs at $75 for Mac and $30–$95 for the Windows editions. (I tested the Mac version, so I can’t speak to the Windows options; if you need help deciding which Windows edition is right for you, Quicken has a guide.)
The best personal finance software options have four things in common:
It’s easy to use, so you’ll want to check it every day.
The top personal finance software programs sync directly with your banks and credit cards, and some even sync with your investment accounts, student loans, mortgages, and so on. When you make a change to one of those accounts — say, a payment on that credit card — you don’t have to re-enter that transaction on your personal finance software; it’s automatically added to the system.
The best personal finance software programs also have easy-to-use interfaces that allow you to quickly categorize transactions, check transactions against your budget, and see how much money you have left to spend. They also track your progress, so you can log in every day and see how your good habits are leading to better finances. (I check Mint every morning, because I’m so excited to see my new numbers.)
It motivates and teaches you how to do money better.
The best personal finance software programs don’t just provide an interface — they also provide motivation to keep going. Mint, Personal Capital, and YNAB all send out regular emails offering financial tips and reminding you to check in on your accounts. Mint offers a tour of its features, just so you don’t miss anything. YNAB has 10 different webinars to teach you about budgeting and saving. (It knows its audience, too; there’s one webinar titled, “Budgeting for Busy People,” and another titled, “Is Food Eating Your Budget?”)
It uses bank-level security.
If you’re worried about connecting your bank accounts to third-party software, here’s what you need to know. “Any software is hackable, especially when the IRS’ system can be hacked,” Broadway tells us. “However, these softwares put a lot of effort into their security.”
My three favorite financial software programs all use bank-level security, and their websites explain exactly how they keep your data safe. Here are a few excerpts:
Mint: “We use strong security measures designed so only you can access your info. Rather than just a login and password, we also verify who you are from a second source or with information only you will have, like special security questions or a code from a text message or email.”
YNAB: “Your data is encrypted at rest when stored on our servers. That means that even IF someone could break in and steal the hard drives where your data is stored, they couldn’t read it.”
Personal Capital: “Our website’s encryption is rated A by the world-renowned Qualys SSL Labs, a stronger rating than most major banks or brokerages.”
It goes where you go.
You never know when you’re going to need to know how much money you have. That’s why you want personal finance software that works on both desktop and mobile devices. Use your smartphone to check in with your finances while you ride the bus to work, so you know if you have enough money to go to happy hour afterward. Use the desktop interface to categorize transactions and update your budget. The best personal finance software goes where you go and works with your devices to give you accurate, up-to-date information about your money whenever you need it.
Choose your personal finance software based on your financial needs.
Which one should you choose? I’d advise you to think carefully about what you hope to get out of a financial program, and pick the one that’s most likely to help you get it.
For example: I’m a freelancer who earns approximately $60,000 a year — but I don’t earn it in even $5,000-month installments. (Some months I’ll get $3,000 in checks, and some months I’ll get $9,000.) I need a budget planner that will help me stick to roughly $5,000 per month in expenses, including setting aside money for freelance taxes, debt repayment, and savings. Mint is the best of the top three programs to solve that problem, which is why I’ve chosen it as my own personal finance app.
You may be someone who has trouble making a budget or knowing how much to set aside for upcoming expenses. In that case, YNAB may be the best program for you because it solves that problem really well. If you’re a person who is less interested in making a budget and more interested in growing your net worth, check out Personal Capital.
Getting started is easy, but fully setting up your software takes time.
“Investing time in the initial setup is crucial to having the system work for you,” Crimmins says. And Broadway agrees: “There’s a lot of prep work involved in setting budgets, making goals, categorizing transactions, and so on.”
Your setup process will include four major components:
5 to 15 minutes (depending on the number of accounts).
That’s the easy one. Type in the name of your bank account (or credit card, or investment brokerage); drop in your password, and you’re done. Repeat until all of your accounts are connected. Some banks may require special access codes that you can find on their websites, but even that’s pretty easy to figure out.
30 minutes to 3-plus hours (depending on the number of transactions and whether you want to categorize just this month’s transactions, or do what I did and categorize previous months as well).
Here’s where it starts to get time-consuming. You’re going to need to go through your previous transactions and categorize them into “restaurants,” “groceries,” “clothing,” and so on. Mint and Personal Capital try to guess the categories for you, but they’re not always right. (They both categorized my recent trip to Domino Beauty Boutique as “restaurants” because they assumed I had ordered a pizza, not a haircut.) YNAB makes you categorize everything, at least when you start out.
However, Mint and YNAB have the capacity to learn. I don’t use separate categories for “groceries,” “household goods,” and “beauty products,” for example. I want all of my Safeway and Walgreens purchases categorized under “groceries,” even if there’s a box of Kleenex or a lipstick in there. These programs learn your quirks and follow them, and now my Walgreens purchases always come up pre-categorized as “groceries.”
30 minutes to 1 hour (I actually did all of my budgets pretty quickly, because I had already been tracking my monthly expenses by hand, so I knew how much I was spending on groceries, public transportation, and so on.)
Once you’ve started making decisions about what categories you want to track — like deciding whether you want to track groceries and household goods separately, or call all that spending “groceries” — then it’s time to make a budget that makes sense with your income, your expenses, and your goals. “You should give yourself at least a half an hour to fully set up your budget in the software,” Broadway advises. Don’t rush this — figuring out how you’re going to spend and save your money is one of the most important parts of personal finance.
Revise Against Reality
5 to ∞ minutes (You can always revise and update your budgets or your transaction categories as your finances change.)
I guarantee that, in your first week of using your new personal finance software, you’ll find at least one thing you want to change. Maybe you do want to separate out groceries and household goods. Maybe you realized you didn’t budget enough for gas.
Reality — your actual, day-to-day spending decisions — is going to show you what your budget should be, which is probably different from what you initially wanted it to be. Or, as Crimmins puts it: “Determining where you are spending each month can be surprising.”
Yes, it’s going to take some time to go back and change your budget or re-categorize those transactions. But that’s what you’ll need to do to make sure your personal finance system truly reflects your finances.
Couples get the challenge of financial communication.
If you’re part of a couple, you get to decide how to do personal finance software together. None of the top programs on my list includes options for couples — although YNAB has a Join Forces handbook to help you and your partner budget together — but you can work around it. “Couples who share finances will have one login for their software and people who do it separately will have separate accounts; just depends on the couple,” Broadway explains.
This is going to take a lot of communication, but that’s a good thing. Talking about finances with your partner can help you both do money better.
“The problem couples have is not around the tool; it’s around the communication of how they use the tool.” Lesley-Anne Scorgie says. She’s a personal finance expert who founded MeVest, has been featured on Oprah, and is the bestselling author of Modern Couple’s Money Guide, Well-Heeled, and Rich By Thirty. She gave me so much good advice about how couples can improve their financial communication. “I recommend a weekly conversation. Ten minutes at minimum. This is a habit-forming exercise at first, where for 10 minutes you talk specifically about money. Where it went that week. What’s upcoming. What you need to be conscious of. Having that 10-minute conversation and adding it to your habits is very important.”
Personal finance software can show you data, but only you can change your habits.
YNAB, Mint, and Personal Capital all want to help you. They’ll send you emails with financial tips. They’ll send you alerts to warn you about your spending. But only you can make the decision to spend or save those dollars. No matter how good a personal finance software program is, the only person who can change your finances for the better is you.
This means you need to check in with your personal finance software regularly, to make sure you’re on target. It also means you need to adjust your spending — or your budget — if you aren’t. “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.”
Now that I’ve started using Mint, I am very aware of where my money is going and how much cash I have left before I hit my target $5,000/month spending and saving. I’m also spending less because I don’t want to go over that limit. Instead of buying the fancy tortellini at the grocery store, for example, I’m cooking up the box of couscous I already have in my cupboard. Sure, you could call that a bit of a drag, but I’m getting closer to my goals and I get to eat delicious couscous, which sounds like a win-win to me.
I check Mint every day. (Sometimes multiple times a day.) But I also think that YNAB and Personal Capital are great tools — and even Quicken has a lot to offer. Your personality and your financial needs are going to be huge factors in which personal finance program is best for you, so use this review as a guide to find your perfect personal finance software. Then start using the tools it gives you to help you reach your financial goals.