Six apps that help you stick to a budget – The Verge

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In these days of furloughs, layoffs, and shortened hours, when many people are struggling to pay their rent, figure out how to manage their bills, and looking askance at their college loans, it can help to have a solid financial app to assess your situation, create a budget, figure out exactly what you can (or can’t) afford, work with those pesky and confusing figures, find a better way to save, or just keep from panicking.

We asked four staff members from The Verge to talk about what they used to keep financially sane, and here’s what they recommended.

All-around accounting

Buxfer
Buxfer

First of all, I need to admit that I monitor my finances in an absurdly old-fashioned way. I don’t use an app that downloads all of my accounts and tracks everything for me (although I have played around with Mint a bit). Instead, I enter all of my expenses and income manually into my accounting software and then check off which expenses have cleared at the end of the month. That way, I can “pay” many of my bills ahead of time by entering them before the payments are actually made and end up with a much clearer picture of how much cash I’ll have available afterward.

For years, I used native accounting software that just sat on my personal computer, like Microsoft Money. In fact, I held on to Money for several years after Microsoft sunsetted it but still kept it available as a download. (Thank you for that, Microsoft!) However, I found out how much of a mistake that was the day my computer decided to (figuratively) crash and burn. I had a backup, so I wasn’t in much trouble — except I decided I didn’t want to be dependent on a backup. I wanted to be able to access my data from the cloud, so I could access it from a computer or from my phone. However, I still enter it manually.

It took a while, but I found Buxfer. This personal accounting software is simple to learn, easy to use, and flexible enough so that, while it will happily download all of your data for you, it will also let you manually enter your expenses and income (something most other current accounting apps do not). Buxfer does pretty much everything more well-known accounting apps do: it downloads your accounts (if you want it to), tracks your budget, lets you know how you’re doing using charts and tables, follows your investments, and lets you set goals for, say, saving up for a home or paying down a credit card. It even lets you split bills with a spouse or a roommate, so you can track who is paying for what.

If you only need something to manually add expenses and income to, Buxfer is free to use. If you want more sophisticated features — like, for example, automatic syncing with your bank and credit card accounts or automatic tagging of your accounts (so you can easily find “utilities” or “mortgage”) — then a “Pilot” account costs $2 / month. The cost increases up to $10 a month, depending on how many features you need.

I really like Buxfer. It has a clean, understandable interface; lets you choose how many of your features you want to use (and lets you ignore the others); and doesn’t bother you with intrusive ads — even on the free version. And although I was using the free version, when I had a question, I got a prompt reply to my email. Buxfer may not be as well-known as Quicken or YNAB, but it’s certainly worth checking out. —Barbara Krasnoff, reviews editor

Keep your data secure

Credit Karma
Credit Karma

A couple of years ago, I needed to find a company (cheap or free) that I could use for identity monitoring, and someone at work recommended Credit Karma. I soon found out that, in signing up for Credit Karma, I was signing up for much more than just identity monitoring.

Credit Karma watches all of your accounts for possible data breaches, monitors your credit standing and notifies you when it changes and why, and helps you to do things like lock your credit so that it’s harder for somebody to open an account in your name, among other services. It also offers links to information about buying a home, buying or leasing a car, paying down an overdrawn credit card, and other financial services. There is an entire section on financial relief, which could be very useful for those impacted by the current situation.

The site makes a variety of suggestions for low-interest credit cards, loans, and other financial instruments. Of course, these suggestions aren’t given strictly out of the kindness of its heart — you know that Credit Karma is getting compensated if you take it up on any of its offers — but I’ve checked out a few of its deals, and most of them aren’t bad. For example, one of their savings accounts offered considerably more interest than my local bank, without charging anything extra. (Unfortunately, when interest rates began to dive, the usefulness of that particular account dove with it.)

Unlike most of the other apps mentioned here, Credit Karma will not help you pay your bills or track your bank account. But it does offer some really useful information and services, and while I don’t check it more than once a month or so, I find it helps me make sure my finances are safe and on the right track. —Barbara Krasnoff

Put aside for an emergency

Digit
Digit

Digit

All of the wise financial advice I’ve ever received has boiled down to saving more money than I spend. However, it was always easier said than done. Previously, I would toss my money into a singular high-yield savings account and call it a day. I never assigned a goal to that account so it was simple to talk myself into pulling from it, whether for an emergency or for a last-minute trip across the country.

Enter Digit. Digit is an app specifically for saving money via goal setting. Its interface is simple, attractive, and motivating. Saving is as easy as hooking a bank account to it and setting a financial goal. Digit will monitor your spending, determine how much you can afford to save, and then it’ll put the money away for you — even splitting the savings into the various goals. What I find most rewarding, though, is watching my progress through the tracker. If I complete the goal or need to withdraw the money early for any reason, the standard 2–3 business day transfer is free or I can pay a flat rate of $0.99 and get the money immediately.

Additionally, Digit currently has a 0.10% Savings Bonus for every three months you save. However, there are still better interest rates out there from more traditional savings accounts, so I only use Digit for short-term goals, leaving the longer-term goals in a separate account that will accrue more interest over time. Digit charges $5 a month for the service, so the Savings Bonus may not even out against the monthly fee depending on how much you keep with Digit.

When I first started using Digit several years ago in college, it would occasionally overdraft my account. My workaround for that was to set savings limits on each goal so only small amounts would be pulled out at a time. However, Digit now has Overdraft Prevention and Overdraft Reimbursement. As for other features, Digit can help pay down credit card debt and student loans and pay for your phone bill in the same way it saves money for you.

Overall, Digit has been my favorite way to save money for years. The app is simple, and it helps me keep my eye on the prize without dipping into my emergency fund for something frivolous. The monthly fee can seem a little pricey, but as long as the app continues working flawlessly and I stay committed to using it regularly, it’s worth every penny. —Kaitlin Hatton, social media manager

Do-it-yourself budgeting

Google Sheets
Google Sheets

I got married at the end of last year, and that kicked off a long search for the best way for me and my wife to keep track of our finances. Because we were married, I figured it was time for us to get Very Serious about finances.

That’s not to say we didn’t do any sort of money tracking before we tied the knot. My wife and I had lived together for three years before we got married, and although we kept our finances separate, we tracked shared expenses on a big Google Sheet. I built the spreadsheet so that it automatically calculated who paid for how much so we could settle up at the end of every month. Our homespun Google Sheet worked well enough, but I felt there had to be some kind of better app or system for us to track those shared expenses.

I looked at or tested out many of the expense-tracking and budgeting apps out there — including some of the ones on this list — but they each had one thing or another that I didn’t like. Some didn’t connect to our banks in an easy way. Some were only mobile apps. Some cost a monthly fee that I didn’t want to pay. Many didn’t track expenses in the way we wanted them to.

I remember one Saturday morning, after weeks of beating my head against the wall in the search for the perfect money app for couples, I finally realized that we already had the solution that worked for us all along: just use a Google Sheet and make it our own.

And so we did. The core of our Google Sheet is the same: it’s largely an expenses tracker. But we can make as many categories for expenses as we want. I added an income tracker. We can even choose if we bought something with our personal or joint credit cards using a drop-down menu. Fancy!

I will say that it was a lot of work to put the spreadsheet together. I spent a lot more Saturday mornings tinkering with functions and formulas. It took us a couple of months of using the spreadsheet to work out the bugs and ensure that it really worked for us. And it’s not exactly something that I can just hand over to another person for them to start using for themselves.

But my old-fashioned spreadsheet does exactly what I need it to, and I know I can mold it to be whatever I want it to be in the future. It works for me. (Plus, it’s free and cross-platform.) —Jay Peters, news writer

Track your spending

Mint
Mint

Tracking spending is one of the most daunting parts of having a budget. It’s tedious, takes a lot of time, and can involve far too many spreadsheets. While some people prefer to manually track their spending, I’ve always found having an app do it for me is the way to go. I’ve used Mint off and on for years, mostly to keep a bird’s-eye view of my total assets and my spending.

The monthly budget is one of the most attractive tools that Mint offers because you can assign different budgets to different things, including rent, groceries, charity, and way more. The tool will then give you a green progress bar that turns yellow and then bright red the closer you get to finishing or going over a budget.

The transactions section informs the budget tool of where you stand. This is just one massive list of all the money coming and going from each account. The categories automatically assigned to each transaction aren’t always the most accurate, so you do have to go through it with a fine-tooth comb if you want the best view of where your money is going. However, doing this is still more time-efficient than listing each transaction manually. Once you’ve done this, the spending charts Mint creates for you are much more digestible, and attractive way to look at each category.

While having the budget breakdown and spending charts is incredibly helpful — or embarrassing, according to how much takeout I get — having all of my accounts and loans gathered into one place is the most effective way to monitor my spending and savings. I can quickly see how much progress I’ve made against my student loans or car note, and I’m also able to see every amount sitting in my different bank accounts. Using that, combined with Mint’s month-to-month spending comparison charts, I’m able to quickly prioritize where I want my money to go and whether I should pass on another round of takeout.

All of this just scratches the surface of what Mint can do. Additionally, it can create debt payment and savings goals, track bills and spending trends, show your credit score, suggest ways to save money, and more. It is a little aggressive in trying to promote credit cards or other banking offers — however, that’s a fair enough trade-off for the app being free. At the end of the day, Mint is a great tool for tracking and prioritizing spending. —Kaitlin Hatton

You Need a Budget (YNAB)

Plan out your monthly spending

YNAB
YNAB

I’ve been a YNAB (short for You Need a Budget) user ever since I left university, first via its offline YNAB Classic app (previously known as YNAB 4) and more recently via its web-based client. That’s over half a decade in total. Although I’ve experimented with a couple of other budgeting services over the years, I always end up coming back to YNAB.

What I like about YNAB is its relatively simple premise, which is that every bit of money that comes in should be assigned to a category, whether it’s savings, everyday expenses, or monthly bills. The software is flexible enough that you can then tailor it to your specific needs.

So here’s how I use it: every month when I get paid, I sort my salary into categories. There are some recurring bills like rent that are the same every month, and other essential categories like food and transport where I have a rough idea of how much I’m going to need. Then I allocate a chunk to savings, and whatever’s left is the amount I know I can spend guilt-free on tech, video games, and beer. (Your specific vices may vary.)

If you’re in the US, you can connect it to your accounts to have them automatically sync your transactions for you, but I’m in the UK where this functionality isn’t available. My workaround is to use YNAB alongside Monzo, a UK-based bank that has a mobile app with budgeting functionality built in. Once I’ve worked out my spending balances for the month using YNAB, I manually enter the amounts into the Monzo app. Then I can refer to this app when I need to keep tabs on my everyday spending or work out if I can afford to splash out luxuries like a launch-day PS5. (Spoiler alert: I can’t.)

At the end of each month, I download a .QIF file filled with transactions from each of my bank accounts and import them into YNAB, ready to budget for the next month.

My process sounds a little involved, but that’s kind of the point. It forces me to look at what I’m spending each month and make choices about how much I can spend in the future. And although I could probably achieve the same thing with a spreadsheet if I put in the effort, YNAB’s interface is clean and simple, and it’s done all the setup work for me. It automatically keeps track of the average amount I spend in each category each month, and carries over any unspent budget, meaning the amount of work I have to do each month is pretty minimal.

If you take a look through the top posts from the YNAB subreddit, you’ll find countless posts from people who’ve used the software to clear debt, but this isn’t something I’m able to speak to personally. Instead, my wins from using YNAB have been smaller, like the moment I had the exact amount ready to pay for a year’s worth of car insurance because YNAB helped me put a small amount aside each month. It’s this kind of bird’s-eye view that I’ve found it most helpful for, and it means that I’ll probably be using it for years to come to keep track of my long-term goals. —Jon Porter, reporter

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