Let’s be real — most of us find ourselves in a love/hate relationship with budgeting. Sure, we all know that it’s vital to our financial health to create a budget and stick to it. However, spending endless hours every month tracking where your money is going sounds about as good as tackling your giant list of chores. I’m going to urge you to consider taking another stab at budgeting, since it’s a crucial step in being able to achieve your financial goals.
The number one question I get asked as a financial planner is, “how can I manage my budget in the fastest way possible?” My answer is to start by downloading a good app. It’s a painless path to creating a rock-solid budget.
The best financial apps tend to come in two categories — those that help you save money and those that help you track your spending. No matter your focus, there’s a financial app that will probably work for you.
The best budgeting apps
You Need a Budget
How it works: You Need a Budget (or YNAB) is available in desktop and mobile versions, and it’s all about budgeting from start to finish.
YNAB is robust. It helps you get focused on debt payoff. YNAB’s mission is to empower the user with the ability to give every dollar a job. YNAB’s budgeting strategy is that every dollar that comes into your bank account should go somewhere specific — paying off debt, savings, toward a specific goal, etc., not just languishing in your bank account. YNAB knows that “unlabeled” money tends to be easily spent and forgotten. After all, we all know what happens when money lays around in our bank account (it mysteriously disappears).
YNAB offers goal setting and tracking by allowing you to sync your bank and credit card accounts for accurate and up-to-date income and expense information. You can also get access to progress reports so you can figure out category-specific spending, such as how much you spent on Uber rides this month. The cherry on top of this program is that YNAB offers tons of support and live online classes and workshops to help you conquer any financial fears and gain a feeling of control over your spending, saving, and financial future.
Price: YNAB is free for the first 34 days and then $83.99 a year.
Who it’s for: You Need a Budget is for someone who wants to dive deep into their finances, much like a financial planner would do, and get focused on paying off debt and saving towards goals. It’s also an effective tool for couples looking to merge their finances and budget as a team.
Testimonial from a YNAB user: “YNAB’s system forces you to pay attention to the consequences of every single purchase. The learning curve is difficult at first, and it does take an hour or two to get everything set up. But the payoff is literal. Managing my money tightly with YNAB lets me spend more comfortably by making sure I have what I need for expenses and savings. This is hands-down the best budgeting system available.”— User hellojeffmclean on the iTunes app store
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How it works: Mint is one of the OGs when it comes to budgeting apps, frequently named as a go-to across financial articles and blogs. Mint helps you keep track of your income and spending while showing your big picture and net worth. Mint is owned by Intuit, the company behind TurboTax, and its focus is on bringing together all of your finances on one dashboard. Mint offers email or SMS alerts when bills are due, a place to check your credit score for free, tracking of your home’s value, and tracking of the value of your investment accounts.
Who it’s for: Mint is right for someone who wants a free app that shows your entire financial picture in real time, with a few bells and whistles.
Testimonial from a Mint user: “My husband and I use Mint, it helps us keep an eye on our expenses. We even caught a fraud recently. Somebody used my account number and routing information to transfer $998 to a PayPal account I didn’t recognize. Once we saw it in Mint I contacted my bank and they confirmed that it was a fraudulent transaction and filed a claim.” — Srishti Gupta, Haven Life employee
How it works: Personal Capital feels like a financial planner in your pocket. They offer two different platforms —- a free personal finance app and a paid wealth management platform. The personal finance app is popular as a robust budgeting app. From the dashboard, you can view your spending and income as well as track your investments and calculate your net worth. You can also set spending targets to help keep you within budget and visually analyze where your money is going.
Personal Capital also allows you to stay on top of bill payments. You can view previous payments made and upcoming bills, as well as the minimum payment required and the total balance outstanding.
Price: The personal finance app is free, and the wealth management app has fees that start at 0.89% for investment accounts under $1,000,000.
Who it’s for: Personal Capital is great for someone who is looking for a robust all-in-one financial planning platform. This service is not limited to solely budgeting and spending tracking — it enables you to also track all your investment accounts and your net worth.
Testimonial from a Personal Capital user: “This is an awesome tool that I have recommended to several of my friends. Not only can you monitor your spending, but also your investment fees which is extremely important because fees eat up so much of your gains over time.” — Pamela on Trustpilot
How it works: Clarity Money is a crossover mobile app that uses Artificial Intelligence to help you save money while keeping track of your budget. It was recently acquired by Goldman Sachs to partner with its online personal loans and high yield account offering, Marcus.
Think of Clarity Money as an expense tracking app that provides a snapshot of your finances on three main screens — a big picture screen, an accounts screen that lists your linked accounts, and a transaction screen where you can track where your cash goes. The app allows you to link your checking and credit accounts so you can categorize all of your transactions. You can also use the app to transfer money from one account to another.
Clarity Money uses dynamic visuals to show you the cash you have coming in and the cash you have going out and also helps you find ways to save money, such as by canceling unwanted subscriptions. You can set up custom savings goals, and the app will automatically transfer funds between linked accounts. You can set multiple savings goals, such as a nest egg and an upcoming vacation.
Who it’s for: Clarity Money’s distinguishing feature is that it will cancel or negotiate some bills on your behalf. It’s a straightforward, visually-driven app where spending and income can easily be seen at a glance on a dashboard screen.
Testimonial from a Clarity Money user: “I really enjoy this app. It tracks my expenses really well and categorized them in a way that is friendly to my usage. The ability to change the category of each expense either one time or for all future transactions is a very nice feature. It makes organizing my finances easy and intuitive.” —User Ljohnthorsson, reviewing in iTunes app store.
The best money saving apps
How it works: Acorns isn’t your traditional budgeting app. The concept is simple — connect your bank accounts and start rounding up all your purchases in order to save small, affordable amounts. For example, round up your daily $2.51 coffee to $3 and save $0.49 every day, automatically investing that cash in Acorn’s smart portfolios.
Acorns offers a feature called Found Money, which partners with popular brands like Expedia, Nike, Walmart and Lyft. If you shop with Found Money partners via a credit or debit card that is linked to your Acorns account, the partner will invest in your Acorns account.
Price: $1.00 per month and 0.25% annual fee for accounts with balances more than $5,000.
Who it’s for: Acorns is excellent for someone who wants to tackle both saving money and investing in the same mobile app, and who likes the idea of saving money without needing to really think about it. It might not be the best choice for someone who makes very few transactions in a typical month because the fee is set. For example, if you make ten transactions and the round-up amount averages $0.50 per transaction, you’re paying a $1 fee to invest $5. That equates to a 20 percent fee.
Testimonial from an Acorns user: “I’ve had this app on my phone for about two and a half years, and right now, my account has grown to about $1500, with nearly $150 in earnings. I love the graph-like feature and a way to see the way the market works. I have other investment accounts for specific financial goals like retirement, but I consider this one a fun rainy day fund.” — Anna Davies, Haven Life contributor
How Digit works: Digit connects to your checking account and analyzes your income and spending habits in order to transfer small amounts to a Digit savings account. The app aims to help you save more money by automatically moving amounts that are small enough to be painless. The app has a no-overdraft guarantee, and the money in your Digit account is available for withdrawal. The idea is that you won’t miss money you don’t see, and that automating savings makes it easier to set aside money than manually saving. Since Digit analyzes your income, it can also be useful for freelancers and people who have several income streams, since saving can be tricky if your income fluctuates from week to week.
The app may work best for people who regularly use their debit card. If you frequently use your credit card for purchases, you may find the app has saved too much money over the month because it hasn’t “seen” your credit purchases that need to be paid off. You’ll have to dip into your Digit savings to catch up, and may not have an accurate picture of your saving and spending behaviors. In general, Digit will go into your account every two or three days, moving some money — between $5 and $50, depending on how much is in your account — into your savings.
Price: $2.99 per month after a 10-day free trial
Who it’s for: This app is best for people who have steady income and who regularly use their debit card or checking account for everyday purposes. People who have fluctuating income might also love it if they use their debit card or checking account regularly. If your account balance stays steady until you pay all of your bills at the end of each month, you may find that Digit has moved too much into savings because the software thinks you’ve got plenty of money to spare in the preceding weeks.
Testimonial from a Digit user: “As a freelancer with multiple contracts and invoices, it’s been hard for me to develop a solid savings strategy, and my automated savings is set at a standard amount I set based on the lowest amount of money I bring home a month. I like that Digit can find additional ways for me to save.” — Anna Davies, Haven Life contributor
How it works: Qapital is a saving and investing app that uses the IFTTT (if this, then that) formula to create goal-based saving rules that you can completely customize. You can create automatic savings rules to transfer a specific amount to savings every Saturday or every payday, for example. Or you can set a “guilty pleasure” rule to transfer money to savings every time you’re out having happy hour drinks with your friends. Don’t like those rules? Customize your own based on whatever your savings goals may be.
A unique feature of Qapital is that it is designed to marry your goal-based savings rules with their completely free FDIC-insured checking and savings accounts. You can always transfer money out of your goal account back to your Qapital checking account, or withdraw cash with the Visa debit card.
Who it’s for: Qapital is for someone who is serious about setting different savings goals, and who is on board with the idea of opening savings and checking accounts connected to the app.
Testimonial from a Qapital user: The first week I signed up I had my water heater go bad on me and I needed to replace it. I added the Lowe’s account as one of my guilty pleasures and then I started to save. I started to save by rounding up and also by charging myself $2 extra everytime I made a purchase. Needless to say I had to make a total of 3 trips to Lowe’s and a minimum of $6 I saved. That is not including the roundup part. I use my debit card on just about everything, I very rarely carry cash. So every time I make a purchase I save a little. Yes it does come out of your bank account, the app isn’t giving you the roundup money, so make sure you keep a little more in the account to compensate for a little more being deducted when you make a purchase. — User itizmemikenyc on the iTunes app store
How it works: Using algorithms, Albert analyzes your income and expense patterns to figure out the optimum amount of money to automatically set aside in savings. Not to worry, Albert knows that you’re going to need cash to pay your future rent payment, so if you use Smart Savings, the app only sets aside small amounts (between $25 and $100 per week in 2-3 transactions). You can also choose to save a specific dollar amount each week instead of automatic withdrawals. That option could help you avoid auto-saving too much if you tend to have a high checking account balance until you pay all your bills in one swoop.
Albert connects to all of your accounts so it can build a budget based on your income and spending even if you’re not a budgeting whiz. Albert also offers a feature called Genius which is a text-based, add-on financial planning tool. Got a question about the best student loan repayment option? Text the question to Albert Genius and a real, live financial planner will text you back with answers.
Price: The budgeting and saving app is free. If you want to use the Genius feature, you will pay a monthly fee of your choice. Albert recommends paying at least $4.
Who it’s for: Albert is a match for someone who may want some guidance in building a budget and who also needs some motivation to save. Albert is also a good option for people who often have financial questions and will like the ease of having personalized answers coming from a financial planner over text.
Testimonial from an Albert user: “This app has been super helpful over the last couple of months. I had no idea how to start saving for my move from DC to LA and the Albert Geniuses helped me set up a savings goal for both my moving expenses and rent. They laid out how much I should aim to save and where I should focus on reducing spending in order to hit my goals on time. Categorizing my spending has truly been eye-opening. I had no idea I spent so much money on coffee. What I love about the service is how easy it was to talk to them – I got to text them on my own time. They also helped me find a rewards credit card to use for my moving expenses and have been very reassuring about my financial goals. I’ve already recommended the app to my friends and can’t wait to see how they help me save over the next months!” — User Cheddar4, reviewing in Apple app store.
Choosing the best app for your goals
While there are a lot of budgeting and personal finance apps on the market, the best one is one you’ll actually use. An app can help you organize your finances, be mindful of a budget, or give you avenues for spending, saving, or investing, but ultimately, the app is a tool that’s only as good as you make it. So download one and give it a try — we promise, Candy Crush won’t feel jealous.
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Shannah Compton Game is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM professional with an MBA and is the host of the award-winning podcast, Millennial Money, where she shares totally relatable and easy to understand financial advice that will actually make you want to talk about money.
Haven Life, an online life insurance agency that sells term life insurance, doesn’t provide tax, legal or investment advice. This discussion is intended as general education only. We encourage you to work with your own personal tax or legal professionals and your financial advisor. Opinions expressed by the author are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Haven Life.