The best budgeting software helps you manage your money in a way that is organized, provides the detail you require and yet is easy enough to follow that you will actually stick with it.
Here are four budget software systems that meet those criteria. Each system is distinguished by how it best fits your personal approach to managing your finances. (For more on budgeting, see our tutorial: Budgeting Basics.)
1. Best for Fans of Zero-Based Budgeting
You Need A Budget (YNAB for short) is built on the zero-based budgeting principle that calls for you to “give every dollar a job.” With YNAB you need to be involved in your finances and willing to change old habits to make the system work.
In addition to “give every dollar a job,” YNAB follows three other rules: “embrace your true expenses,” “roll with the punches” and “age your money.” According to YNAB, following those four rules will allow you to get out of debt, save money and stop living paycheck to paycheck. It’s a tall order, but YNAB users say it works.
This browser-based subscription system runs on both Windows and Mac computers. Available Android and iPhone apps sync data to the desktop. YNAB connects to your bank and credit card accounts to download transactions, but it does not offer a way to track investments. Following a 34-day free trial, YNAB costs $50, billed annually.
2. Best for Envelope Budgeters Anxious to Go Digital
Mvelopes is based on the familiar (pre-computer) budget system of putting cash in envelopes each pay period. Each envelope is labeled for an individual bill or discretionary expense. For discretionary expenses, when an envelope is empty, spending in that category is done for that pay period.
Mvelopes makes the envelopes digital but it does much more. It links to bank and credit card accounts, allows you to see past spending and assign money to future “mvelopes.” You can set up the system to move money out of your “spending” envelope into a credit card payment envelope so you don’t run up your credit card balance.
The basic free service supports four bank accounts and 25 spending envelopes. Premier service (unlimited accounts and envelopes) costs $95 per year. The system is online and works with both Macs and PCs. Android and iPhone apps let you manage your accounts, add and edit transactions, adjust your budget and monitor expenses. There is no provision to handle investments. (For more, see: How to Create an Effective Budget.)
3. Best for Tracking Spending for Free
Mint was acquired by Intuit in 2009 and remains a quintessential and wildly popular free online budgeting and expense-tracking software system. Mint lets you track expenses across credit cards, bank accounts (checking and saving) and even investment accounts.
You can even use the program to sign up for alerts if you overspend in a category. In short, Mint gives you a ton of information but doesn’t provide advice. It provides a great overview of your financial health. The alerts could be very helpful if you tend not to pay attention to your finances on a regular basis.
In addition to the browser-based online system, Mint has both iOS and Android apps. Mint offers online synchronization and includes bill-payment options as well as limited investment monitoring. There’s even a free credit score tracking option. (Also see: 4 Best Personal Finance Apps for 2017.)
4. Best for Those Who “Want It All”
Quicken Premier 2017 is, by most accounts, the most complete personal finance and budget software tool available. That also makes it one of the most complex software packages available. That complexity is mitigated somewhat by the fact that there are three different Windows versions plus a Mac version available.
All versions, which you must install on your computer, allow you to create and follow a budget. Each higher version provides additional features. From a budgeting perspective all versions of Quicken also let you track your spending, import bank transactions, pay bills and more.
The Premier Windows version adds future financial planning, debt reduction, retirement planning, portfolio maintenance and management, a mutual fund finder feature and tax advice on investments.
The Quicken 2017 mobile app is free and available in iOS and Android versions. The app syncs with all Quicken versions. Quicken Premier sells for $99.99. (For further insights, see: The 3 Best Alternatives to Quicken Software (INTU).)
The Bottom Line
With the exception of the Quicken line of products, most budgeting software today is online and subscription-based. That makes it easily compatible with any computer system and also available on just about any device.
The Quicken advantage is mostly in the depth of the features offered. There’s almost nothing about managing money in a home that Quicken doesn’t cover extremely well. Many people, however, don’t require or want that degree of complexity.
Any of these applications would work well for most people. Decide which approach best fits your personality and goals, download or sign up, and enjoy the financial peace of mind that comes from taking control of your budget.
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