Photo: Steve Rhodes
If your New Year’s resolution included some sort of financial goal, odds are you’ve struggled to keep up with it already. While most people know they should keep some sort of budget, and many genuinely try to, most run into the reality of it all: tracking all those receipts and logging each purchase takes a huge amount of time. Even for those who started with the best intentions, most soon fall behind. That’s why a growing number of people are turning to web- and mobile-based personal finance solutions. Plus, you can access your data from anywhere and it’s easy to keep up with your expenses.
If your main struggle with finances has been forcing yourself to sit down after a long day at work to balance your checkbook, read on for our roundup of a few tools that can turn the tide with the best personal finance apps out there.
you want to:
Manage your accounts with the least work possible
Mint.com: Web, iPhone (free)
Mint is a free web-based application that tracks your spending and your account balances. Mint’s claim to fame is that the site automatically retrieves your financial data from your banks, credit card companies and the like, and tracks your net worth, spending and even divides your purchases into categories for you — so that Amex charge from Taco Bell at 1:43 a.m. on Saturday will automatically get classified as “food.” From here, it’s easy to set budgets for each category and even receive texts or e-mails when you’re low on funds or about to go over your budget in a category.
The downside to all this is that, yes, you’re giving Mint.com all your financial information so they can review your complete financial picture. The information is held on their servers, and they claim to use the same level of security as bank websites do, but you’ll need to head over to Mint.com to see if the security policy is something you’re comfortable with. If you are, mint is a free, powerful and nearly totally automated service to track your finances.
Pros: Free, versatile, automatic, good companion website
Cons: Requires you to share your financial data, not as powerful as more complex tools
you want to:Control what gets tracked and how by hand
Pocket Money: iPhone ($4.99)
If you’re hesitant to hand your finances over to a company like Mint.com to be automated, no need to worry: There are lots of options that allow you to track your spending by hand. And if you own an iPhone, then Pocket Money is worth checking out. Features on Pocket Money include support for multiple accounts — checking, savings and credit cards — and a deep set of options to configure repeating transactions. So you can put in your car payment to apply monthly rather than having to do it by hand each month. The budgeting section allows you to set up the required monthly budgets, but also supports other budget lengths from daily all the way up to annually. Once everything is in, the reporting feature will give you access to graphs and charts to help you analyze your finances. Finally, your information can be exported to both Quicken and MS Money, so you log spending on the road and then work with the data when you’re back home.
Of all the apps we reviewed, this one has the most competition in its category. There are many alternatives to Pocket Money, so look at a few before deciding — many apps have a free demo version available, so there’s no reason not to take a few for a spin. Still, Pocket Money gets our vote for having a large feature set, the ability to export data to other programs, and it even allows in-app purchase of additional reports, graphs and so on for people who want even more features.
Pros: Flexible account setup, repeating transaction and auto-repeat speed up entry, powerful budget features
Cons: iPhone only, $4.99 while some other apps are free, advanced features require additional in-app purchases
Send and receive payments from anywhere with PayPal (free)
While not a budgeting software, PayPal has a number of robust features that deserve a mention. If you bill clients directly or work freelance, PayPal payments are a quick and easy way to move money around. With access to the web or your phone, you can send payment requests or even pay others. Whether you’re trying your hand at using eBay as a side income or tracking billing and payments for your personal business, PayPal can be an indispensable part of the process. And if you’re trying to curb your spending, try this trick: PayPal offers free debit card accounts that can be “charged” instantly with funds from your PayPal account. So, move some money to the PayPal card as your “fun money,” and when the card’s out of funds, you’ve exhausted your entertainment budget for the week. This kind of self discipline can help you stick to a budget.
Pros: Free, easily pay and send bills to vendors/clients, debit card lets you keep funds earned via PayPal separate from your other finances
Cons: Only moves money, so you need a second app to track spending and budgets
you want to:
Cut back on impulse spending on credit: Debt Dog ($0.99)
We all know that buying on credit can add a lot to the “true cost” of our purchases, and we’ve been told that paying more than the minimum can dramatically cut the time to pay off debts. But do you know just how to calculate these changes? Debt Dog makes it easy; you just select the interest rate for a purchase, and the amount to be borrowed. Debt Dog then calculates the true cost of the loan (all accompanied by the oh-so-helpful sound effect of money being flushed down a toilet). You get the amount it will cost after finance charges, and how many months it will take you to pay off the debt. You can also add additional payments on top of the minimum and Debt Dog will show the savings in interest and the faster payoff. If you’ve struggled with putting things on your credit card, or you’re thinking of making a major purchase like a car, the eye-opening calculations from Debt Dog are a bargain at 99 cents.
Pros: Simple interface, easy to understand
Cons: Limited application, no down payment option for larger purchases
you want to:
Track mileage to expense for work or deduct from your taxes: MileBug ($1.99)
If you haven’t been tracking your mileage, you’ve been throwing money away. You can, of course, expense qualified travel expenses for your job, but you can also be deducting travel from your taxes. It’s beyond the scope of this article to explain what mileage you can deduct, but study up — at $0.55 cents a mile the deductions can add up to huge savings at tax time. If you’re ready to start tracking mileage, check out one of the many mileage apps in the app store.
We like MileBug; it has a simple user interface and powerful functionality for people who need to track mileage for multiple vehicles or multiple businesses. You simply set the starting odometer before you start your drive, then ending odometer value when you reach your destination. The app calculates mileage then logs the trip. The logged trips can be e-mailed at any point as an Excel-friendly report for you to hold onto till tax time. Best of all, these reports can be filtered to export only work-related trips, trips in a certain vehicle and so on, making it a snap to prepare your company expense report or any other information you need.
Pros: Stable, versatile and affordable
Cons: Doesn’t use GPS to track mileage
app-ly yourself to save cash
While this certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, it should be more than enough to get you started. The app world is exploding in popularity, and there’s sure to be an app that meets your needs for a financial program. Research a few, take some for a spin and decide what works best. The secret to successful budgeting is to stay on top of inputting your financial activity, and the best way to stay current is to have mobile access so you’re always up-to-date.
Mint.com the best FREE way to manage your money. Get started here!