6 budgeting apps to get your finances under control

That money talks, you can’t deny. I heard it once. It said “Goodbye” – old rhyme, and students everywhere

Profile shot of young woman with shopping bags looking at window display

Last year was a horrible one in terms of my personal finances. I moved away from my parents’ house in order to be closer to my job, which I lost pretty much the moment I’d moved. I also became disabled, meaning I couldn’t go and look for another job to replace it.

As I spent the ensuing months chasing my tail in ever-decreasing circles, I came to accept one fundamental truth about myself: I am utterly rubbish with money. The moment I have it, I spend it, and then I don’t have any more and I don’t understand how this can have happened again when I literally just paid in a cheque, I mean, does it have legs or something?

Ahem.

My situation began to resolve itself towards the end of last year, and I vowed – as you do – to make 2016 the Year I Take Control of My Finances. And, since technology runs my life, I decided this would be a good time to investigate the wealth of finance apps on the market, and to share this knowledge with the world. So if you, like me, have pledged to Take Control of Your Finances this year, read on.

Getting started

Did you know that you can download portions of your bank statement in software-readable formats? Did you know, indeed, that you can even get it as something other than a .CSV file that’s an absolute pain to get comprehensible data from? Until I started writing this article, I did not know this, and I share this information in the hope that it reaches someone just as inexperienced in these matters as I am. Most budgeting software supports .QFX and .OFX files, which is also handy if you’re a former user of Quicken or Microsoft Money, and some also support .QIF and other more obscure formats. Oh, and .CSV is still an option if you really hate yourself.

I’ve made a note of all the apps I’ve reviewed that allow you to import data from these downloaded files. If you can, I strongly recommend using that function – it saves a lot of time and effort.

6) YNAB (You Need A Budget)

OS: Web app, Android, iOS
Sync: Yes (via Dropbox for YNAB Classic)
Sharing: Yes (via Dropbox for YNAB Classic)
Data import: Supports .QFX, .OFX, .QIF, .CSV
Price for full version: $5 (£3.50ish)/month or $50 (£35ish)/year (you can subscribe in the UK, it’s just billed in dollars. This also goes for all the others)

When I first started using YNAB, it came in the form of downloadable software (now referred to as YNAB Classic) which was free to use for up to 34 days. As of the start of January, however, it’s now primarily sold as a web app, for which the same trial period applies. Happily, anyone who’s bought the software in the interim now gets free or discounted access to the web version. During the trial period, the YNAB you use is fully-featured, which is very helpful in terms of deciding whether you want to carry on.

The user guide recommends that you start your YNAB journey with a clean slate, budgeting from the day you sign up onwards. The idea is a nice one – you can draw a line under your shaky history with your finances and start afresh, unencumbered by past failures. To that end, you can’t add historical transactions when you first start using YNAB.

Your app comes in a cheery blue, yellow and green colour scheme, and the website is full of hints, tips and instruction manuals for just about every possible use you might have for it. You’re comprehensively guided through the setup with an automated checklist and links to instruction videos. Once you’ve added all the account data you need, you start the process of budgeting by navigating a list of categories and assigning a portion of your worldly fortune to each one. The software encourages you to assign every penny of what you’ve earned, so you know how much you can expect to have left over the following month.

Going through lists and categorising them is exactly as tedious as it is in any other context, but YNAB is more or less unique in allowing you to batch-edit transactions to or from the same person, which speeds the task along nicely. Another pretty handy feature is the ability to declare an account “off-budget”, meaning you can add your savings accounts to the list without having to mentally subtract them from your total budget for the month. You can then use the app to update as and when you spend money, and it’ll sync seamlessly.

YNAB is best suited to anyone who, like me, approaches their personal finances in much the same way as they would a particularly angry-looking bear. If you’ve been struggling with your accounts for a while and you feel like you could use a helping hand and a fresh start, give this a try.

5) Moneydance

OS: Linux/Mac/PC and Android/iOS
Sync: Yes – via Dropbox
Sharing: Yes – via Dropbox (plus additional password protection)
Data import: Supports .QFX, .OFX, .QIF, OFC, .CSV
Price for full version: $49.99 (£45.20) inc. VAT

Moneydance knows its market very well. Rising from the ashes of Quicken, a much-loved and much-lamented stalwart of home financial management, this is a no-frills software package that syncs with mobile apps via Dropbox. It’s aimed at former users of Quicken and current users of Linux, though it runs perfectly on Windows and Mac OSX as well.

Its UI is unfussy. The home screen shows you your current balance, any reminders or warnings for outstanding bills, a calendar of scheduled transactions, an information bar giving an overview of where most of your money is going, and a list of exchange rates. The sidebar gives you access to graphs, reports, investment accounts and budgeting options. This is by far the best app I’ve seen in terms of the information it presents at first glance.

The other apps I’ve reviewed are content to hold your hand through the setup process, signposting the functions and giving you checklists. Moneydance has no truck with any of this nonsense. It is the budgeting software equivalent of your least favourite PE teacher. If you already know your way around a home finance programme, you’re golden. If you’re less confident or you need a bit more help, it’s frustrating to have to dig around the menus to find the features you want to use. Even as a seasoned and cynical user of most software packages, this one flummoxed me, and the support available on its website is sparing.

A word to the wise – don’t try to install the mobile app before you’ve performed the initial setup on your computer. Unlike the other apps I’ve tried out, Moneydance doesn’t function as a self-contained mobile app. Once you get it up and running, though, it has a pleasingly simple interface. It’s not going to win any beauty contests, but it does its job and it does it well.

Moneydance is best suited to someone who’s already pretty familiar with home finance software – especially if they’ve used Quicken – and has the patience and technical skill to get the best out of it. If you absolutely must work with software rather than web or mobile apps, this one is probably your best bet. If you want to use your software to view and manage investments, because you’re some kind of wizard who knows how those even work, this is definitely your best bet. If you’re looking for something easy on the eyes and the brain, and your needs are somewhat more basic, I’d leave Moneydance be.

4) Toshl

OS: Web, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, Blackberry
Sync: Yes
Sharing: No
Data import: No
Price of full version: $1.99 (£1.40ish)/month, $19.99 (£14ish)/year, $59.99 (£42ish) for 3 years and a t-shirt. Yes, really.

If you like your personal budgets to be announced to you by cartoon monsters, Toshl is absolutely the app for you.

Its otherwise Spartan beige and grey interface hosts a number of these characters, especially where you’re over budget or you’ve forgotten something. Aside from that, the UI is refreshingly minimal, with three simple beige and charcoal columns housing the navigation bar, the landing pages, and your account summary.

By an accident of timing, I signed up to Toshl in the middle of a big overhaul. The web interface is now much cleaner-looking, and the mobile interface is soon to follow. It’s also currently refusing to sync with the mobile apps. For me, a humble reviewer, this is just a bit annoying. For someone who actually relies on the software, though, it could be a nightmare, so here’s hoping this is a rare moment of downtime.

Like many of my favourite apps, Toshl gives you a simple walk-through at the start and has a well-thought-out support section. It also gives you the option of exporting your accounts in a number of formats, including PDF, Evernote, and Google Drive, in lieu of a “share” function.

Where does it fall down? Aside from the lack of an “import” function, the features available in the free version of Toshl don’t give you much to work with. Where the other apps I’ve reviewed might limit the number of bank accounts you can program in to one, or the budget categories to 10, Toshl only allows you the one budget. In the free version of Toshl, therefore, you can sort your expenditure according to relevant categories and tags, but unless you fork out for the full version you can only budget by adding up your planned monthly expenditure and inputting the whole lot. This might work for some, but personally I’m looking for ways to do less arithmetic, not more.

On the bright side, a yearly subscription to Toshl is the cheapest available by a considerable margin (and a three-year subscription comes with a free t-shirt). I’d recommend this app for anyone looking for something dead cheap and dead simple to use that’s a bit no-frills and a bit fun.

Especially if they’re a nerd who likes memes and cartoon monsters.

3) Goodbudget

Platform: Web, Android, iPhone
Sync: Yes
Sharing: Yes
Data import: Supports .QFX, .OFX, .CSV
Price of full version: $5 (£3.50ish)/month or $45 (£32ish)/year

Goodbudget is intended for household budgeting, and its greatest strength is its sharing system. Of the apps I’ve tried, this one is by far the best for managing multiple users of the same budget. Sharing doesn’t just let others see what you’re doing; you can also allocate portions of the budget to others, and keep an eye on their spending as they update the app. This makes it brilliant for families – especially, I suspect, for parents of teenagers who are just starting to discover their spending power.

How does it work? You divide your budget into envelopes (hence your friendly envelope mascot) which you then fill from specific portions of your income. If you’ve got more than one person contributing to your total budget, this means you can specifically allocate from their income or yours. You can also allocate envelopes to people you’re sharing the budget with, who can track how much they’ve spent from their portion of the budget. The reporting function, with its clearly laid out graphs, then tells you where and how your money is being spent.

For individuals, the envelope system gets faffy and irritating pretty quickly, so if you’re just budgeting for yourself I’d recommend looking elsewhere. If you’re trying to wrangle a full family budget, however, this looks like an absolute godsend.

Mobile-only apps: Spendee and Monefy

Mobile only apps are a pretty brilliant option if your needs are very basic and you’re not looking to store your transaction history. Monefy and Spendee have similar interfaces – your categories are marked with colour-coded symbols – and they’re both very pretty to look at. Spendee offers helpful line graphs that chart your spending over time, and Monefy’s landing screen is a very attractive doughnut graph based on your transactions for the month.

Currently, there isn’t that much to choose between them, aside from the obvious differences in availability – Spendee is available for iPhone and Android, and Monefy is Android only. In terms of future developments, though, Spendee has the edge: according to the info on the website, the developers are in the process of expanding to both a tablet and a web app, with talk of adding an import function. If these are well-implemented, Spendee could be a serious contender with more established apps like YNAB.

At the moment, both apps are function light and only really suitable for use on the go. If you’re looking to overhaul your finances, you’re probably better off using a web app. If you’re more or less on top of your spending and you just want a way to keep track of your money at a glance, though, either of these would suit you well.

2) Spendee

Platform: Android and iPhone only
Sync: Only when you buy the app
Sharing: Yes
Data import: No
Price of full version: £1.59/month or £10.90/year

1) Monefy

Platform: Android only
Sync: Yes – via Dropbox
Sharing: Yes – via Dropbox
Data import: No
Price for full version: £2.00/month

Happy budgeting, people.


Main Image © iStock/IPGGutenbergUKLtd

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