Battle of the Budgeting Tools: Manage Money Online and on the Go
Another site that tracks your income and outlays with attractive graphics, MoneyStrands has a collection of widgets, including a budget module that proposes spending limits based on the historical data it downloads from your online accounts. Again, this function is only as useful as the accuracy and completeness of transaction categorization.
MoneyStrands issues only e-mail alerts. By default it will send you a message whenever it notices what it considers to be unusual transactions. In my tests, its definition of "unusual" prompted dozens of alerts; you can, however, edit the alerts to be more realistic and less abundant. MoneyStrands presents a strong mobile version to smartphone browsers, so you can easily see for yourself how well you're doing to meet budget goals.
Pros: Nice graphics; e-mail alerts; renders well on a smartphone
Cons: E-mail alerts can pile up
Also capable of proposing a budget based on historical data, Thrive has a pie chart that you can fiddle with to change allocations for spending on bills, discretionary purchases, and savings. It has no special mobile features, but it can send e-mail alerts regarding your spending targets.
Pros: Handy pie chart; e-mail alerts
Cons: No mobile features
Which Service to Choose?
Almost any of these services will record your spending goals and let you know when you're close to reaching or surpassing them. Ultimately, though, it's still up to you to decide how best to allocate your money--and to have the discipline to stick with your decisions.
Mint stands out for supporting a large array of financial institutions. Plus, it offers apps for mobile devices (which you'll need for using the service on an iPad, since the Mint browser version is Flash-based).
If you prefer to do budgeting on the fly on a handset, Buxfer's SMS features can come in handy. Thrive won't provide so much help on the go since it lacks mobile tools, and Bundle's iPhone app isn't the most practical for managing money.
Regardless of which sites or services you use, be aware that you'll probably have to spend a little time up front refining and personalizing the categorization rules. The best sites will learn how to interpret recurring transactions that their automated systems don't handle appropriately, so the initial time investment will save you lots of work later on.
And because any budgeting tool is effective only if it's based on real and complete data, ideally you should track expenditures that you can't automatically download, including cash outlays. Mobile apps that let you enter expenditures as you make them are particularly useful as alternatives to collecting lots of paper receipts for manual entry later on.