Budgeting apps can take the drudgery and dread out of managing your household’s money, a chore only one in three Americans even bothers to do. Quicken was long the gold standard for personal finance software, but an array of compelling —and often free—alternatives have risen to challenge it, whether you want a no-hassle way to keep tabs on your in- and outflows, a tool to help maximize your means, or a guide to build wealth through investments.
We’ve tried all the major applications to see how well they can help you build and follow through on a monthly budget. Read on for our top picks, and you can find links to all of our reviews at the bottom of the page.
Best overall budgeting app: YNAB
YNAB (You Need a Budget) tops our list. Its “zero-sum” budgeting system—allocating every dollar of only the money you have in hand to dedicated spending and saving categories until you have zero dollars left to budget—feels most like the tried-and-true envelope system our grandparents used to live within their means. The apps’ hands-on approach also helps drive home the idea of being intentional about how you spend and save money. If you’re new to budgeting, this is the app to start with. Get all the details in our full review.
Mint automatically aggregates and analyzes all your linked financial accounts and gives you a comprehensive look at your money matters. Its more hands-off approach isn’t ideal for first-time budgeters, but if you’ve tracked your spending with pen and paper before, this tool is the best next step. Learn more in our full review.
What to look for in budgeting software
Customizable budget categories
Income, spending, and savings categories are the building blocks of your budget. They let you know where your money is coming from and where it’s going. As you’ll be assigning categories to every financial transaction you make in order to track your money, it’s critical that they be accurate.
Virtually all budgeting software comes with preset categories like rent/mortgage, utilities, and food. But beyond common expenses like these, most people’s spending is unique to their situation. Budgeting software should provide the flexibility to conform to your financial obligations and goals by letting you add, delete, and rename categories.
Flexibility for irregular income and expenses
Two of the biggest budget-busters are irregular income and expenses that either fluctuate month-to-month (we’re looking at you, electric bill) or are paid annually in a lump sum, like insurance premiums and subscriptions.
If you don’t receive income at a regular interval, such as with a bi-weekly paycheck, avoid software that requires you to enter the same income each month or to budget off of predicted income. As irregular expenses are nearly universal, everyone should look of budgeting software that lets you take the 12-month average of these expenses and allocate them monthly.
Tracking is important at both ends of the budgeting process. In the beginning this data tells you where your money has been going so you can build a realistic financial plan base on past income and expenses. Once you execute your budget, it allows you to closely watch your spending and make necessary course corrections to stay on target.
At a minimum, your budgeting software should generate reports that break down income and expenses by category and show spending trends on a monthly basis. If you like to keep a closer eye on your finances, look for software with a real-time dashboard that constantly updates you on your cash flow, transactions, top spending categories, and account balances.
Most budgeting software sync online with your financial accounts so you don’t have to enter transactions and update balances manually. That means data encryption and password-protected login are a must. All the apps in our roundup meet these requirements, but always read a budgeting product’s security statement to be sure before you sign up.