The Best Personal Finance Software
Mo' money, fewer problems
This is way more than bill pay — we're talking up-to-the-minute reporting on your financial health that syncs seamlessly with your accounts. Financial experts and advisors agree that the best personal finance software doesn't just tell you how much money you've got; it inspires you to make smarter money decisions every day.
The most comprehensive and customizable way to see exactly what your money is doing, all for free — but you will have to suffer through some banner ads.
If you’ve ever used a daily tracking program — fitness apps, sleep apps, “did I drink eight glasses of water today” apps — you know that they only work if you actually want to use them. Personal finance apps are exactly the same. In fact, the best personal finance software has to be even better than those drinking-water apps because they’re not asking you to drink water; they’re asking you to think more carefully about how you spend your money.
What a drag.
If you’re going to log in every day, if you’re going to take the time to categorize every transaction, and if you’re actually going to use the information the program gives you to make better financial choices, you have to be inspired. There’s no room for a janky, difficult-to-navigate tracker, or limiting features that don’t match your needs. What we discovered with Mint, our top pick, is that as long as there are enough key features to choose from, and you have the ability to customize the experience, pretty much every style of spender will be satisfied.
How We Found the Best Personal Finance Software
Personal finance software lets you organize your financial life. “Most people — and I include myself among them — go about their finances in a very organic way,” explains Erica Sandberg, a consumer finance expert and editor-at-large for CreditCardGuide.com. “Something needs to be bought, and you buy it. Something needs to be saved for, and you save for it. But you don’t get any data, besides the knowledge that you’ve paid all your bills! When you use a personal finance software, you get data.” The key is finding which apps make it easy to get — and to understand — that data.
We began our search with 42 of the most popular apps, desktop software, and SaaS clients. Our base criteria: They had to offer a full suite of financial tracking tools, as opposed to apps like Evolve Money, which only offers one bill-pay feature. And, they had to be able to answer basic questions like, “Does this app have a website?” Have you ever looked at lists of iTunes apps and tried to figure out who made them or where they came from? We did — and we eliminated the ones where we couldn’t tell.
After that, we got to work.
We cut software programs that didn’t sync with banks and credit cards.
We uncovered a lot of “Budget Calculator App: Enter Your Transactions And See How Much You Spend” options that make you type out every time you spend money, as if you were balancing a checkbook by hand. (Remember when people did that?) Some apps even charge you for this privilege.
Most of us don’t have the time or the patience to manually type in every Starbucks run and Netflix payment — it’s just not sustainable. If your personal finance software won’t pull transactions directly from your bank and credit cards (plus your 401(k)s, IRAs, and even PayPal) chances aren’t you won’t either.
Andro Money, BankTree, Budgt, CashSync, Daily Cost, Dollarbird, GnuCash, Handwallet, HomeBudget, iCash, Mobills Personal Finances, Monefy, Money Lover, Money Plus Sunset, MoneyBook, MoneyWell, My Budget Book, My Finances, Next, Pennies, Pocket Expense, Prism Bills & Personal Finance, RichOrPoor, Saved, Spending Tracker, Wallet
We wanted programs that were available on multiple operating systems — including tablets and phones.
Sticking to a budget is about making smart choices in the moment: knowing whether to take the bus or the Uber, deciding whether to order an appetizer, and so on. Having your online budget with you wherever you go — and on whichever electronic device you happen to be holding — makes it easy to see how much money you have left to spend.
Account Xpress, AceMoney, Banktivity, Budget Express, Home Bookkeeping, Moneyline, Wave
And we tested what it was like to actually use these programs.
At this point, we were left with eight programs and it was time to have at it: logging in every day to confirm that our transactions had synced properly, searching the online help resources for answers to our questions, and going even further into the setup process to categorize a month’s worth of transactions and build a new budget.
Setup was a make-or-break factor.
If you can’t figure out how to connect your accounts, sort your transactions into categories, and navigate basic features like budget creation, you’re not going to want to use the program every day — which means you’re not going to get any of the benefits.
A Quick Note for Couples Personal finance software has “personal” right in the name — but what if your household has more than one person? The big question is whether you want to set up one account and share a login, or have individual accounts and divvy up shared expenses. Either way, it’s probably going to involve communicating about both your relationship and your finances. Get ready to learn a lot about each other.
Meka West, founder and CEO of Penny Smart Girl, advises that it takes at least a couple of hours, “maybe up to eight hours,” to fully set up a personal finance software program — and that’s one that works well. It’s like character creation in a video game; you can take what the software gives you, or you can put a lot of time into customization. The more you customize, the more it will feel like a natural — and practical — extension of your financial decision-making.
A few of the programs we tried were pretty immediate no-go options. Buxfer has an interesting focus on shared budgeting (think roommates needing to split rent, or dinner parties looking to divvy up the bill), but after multiple errors trying to sync with our bank accounts and credit cards, it was out of the running. Initially we cut Moneydance because it didn’t appear to offer auto-sync, but turns out that’s only partially true — while it touts having the capability, it failed multiple attempts to sync to our accounts, and it looks like we weren’t the only one. We disliked Mvelopes user interface the moment we saw it; it felt outdated and the special offer to help get us out of debt felt like it was trying to sell us something. If that wasn’t enough, after logging into the app, a glaring spelling error was enough to ditch it. Level Money was unfortunately undergoing a total overhaul while we were testing: not a particularly fair reason to take it out of the running, so we’ll revisit and see how the app stacks up.
This left us with four top programs that we’d be happy to use to track our own finances — and one that stood out just a little bit from the others.
Our Picks for the Best Personal Finance Software
Over 20 million registered users have signed up with Mint, and after testing it, we know why. Mint stands out for providing the most features, the most useful features, and the most comprehensive way to see exactly what your money is doing.
What do we mean by useful? You name it. If you want to know how much money you need to put aside every month in order to buy that way-too-expensive plane ticket to see your parents for the holidays, Mint can help you calculate that number. If you have a big expense that’s due every few months (hello, freelancer estimated taxes!), Mint can prorate that expense into your monthly budget so you don’t forget and spend the money on something else.
Unlike other budgeting platforms (like the very popular You Need A Budget, or YNAB), Mint doesn’t make you plan out every dollar. Although you can create as many budget categories as you want or need, Mint also understands that life involves flexible spending — one month you might spend your discretionary dollars on clothes, and the next month you might spend them to take a Lyft. Mint lets you pile those dollars into an “everything else” category, so you can see how many “everything else” dollars you have each month — and whether you can afford that Lyft, or have to wait for the bus.
Mint is also the best program for anyone new to personal finance software: Everything you need to set it up is clearly visible on your dashboard. You don’t have to go hunting through drop-down menus, because none of Mint’s dashboard menus are drop-down. You don’t have to wonder where to add your mortgage, because Mint puts the option right on the front page. On top of that, it’s free, meaning you can take it for a test-drive without having to make a budget for it.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way: Yes, Mint has a lot of banner ads. Yes, Mint will take a long time to set up. Yes, Mint starts out by making a lot of assumptions about your budget, and you’ll have to go in and change those assumptions. (Mint told us we had a $10 monthly budget for “fast food.” We appreciate Mint trying to keep us healthy, but there are bound to be two-burger months…)
But if you ignore the ads and put in the work, Mint has a lot to offer.
How much work? We definitely suggest setting aside at least four hours, and some users may need to buckle in for West’s recommended eight. The initial Mint setup is really easy and should only take a few minutes; the hours add up when you categorize your transactions, set up your unique budget categories, and think about your financial goals.
This is pretty consistent across all of our top picks, with the exception of YNAB (and we’ll get to that). The initial setup takes just a few minutes, and the four-to-eight-hour journey begins once you start customizing. You can get by with less customization, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice: It’s hard to accurately track your finances unless they accurately reflect your finances (that whole “garbage in, garbage out” thing).
You don’t have to put in the hours all at once, though. “Start by setting up just your checking account — nothing else — and see how that goes,” suggests Gail Perry, CPA and co-author of Mint.com for Dummies. “Once you’ve decided that you like the software, add an investment account or a savings account.”
That’s right: If you are ready to go all-in, you don’t have to limit yourself to just your bank accounts and your credit cards. You can also connect your 401(k), 403(b), IRA, student loan, auto loan, home loan, and so on. If it’s got money attached to it, you can probably connect it to Mint.
This level of financial visibility isn’t unique to Mint. YNAB, Quicken, and Personal Capital also allow users to connect items like loans and mortgages to their financial accounts, although YNAB currently only imports an opening balance and requires you to manually input any changes. You also have to do some menu-hunting and Google searching before you can figure out how to, say, connect a student loan to Personal Capital, and even then it only gives you the option to create a “manual loan.” Even Quicken requires just a few extra clicks to get where you need to go. Mint gives you all of your options front and center. There’s literally a box on Mint’s front page inviting you to connect your loans — and everything else.
Categorizing transactions was the most disappointing part of Mint. It tried to help by guessing the categories for us, but more often than not it guessed wrong: For example, a bus pass showed up as “Education,” and we had to manually change the transaction to “Public Transportation.” That said, it’s easy to create your own categories; instead of labeling your unicycle repairs as “public transportation,” you can make your very own unicycle label.
We loved how clean and easy to understand Mint’s budget interface was (and really loved that amazing “Everything Else” category for our impulse purchases). Each budget line item fills up as you spend money within each category, so if you check Mint every day, you can use that information to make informed choices about your future spending without exceeding your budget. You’ll be able to pull out your phone at the grocery store, look at your grocery budget, and decide whether to buy the $25 or the $10 rosé.
Mint also lets you set goals. Tell Mint you want to save for that $900 holiday plane ticket, and Mint will help you figure out how much you need to set aside each month so you can buy those tickets before the fares jump up in December. Mint’s goal feature is pretty basic, but that also makes it easy to use — and we appreciate the way it adds to Mint’s robustness and helps us get a clear picture of where we want our money to go.
We liked Quicken nearly as much as we liked Mint, but it comes with a price tag: Quicken currently runs at $75 for Mac and $40, $75, or $105, respectively, for the Starter, Deluxe, or Premier Windows editions. (Sorry, Linux users.)
Quicken and Mint both live under the Intuit umbrella, which means their functionality is so similar that you’ll feel like you’re using the same program. (Quicken also categorized our bus pass under “Education,” which we assume is an Intuit quirk.) Setup is nearly identical: Import accounts, categorize them appropriately, create custom categories and subcategories as necessary, and then build a budget. Like Mint, Quicken also allows you to run various reports on your income and spending, including “by category” and “over time.”
At a glance, there are four big differences between Quicken and Mint:
● Since Quicken doesn’t have to share its interface with advertisers, you get a more streamlined user experience that’s slightly easier to navigate.
● Quicken doesn’t give you the opportunity to create financial goals such as “take a trip,” although you can make a budget line item with a custom category and subcategory like “Savings: Trip” and commit to putting a certain amount toward trip savings every month. Where Mint assumes that you may need a prompt to set a financial goal, Quicken assumes you’re going to include your financial goals in your budget.
● Unlike Mint and Personal Capital, Quicken does not automatically sync new transactions; you have to click a button to sync transactions every time you open the software. This is the kind of small detail that some users might not realize right away, especially because everything syncs seamlessly when you first set up your accounts. It’s not a deal-breaker; just a quirk.
● Since Quicken is a downloadable desktop/mobile app instead of a browser interface, it also has the power to create pop-up alerts — which you can customize or, if you prefer, turn off. (Yes, Quicken, freelancers do spend an “unusual amount” on taxes in April. Thanks for warning us.
After using both Quicken and Mint, we recommend them both. They’re so similar, how could we not? Even though the features are in many ways identical, Mint’s free software program feels designed for the person who is learning how to manage their finances and wants to explore budgeting and goal-setting. Quicken is for the person who has moved past the exploration phase, knows what they want, and is willing to pay for a simple, ad-free interface.
Best for Non-Budgeters
Personal Capital This free browser-based software isn't about monthly budgeting — it's about tracking your overall net wealth. Useful if you're after the big picture in an easy-to-read interface.
Not everybody likes keeping a budget — and for those of us with irregular spending patterns due to business travel, unpredictable paychecks, or other factors, budgets can often be more trouble than they’re worth. Some of us just want to know whether our net worth is going up or down, with the option to see where our money is going and how our current income and expenses compare to previous months.
Personal Capital does all of that, and it does it beautifully. The free, browser-based software and its accompanying mobile app earned our highest score for attractive and intuitive design. The dashboard gives you a simple, easy-to-read overview of your net worth and your cash flow, with drop-down menus offering a more detailed analysis of your income and expenses.
The software has a heavy emphasis on investments, and will tell you — in both real dollars and percentages — exactly how much your 401(k) or other investment holdings have gone up or down. Personal Capital also lets you know whether the Dow Jones, the S&P 500, and other major indices have earned or lost value, so you can keep track of the market as you monitor your own investments.
Like Mint and Quicken, Personal Capital starts off by pulling transactions from the accounts you supply and attempting to appropriately categorize them. You’ll also need to go through and re-categorize many of them yourself. Personal Capital does not let you create custom categories, and its system has a few strange gaps — we could not find a category for “health insurance,” for example, and had to decide whether to sort a health insurance premium into “healthcare/medical” or “insurance” — but nothing that can’t be overcome with a few executive decisions and consistent categorization. You also have the option to tag categorized transactions as “business,” “medical,” “reimbursable,” or “tax-related,” which helps you quickly sort those as necessary (such as when tax time comes around).
Linking your accounts and categorizing your transactions is pretty much all the setup you need for Personal Capital. From there, it’s just a daily checkup to ensure new transactions are categorized appropriately, to note whether your investments have gone up or down, and to take a look at your net worth. We loved that part. It was pretty cool to see how much money was ours, after we subtracted our outstanding debts and debits from our savings and investments.
It was also pretty cool to take a look at Personal Capital’s spending and savings charts and compare our numbers both week by week and month by month. The colorful pie charts quickly show us where the majority of our money is going, and it’s easy to figure out that you spent, say, $100 more on groceries this month than you did last month. If that’s enough to help you make smarter decisions about grocery shopping for next month (or to recognize that the extra $100 is part of an irregular spending pattern and is nothing to worry about), Personal Capital is the right tool for you.
Best for Changing the Way You Think About Money
You Need a Budget If budgeting has never worked for you before, give YNAB, and its Get Started webinar, a shot — it just might revolutionize the way you look at money.
If budgeting hasn’t worked for you, try You Need a Budget. Yes, we know it’s got “budget” in the name, but YNAB takes a completely unique approach: Instead of creating hypothetical budgets in which you try to guess how you’ll spend money you haven’t earned yet, YNAB asks you to think about the money you’ve already earned and figure out exactly where that money needs to go.
This is what YNAB means by “give every dollar a job,” one of its slogans. If you have a dollar in your account, you need to figure out exactly how you’re going to spend it. If you have dollars left over after you’ve met all of your monthly expenses, YNAB wants you to start giving those dollars jobs for next month. Even your savings account dollars get jobs; those dollars can be saved for holiday gifts or vacations or the inevitable car repair that’ll happen within the year.
Before you sync a single account to YNAB, take the Get Started webinar. Trust us on this one. We tried syncing and setting up all our accounts without it and were completely bewildered: What was Age of Money? Why did YNAB say we had cash available, but also that we’d overspent our budget? What were Immediate Obligations and True Expenses, and how were they different?
Then we took the webinar, and everything clicked. YNAB’s budgeting system is both complicated and elegant, like a game of Sudoku. It takes a lot more maintenance than our other top picks: With the other apps, you can log in every other day or so to take a quick glance at your progress and check your newest transactions, but YNAB works best when you do all of that plus check your spending against your available cash, make sure your dollars are fulfilling their jobs, and re-assign dollars to new jobs if you overspend or underspend.
That said, YNAB can revolutionize the way you look at money. It asks you to deal with just the cash you have on hand and to pay off your biggest priorities first. The idea is that you’ll never have to worry about whether you can afford your electric bill because you already have dollars assigned to the job of “pay electric bill.”
Its Age of Money system wants you to put as many days as possible between the time you earn your paycheck and the time you spend it. You do that not by saving (YNAB doesn’t believe in saving money just for the sake of saving), but by assigning dollars to jobs far in the future. Have extra money this month? Put it toward next month’s rent, and so on. The more extra money you have, the further into the future you can assign dollars — and your Age of Money grows.
We’d go into detail about how to use YNAB, but please believe us when we say you need to take the webinar. Jumping into YNAB without the webinar — and without reading the YNAB Handbook — is like trying to drive a car without knowing what the road signs mean. It’s worth it to learn how YNAB’s interface and financial philosophies work before you get started.
And YNAB’s philosophies aren’t going to be right for everyone. For example: YNAB asks you to budget for non-immediate expenses like “dining out” only after you’ve fulfilled all of your immediate obligations, but we all know that there are times when dining out is actually an immediate expense. (Think of your boss — or that cute person you met on an online dating site — asking if you want to grab lunch.)
Still, we respect YNAB for being so straightforward about the idea that paying off your most important stuff has to come first, and asking you to assign actual, real dollars (not “to be earned” future dollars) to those expenses before you buy anything else.
Our recommendation: Start the 34-day free trial; take the webinar and read the tutorial; and see if YNAB is right for you. After the trial is over, you’ll pay either $5 per month or $50 per year to continue the program — so make sure to assign dollars to that job right away if you like what you see!
Other Personal Finance Software to Consider
Prosper Daily is a mobile app for iTunes and Android that’s designed to help you track spending by category and quickly flag potentially fraudulent transactions. It’s light on features, but you’ll be able to compare this month’s spending to last month’s, which, like Personal Capital, may be all you need. It also uses a Tinder-esque swipe system to sort transactions into, “Yes, I bought that,” and, “No, I didn’t buy that,” which makes it pretty fun to use.
Did You Know?
You don’t need to use every feature.
When you do your initial setup, feel free to skip features that don’t inspire you. Just because Mint gives you the option of setting up a financial goal doesn’t mean you have to. If feature overload is preventing you from setting up or checking in with your financial software, give yourself permission to use only what you need.
“With some programs, you can turn off or ignore features you don’t want,” Perry tells us. “And remember that even though you aren’t using some features now, it might be nice to have them at some point in the future.”
But you do need to develop good habits.
We’ve hit the “you should look at these apps nearly every day” point a few times now, but in case you forgot: You should look at these apps nearly every day. “That might sound negative, like ‘Oh no, another task,’ but it’s pretty exciting,” Sandberg says. “This is you! Your money, your life, your goals. It’s your financial limb, so exercise it.”
Don’t have time to check in daily? “Make a Money Date with yourself every week or every month,” West suggests. Make sure your transactions are categorized appropriately; check your spending against your budget; and see if you want to change any of your spending or saving habits before the next Money Date.
Also: don’t forget about backups. Perry suggests: “When you sign up for a new service, check to see if there’s a way to download your information. Once you begin keeping a history of transactions with a software, you want to be able to access and download your information should the company go out of business in the future. It’s also good practice to download backups regularly on your own, just in case something happens.”
Free software can make money off you.
If you’re using a free personal finance app and it suggests you sign up with a zero-interest credit card, that tip is not coming from the generosity of the app’s heart-shaped emoji. Instead, that tip is an affiliate link designed to keep the app in business.
“Free online personal finance software programs make money from subscriber fees if you upgrade to paid versions, from third-party affiliates, and from ads,” West tells us. “They make suggestions, and if you click on those suggestions, they get money.”
Keep that in mind if you start using Mint. It’s a great program, but be aware that its ads and product suggestions are designed to earn money for Mint. Do your own research before you sign up for anything it advertises.
The best financial tracking apps work very hard to keep your information secure — and they’ll show their work.
When you give a software program the passwords to your bank accounts and credit cards, you want to know that program is going to do its best to make sure your private information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. However, as Sandberg reminds us, “Very little is 100 percent secure. Look at the IRS — they’ve been hacked!”
All of our top picks use SSL and encryption to secure users’ information, and each of them provides a detailed description of all the work they do to ensure that our private information — and our money — stays as secure as possible.
A lot of financial tracking apps advertise their SSL and encryption stats on their front page, but you’re going to have to scroll down to check out their privacy policies — and you should.
The Bottom Line
Using personal finance software is a lot like exercise: It’s a joy for some, a chore for others, but if you stick with it, the results can change your whole life. Also like exercise, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all program — which is why robust features you can customize and access to data that inspires your spending (and your saving) are so important.
Be prepared to revise your setup. We speak from experience: Your first budget and categorization setup is probably going to be wrong. You may initially categorize a Chipotle purchase as “restaurants,” and then decide you want to subdivide the category into “dinners out” and “office lunches.” Don’t get frustrated when you’re re-categorizing all of those Chipotle runs. Revising your setup is part of the process.
Either quit after two hours, or commit for at least a month. Personal finance software is kind of like dating: You know pretty quickly if it’s right for you, but you still have to do the work of building the relationship. If you sign up for one, put in a few hours, and then hate it, no problem. But if you like it, you’d better show up for those Money Dates. “With any new software, you have to dip your feet in and immerse yourself in the features, and the software has to learn your habits as well,” explains West. “It kind of starts to come together after a month.”
Don’t worry about finding a “forever program.” You aren’t tied to personal finance software for life. You can test out a program for a few months — or a few years — and move on. “A lot of people don’t use these softwares forever,” explains Sandberg. “They’re a great way to get in touch with cash flow and credit issues, but there’s a lifespan. You use these programs for a couple years, and then you don’t need them anymore. You’re free. You get it.”