Surprisingly simple budget tools to kick-start your finances

Quicken Mint Yodlee MEnvelops Personal Capital LearnVest Home Budget Sync YNAB Excel Logo ProgramsKJ: Similar to our post on Quicken or Mint.com?, we wanted to dedicate this segment to writing about some of the OTHER personal finance software tools that are available to us all for little to no cost. With all of the technology around us and the immediate access to information these days, there are NO excuses for not tracking your expenses via one of these nifty money management programs, so start using one today. If one doesn’t work, don’t get frustrated, and just try another system until you find one that works best with your lifestyle and goals. Whether it is paying down debt, learning to invest, building an emergency fund, syncing across all your devices, or any combination of those.

Mint.com – Our personal favorite. Not only is it free, but it connects to *most* accounts and institutions. Sure, there are a few that can be quirky, but no system is perfect, so don’t let that stop you from getting your finances in order. From adding tags to a transaction (particularly useful for tracking expenses of our blog as well budgeting with work related business expenses) to adding cash transactions (if you were so inclined to carry cash and use that as your primary method of payment), it has lots of features. Plus, their budgeting tool is far superior to most other programs I have seen since they let you roll unused expenses over to another month and/or work with an “Everything Else” bucket that can be your catch-all for miscellaneous items that crop up each month.

Yodlee!Yodlee! is a good, free tool. They are similar to Mint.com, but I’ve found that they connect to even more institutions. And, better yet, you can use it to track all of your credit card rewards, airline miles, etc. – a very nice feature that most other personal finance tools don’t have. Their system is a bit more complex than most around since it can allow you to even send payments, make transfers, etc.

MEnvelopes – Anyone familiar with the “envelope system” of keeping track of your finances? Basically, you parse out your expenses into simple envelopes each month (food, shopping, etc.) and once you run out of money in the envelope for the month, then there’s no more to spend in that category. It can be a great eye-opening way to make sure you don’t overspend in a certain category each month. If you would prefer a more high-tech solution, check out MEnvelopes to help keep track of this on your phone and remotely. It’s the high-tech solution for the good old envelope system.

Pen & Paper – While you DO technically have to pay for pen and paper, they’re pretty cheap options, so I have included it in the “free” section. You can use a simple pad of paper or our preferred method of a Moleskine notebook to keep track. We use a combination of Mint.com and the pen and paper method of keeping track of our expenses. Mint.com helps track things electronically, and the pen & paper is where Angela really puts specifics down for grocery, dining out, and “everything else” items to make lists of upcoming items.

Excel Spreadsheet
I haven’t yet created a good Excel template to share with others to use, but I often find myself tracking our own finances periodically in a spreadsheet. There’s just so much customization and projecting you can do that is specific to your situation in Excel that you can’t quite do in a lot of other programs – paid or free. I find that a spreadsheet often gives me the flexibility to best track progress toward goals (vacation, net worth, etc.). The nice thing about Excel is you can also use it split up an existing account into portions. Instead of having three accounts with one for a vacation fund, one for an emergency fund, and a third one for a car purchase, I often keep track of these “buckets” by separating savings within an account for each goal. Then, I can project out future savings for each carved out expense to make sure we’re on track. This method is fun! Then again, I really like building spreadsheets (okay, okay…end Excel geek rant).

LearnVest – With both a free and a paid portion of the program, LearnVest equips you with the tools you need to set, manage, monitor, and track your expenses. They also have some neat goal setting functionality, and if you want to outsource some of the decision making to help you with your personal finances, they have several options to work with a real financial advisor to create your own financial plan. To get access to a financial advisor, it costs $19 per month plus a one-time setup fee (that ranges in pricing depending on which services you are most interested in).

Personal Capital – Similar to LearnVest, Personal Capital offers both a free and paid version that includes advice from an expert in the field. The free version is very similar to Mint.com – equipped with all the tools you need to make a budget and track your expenses – but their investment reporting and analysis tools are quite a bit more robust. Like LearnVest, if you would like to have one of their professionals help you out in managing your investment portfolios, they can manage your portfolio for a fee (outlined on their website, and varying based on your assets you would like them to manage).

In addition to some of the free (or nearly free) options above, we wanted to outline a few of the paid platforms available as well:

YNAB – Stands for You Need A Budget (YNAB). For $60, you can learn to take charge of your finances. The concept is simple, it gets you to live your next month on the prior month’s income. Sounds simple? It really is that simple. It also helps you better understand what you have to actually spend, so you don’t go over budget since you’re always just spending last month’s income!

Quicken – With several versions available, it’s hard to include EXACTLY what you may spend on Quicken, as your needs may warrant a more complex version. However, even in the most complicated of scenarios, I’ve found that the basic version can be a great fit for most needs. Also, once you buy the software, you can keep it for years without ever needing to upgrade (that is, unless some of the new features and tools are enticing enough to get you to purchase an upgrade). From bill pay TO tracking historical expenses (and net worth) TO creating a budget TO adding manual accounts (i.e. those pesky accounts that either (1) don’t have a login or (2) don’t seem to link to most personal finance software) TO keeping the data yourself (my preference for keeping track of historical information since the files are mine and are stored on MY hard drive versus many other systems that are in the cloud and subject to termination at any point). New to Quicken in recent versions too is the ability to sync your data across your devices, so you can have access to the data when you’re not at your computer – about time they catch up with the rest of the software choices out there!

Home Budget Sync – A neat little iPad and iPhone app that can sync your budget in the cloud. That way you and your family can stay on the same page at any point throughout the month. At only $4.99, it is quite a cheap option to try out and see if it works for your expense tracking needs.

    What cash management software do you use to track your expenses?
    Are there any personal finance programs we are leaving out that you can’t live without?
    Tell us about what methods you prefer.

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4 thoughts on “Surprisingly simple budget tools to kick-start your finances

  1. Great overview of the main programs out there! I’m an Excel guy myself as I like to be able to customize it how I want it and have been using it so long that I guess I’m set in my ways, lol. I’ve been meaning to check out Yodlee since we started churning cards for rewards last year and just need to take a more serious look at it.

    • Yeah, I really like Excel and building projections, but I like the tracking features of Quicken and other programs so much better. We tried Yodlee for a period of time, but we mostly just fell back to using Mint.com since it was a bit more simple, and we only really wanted the budgeting tool which is quite robust.

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