Photo: Rozette Rago
By Kevin Purdy
This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Ladders may earn affiliate commissions.
After researching nearly 50 budgeting apps, having eight people test six of them in their daily lives, speaking with three financial experts, and reading through a half-dozen personal finance books, You Need a Budget (YNAB) is the only budgeting app we’d spend our own money on. Its guided setup helps you create an effective budget, and its user-friendly phone and Web apps help you stick to it better than anything else we tested.
Most financial experts and books steer people away from apps entirely, because manually making a budget exposes you to the reality of your money in a way that having it done for you cannot. That’s why automated spending trackers, like Mint, aren’t sufficient on their own. But YNAB is different because it walks you through the process, offering just enough coaching to make it easier without doing it for you. Setup is easy, it syncs with your banks and credit cards (with a manual option if you prefer), does helpful math, shows month-to-month trends, and offers a better onboarding system than other apps. After that’s done, it helps you stick to your plan by providing clear feedback on your budgets and compelling you to account for everything. Its mobile app is full-featured and easy to use, its occasional tip emails and help sections are far better than most other apps.
The most effective budget is the one you stick with, and the integrated tools built into a Simple checking account make it easy to turn budgeting into a routine rather than a chore. It accurately categorizes all your debit card spending automatically and provides instant transaction alerts in the mobile app. This way, you see where your money is going, forcing you to think about how you’re spending it. Beyond basic spending tracking, Simple allows you to set various “Goals” (essentially mini budgets for rent, groceries, utilities, etc) based on what you can afford and what you’d like to afford in the future (home renovations, a new TV) so you can plan out your future spending. The only catch is, you have to switch banks to access these tools and you have to put most of your spending on the debit card, which is no small obstacle.
Why you should trust us
I was an editor at the personal productivity blog Lifehacker for more than three years, writing often about budgets and budget apps. I’m also a person who never got much money training from his parents or education, and so has had to build his own version of a budget numerous times in his adult life. The editor of this guide, Mark Smirniotis, has covered other personal financial products for Wirecutter, including travel and cashback credit cards, tax software, and pet insurance. Before joining Wirecutter, he ran multiple small businesses and used to do taxes by hand “for fun”.
Beyond our own experience, we interviewed personal finance experts about budgeting and apps:
- Amy Jo Lauber, a certified financial planner in Buffalo
- Holly Johnson, financial writer and co-founder of Club Thrifty
- Rachel Richards, author of Money Honey: A Simple 7-Step Guide for Getting Your Financial $hit Together
What is a budget?
In the simplest terms, a budget is the amount of money you expect to have, broken down into the categories you expect to spend it on. For personal or household use, that means totalling all your paychecks up, as well as different types of expenses, then breaking it into understandable and manageable chunks.
Breaking expenses down by category helps you prioritize spending down the road by allowing you to make better-informed decisions about what you are and aren’t willing to give up under shifting circumstances. At a top level, the goal is to figure out just how much your household is on the hook for on a recurring basis, in order to determine how much you have left over for discretionary spending—a financial term for treating yourself. By the time you’re done setting up a budget, you will know exactly how much you need to set aside to pay for necessities and just how much you have left for treating yourself to a massage or unplanned movie date.
An effective household budget typically consists of these components:
- Fixed expenses are unlikely to vary between months. These include things like rent, mortgage payments, or car loans, which are easy to budget every month because they remain constant. Some expenses like groceries or gas might change a little, but are easy to predict.
- Variable expenses like eating out and shopping, change from month to month based on circumstances and appetites. These are good areas to focus on when money is tight.
- Savings, whether in a bank or investment account, can be budgeted for too—if not right away, then aspirationally as your finances improve.
- Intermittent expenses, such as car repairs, presents, or medical bills are ideally also accounted for in a complete budget (with costs spread out a little over each month), but beginners can also just group all this into a discretionary spending category for the sake of simplicity.
The ultimate goal of setting this up is to achieve good financial fitness, that is, spending less than you’re earning. This can feel difficult or impossible at times, but you’d be surprised at how big an effect you can see, simply from knowing where your money is going.
Who this is for
A budgeting app can be helpful for people who want to make a budget, but don’t know where or how to start. Budget apps do the grunt work of importing and categorizing transactions, and the behind-the-scenes calculations needed to figure out averages and trends.
It can also be a good motivator for folks who have tried making a budget on their own but had trouble sticking to it. Signing up and paying money for a budgeting app, learning its systems, and checking in with it regularly can have a kind of “Fitbit effect.” A budget app can provide a series of goals to hit, and visual feedback on how close you are to resolving them. Leaving people with a sense of a goal unaccomplished creates a tension they want to resolve.
All of our picks are flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of financial situations and priorities—from young people with no debt, no house, and just rent and restaurant tabs to account for to households with mortgages, student loans, irregular income, and unknown medical expenses. But there are definitely people who have problems that cannot be easily budgeted. If you have significant debt, you may find advice or a consultant through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). Otherwise you might seek out a Certified Financial Planner—and insist on one who works on a fee base rather than commissions.
How we picked and tested
We gathered recommendations and suggestions for budgeting apps from Wirecutter staffers, through typical web and publication searches, and by asking Twitter (and getting nearly 100 replies). We looked into each app to see if it met most, or preferably all, of our base qualifications:
- Cross-platform compatibility (iOS/Android and Windows/Mac, or Web), because you should be able to check your budget amounts whenever and you shouldn’t lose a good budget because you switched phones.
- Syncs transactions from most major banks and credit cards, even if on a delay, so most people can avoid manual entry (unless they want that).
- Tools to import transactions from common bank data files, like CSV, QIF, and QPX, for those using credit unions or other uncommon banks.
- Offers support for questions about budgeting as well as technical issues.
- Some kind of guidance on first steps, alerts to problems, and other feedback, rather than simply agnostic number-gathering.
We narrowed down a list of nearly 50 apps to 26 by eliminating apps that focused on things beyond personal or home budgeting, like investing or “round up” saving programs that leave you unaware of your income or spending trends. We skipped over programs that had to be offered by an employer, too. Finally, we cut out those that seemed like overkill for an individual or family trying to manage their finances. While Quicken and its variants can do home budgeting, they have a steep uphill curve compared to even the most demanding budgeting apps and are sold as desktop software with yearly subscriptions (the worst of both worlds). That left us a list of seven budget apps to test, two of them being checking accounts with built-in budget features.
I set up a month’s worth of my household finances in each of them, tested Simple extensively myself, eliminated Qapital after further examination, and then assigned two Wirecutter staffers each to test the five remaining finalists. I interviewed other Wirecutter staffers, friends, and some people who responded on Twitter about their likes and dislikes of the apps we tested. Most of the apps we tested and eventually dismissed focused too heavily on one aspect or another of finances: debt, cutting spending, growing a savings account, and the like.
Our pick: You Need a Budget
You Need a Budget (often abbreviated as YNAB) is the closest thing to having a positive-minded professional help you make your own budgeting spreadsheet. Its open-ended setup makes it more adaptable and useful to people in a wider variety of financial and debt situations than other budgeting apps we tested. At $80 a year, it’s quite expensive compared to its competitors (more on that in Flaws but not dealbreakers). But YNAB provides the best guidance and attitude about money, priorities, and inevitable financial failings of any app we researched or tested.
Above all else, YNAB provided the best and most accessible help to newcomers. There is clear direction and friendly, motivational dialogue in the help sections in the app (always accessible in the lower-right corner), in the guides posted on YNAB’s site, and in automated emails that arrive to new accounts. YNAB’s emails provide tips on where to start (your electric bill and your rent or mortgage), how to deal with unexpected changes to categories (like hosting a big meal for family), and how to handle the valuable “Stuff I Forgot to Budget For” category. Other apps we tested similarly nudge newcomers along with emails, but they’re mostly aimed at pushing users to try new features rather than better understand how a budget should work.
Setting up YNAB starts with connecting the app to your bank accounts and credit cards (or, if you want to avoid sharing your logins with the app, you can enter your balances). Then you enter how much you expect to spend for the rest of the month inside YNAB’s pre-filled categories, or by adding your own. That’s it, besides some options and finer points for tracking transactions and budgets. Compare this focused money-in, money-out setup to Mint which requires jumps across balance alerts, bill tracking, credit score monitoring, automatically chosen budget levels, long-term goals, investments, and “Ways to Save” (i.e. offers from advertisers).
YNAB wants you to allocate every single dollar you bring in, whether in month-to-month expenses or longer-term goals (a certain amount each month, or a certain amount by a particular date). It seems daunting at first, but you can create a category named “Whatever” and toss any unaccounted funds into that pile, and learn as you go.
After you spend and earn some money, you check back into YNAB on either the desktop or mobile app. If you connected your accounts to YNAB, you click “Import” on your accounts and your transactions show up; if you’re working without third-party syncing, you either upload your transactions from your bank or card, or enter them manually. You match each transaction with the budget item you made for it (huge debit from bank = “Mortgage”). Then you check back in on your budget, and adjust. Green is money left in your budget line, red is overspending in that category, yellow is a long-term goal you haven’t funded enough to hit your mark.
As you budget, spend, adjust, spend, and adjust some more, YNAB has more useful info for you: charts, balance sheets, net worth trackers, and an ever-present counter for the “age of your money.” That last metric is uniquely visible in YNAB, and a helpful number to understand. Imagine putting each paycheck onto a stack of cash, and paying for things from the bottom of the stack; the longer money can stay in the stack before it goes out is the age of your money. YNAB’s version is an average, and the app makers themselves write that it’s not the end-all budget number, but it’s a surprisingly motivating metric to push you out of a paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.
YNAB’s core budgeting system is “Give Every Dollar a Job,” also known as a zero-sum or “envelope” style budget, where every last bit of your money goes into a defined category so you’re not left with any untracked cash. Apps like Toshl, Mint, and others are fine with you budgeting out your important obligations and leaving the rest as “Left to spend,” but that leads to months where you can’t afford a car repair because you upgraded your phone a little early. Nearly every financial advisor we spoke with, and every well-regarded book we looked through, suggests the kind of budget YNAB helps you set up: adding up income, listing your fixed expenses, tracking and averaging your discretionary spending, and accounting for every dollar—even “Fun.” You will get things wrong, sometimes drastically, but YNAB’s zero-sum system helps to prevent you from spending rent money on concert tickets.
The mobile app is where using a tool like YNAB provides the most benefit over creating your own budget with a spreadsheet or paper. It does all the same things as the desktop version, but is actually more useful in some important ways. Having an up-to-date view of your budget, right in your phone helps when you’re standing in front of a tough impulse purchase. It also lets you enter cash transactions and categorize them as they happen, which is a lot faster than having to add them after the fact. The mobile versions of our other top budgeting apps offered much the same kind of budget/entry, but YNAB’s zero-sum “voice” comes through in its app, and overall we liked the interface more than the other options.
When you categorize spending or enter a transaction that costs more than you have set aside, the YNAB app immediately asks you which other budget category you are going to pull money from to cover your overspending. This way, you feel the consequence of your spending more immediately rather than spending during the week and regretting it only when you check in on weekends.
YNAB’s zero-sum model has no opinion on how you allocate your money left after expenses, whether you save, invest, vacation, or put it toward retirement. Instead, its open-ended budgeting categories gently push you toward the broad goal of aging your money, rather than prescribing loose or trite examples like “dream vacation” or “nest egg.” As a result, most people are less likely to have it conflict with how they spend or get paid. Even the app EveryDollar, backed by zero-sum proponent Dave Ramsey, frustrated one of our testers by asking them to work toward an emergency fund, but not registering their connected savings account as part of it.
Another thing we like about YNAB is its ability to accommodate those who don’t want to entrust a company with their login credentials to banks and credit cards. You can use YNAB entirely with manual transactions or uploaded CSV files (your bank or credit card issuer should let you download CSV files of all your transactions).
Most of the questions you might have about budgeting, or how the app works, have already been covered in the Help Docs, on YNAB’s support forums, or on the YNAB subreddit. You can pose a new question to the forum, and most questions are answered by experienced users, YNAB staff, or a combination of both, usually the same day. Or you can click on the blue question mark in the lower-right corner, ask a question, and get an email response. We asked a question about a small interface thing (adding new categories while categorizing imported transactions) late one night and had a response promptly the next morning.
Who else likes our pick
YNAB has two kinds of fans: those who appreciate that it has its flaws but is better than what else is out there, and those who say that YNAB changed their entire view of money and saving. When I tweeted asking what budgeting apps to try, YNAB stood out in the responses for its users’ honesty and enthusiasm: “takes time and mental investment, but completely changed my relationship with money,” “takes some getting used to … but can be life changing,” and the like. A fellow Wirecutter editor and friends who used YNAB had the same kind of “worth the pain” stories to tell. Wirecutter science editor Leigh Boerner started using YNAB in mid-2016, and since then her family “has a lot more in savings than we used to.” While Boerner sits down with YNAB at least once a week, it doesn’t rule all her spending. “It’s more of a guideline for me, because I built it to be a little bit squishy. … It’s limits, with some leeway, which is just what I needed,” Boerner said.
Most publications’ reviews of YNAB are outdated, because YNAB 5 introduced automatic (if slow) syncing of bank and credit card accounts in early 2016, removing a major pain point for anyone who found it onerous to manually enter transactions. The new version is also web-based, which keeps it more readily up to date with your bank accounts than the older desktop version. Among those with more recent takes, Investor Junkie offers a pro/con breakdown that comes out in YNAB’s favor, praising the app’s security standards, dedicated focus on budgeting rather than broader financial health, and continued development and updates. Abby Hayes at the Dough Roller blog likes the addition of direct transaction import over previous versions, and the push to get people living off last month’s income—everything, really, except the price, which we’ll address next.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The big, obvious barrier to using YNAB is paying just over $80 per year for it. As of this writing, those with an existing YNAB account, including trial accounts, are grandfathered in at a $50 per year price. Newcomers get a 34-day free trial, and students can get a free year (see the pricing page for details), but after your trial is up, your account will be locked. Most other budget apps offer monthly plans, charge less, or are “free” with a lot of promotional offers. Even those who told us that YNAB helped them save hundreds of dollars and set their finances on the right path felt irked when it was time to renew their subscription—and that was at the $50-per-year price. Still, we think YNAB is the only app worth spending money on, even if it is slightly more than the nearest (paid) competition. For less than $7 per month, you get an app that makes it easy to establish good habits and is backed by a small set of dedicated developers that regularly update and support system.
Paying for YNAB also gets you synced transactions from your bank accounts and credit cards, though it’s not as near-instantaneous as with our runner-up banking app, Simple. Most budgeting apps charge for this feature, some more (EveryDollar, Mvelopes), some less (Toshl). While Mint doesn’t charge for syncing, it makes you and your financial information readily available to advertisers who will serve you personalized offers. YNAB syncs with bank and credit accounts multiple times per day, depending on how active that account is. In the first few days of using YNAB, we would sometimes be missing transactions from the previous day, but weeks later, activity would show up in a couple hours. If you’re impatient and need to set your budgets up before a transaction syncs, you can enter a transaction in manually, and when it comes through via sync, YNAB will see the duplication, label it, and not count it twice.
YNAB does not offer two-factor authentication for its accounts. Nearly every other aspect of the app’s security appears sensible—bank-grade encryption, a clear data retention policy, and regular third-party security audits. And you can use YNAB entirely without providing financial logins, if you import transaction files manually. In November 2017, a YNAB representative told us via email that two-factor authentication was “on the roadmap”.
While two people can use YNAB to share and manage a household budget by sharing a username and password (we recommend using a password manager for that), there are no considerations for two-person use built into YNAB. The company says it expects that couples will share passwords and create multiple budgets. But it would be helpful to see spending and income assigned to different people, or individual budgets set up for each person’s spending. If you intend to share budgeting and spending responsibilities with someone, you may fare better with a bank that accommodates that, such as our Also great pick, Simple.
Also great: Simple Checking Accounts
Simple is an online bank with checking accounts and debit cards, not a standalone app. At its core, it’s a standard US bank (BBVA Compass) with full FDIC insurance, just like bigger banks such as Chase. But it has enough budgeting tools to help you set aside money and track your spending without feeling like a whole new system you have to learn. The basic idea is that anytime you’re faced with an unplanned purchase (e.g. can you can afford to also go to the movies after having eaten out?) you can check the app and know just how much money is “Safe to Spend” without unintentionally detracting from your long-term savings goals (e.g. new car fund) and fixed recurring expenses (e.g. rent). This kind of “light” version of budgeting is just enough for some people who might not otherwise commit to the learning curve of a zero-sum budgeting app like YNAB.
Simple is free to use and there are no fees for banking with Simple (although its accounts don’t accrue interest). But in order to take full advantage of the spending tracking features, you need to commit to using the Simple Debit card for most of your purchases. This isn’t difficult, since it works as a Visa card and can withdraw cash without fees from 55,000 ATMs in the Allpoint network. But it does mean having to choose between tracking your spending and getting credit card rewards. If you’re okay with that trade-off, having budget tracking tools in the same place as your money makes budgeting as seamless and painless as possible.
Simple offers a tool called “Goals” for both month-to-month and long-term budgeting—you can create, for example, “November Utilities” as a $240 goal for 15 days out, while “Driveway repair” can be an 8-month, $2,000 goal. However far out your goal date, Simple carves up the goal and flags the proper amount you’ll need to save daily for each goal in order to achieve it by its target date. If you want finer control over the saving, you can choose to “Pause” the goal and move money into it manually whenever it makes sense for you, like the day your direct deposit arrives.
All of the money you set aside for goals is still in your checking account, and you can spend it otherwise if you need to, but the “Safe to Spend” amount displayed prominently at the top of the app decreases as you set aside money. That kind of loose budgeting and gentle guidance might be all some people need to start putting money aside, but you can also set it up to do envelope-style or zero-sum budgeting every time you get paid. When you spend money that you budgeted, tap the notification on your phone that pops up when transactions go through, choose the goal it came out of, and you’re done
Simple’s shared accounts are novel and particularly useful for couples, whether or not they want to share the work of budgeting. Each account holder gets two debit cards, one that draws from their joint account (but with a distinct card number), and one tied to their individual account, which only they can access. That way, each person can spend and save their own “private” money and also help set goals and keep track of the joint account. Money transfers between the individual and joint account instantaneously. Besides the freedom of having your own cash you can blow on anything, it keeps both people honest about what counts as an essential shared expense. It might sound invasive, but it’s arguably less so than using only a single joint checking account elsewhere. In practice, the arrangement feels transparent and honest, an essential ingredient of budgeting.
Simple has some drawbacks as a budgeting system. Since spending tracking only works on purchases made with the Simple debit card, the system sputters when trying to account for cash or credit card purchases. Simple can help you set aside money to pay off your credit card balances, but it doesn’t know how much you owe so you’d have to figure that out for yourself. And when it comes to budgeting, Safe to Spend is a fuzzy number: if you spend all of your Safe to Spend today, your Goals will have nothing to draw on until your next deposit, so you can make mistakes. If you need more structure than that, YNAB does a better job at enforcing the zero-sum mentality.
Plus, there are other issues that stem from Simple being an online-only bank. Simple doesn’t offer traditional checks, even through third-party printers—you need to use its online billpay system to send checks through the mail, or otherwise get a money order or keep another account open for occasional checks. All deposits are done either electronically, or using the Photo Check Deposit feature in the app. That means there’s no way to easily deposit cash (the best work-around is getting a money order and depositing that with your phone). One Wirecutter staffer and long-time Simple customer told us he’s always kept an account at a local credit union for access to other products like car loans, cashier’s checks, or mortgages. Another keeps a different online bank account open and transfers into whenever an occasional paper check, usually to a contractor, is needed.
How to make a budget on your own
Every single financial expert (who doesn’t have their name attached to an app) recommends creating and managing your own budget manually instead of using any app. Whether starting from scratch or using a template, a spreadsheet or just ruled paper is still a great way to get your financing under control. DIY budgeting eliminates the pain of having to learn a new system and fit your finances inside sometimes rigid categories or processes. The trade-off, of course, is the time spent looking up all your bills and transactions and manually recording all of them against your planned budget.
Using a DIY budget, “you can write out everything the way you envision it and makes sense to you,” Rachel Richards, author of Money Honey: A Simple 7-Step Guide for Getting Your Financial $hit Together, told us via email. “I truly feel that when you have ownership over the document, you feel more accountable to the budget itself.” Amy Jo Lauber, a certified financial planner in Buffalo, agrees and writes that a DIY budget allows people to better align their values and needs with the in/out cash numbers they see. Holly Johnson, a financial writer and half the duo behind Club Thrifty, wrote us that usually “people try to make the process too complicated” and wind up overwhelmed by apps.
Start with a blank spreadsheet or paper, then, as Rachel Richards suggests, gather your bills, credit card and bank statements (you could even use Mint to do this if you have a lot of expenses to deal with) and divide everything up into two categories, Fixed and Discretionary. Fixed includes things you cannot avoid paying: mortgage/rent, utilities, student or car loans. Discretionary expenses are things you have control over, even if they’re tough to rein in: food, gas for a car, shopping, clothes.
Not-fun things that arrive at irregular intervals, like medical or vet bills, can be added up by year or regular intervals and divided into a monthly average. From there, you know where your money is going, and you can figure out where you want it to go instead.
If starting blank is intimidating, some good templates and walkthroughs include:
- The PearBudget spreadsheet, a popular personal/home budget template (that was the foundation of a resulting app)
- The default spreadsheets included into Microsoft Excel (“Simple budget” and “Family budget”) and Apple’s Numbers (“Simple budget” and “Personal budget”) desktop/online apps have useful charts, tips, and projections baked into them.
- If you want some step-by-step guidance, Dave Ramsey offers a free download of his Monthly Cash Flow Plan, and a more comprehensive set of budgeting forms (also included in his book Total Money Makeover and its workbook companion) that offer just enough zero-sum guidance without being overwhelming.
- Writer and Club Thrifty founder Holly Johnson walks through her budget, and some stories about why she needs it, on her site.
What about Mint?
Mint is the most well known financial app. It can show you all your money, debts, bills, assets, stocks, retirement funds, and even your credit score on one slick dashboard. It has a budget section, which Mint builds automatically from looking at your spending and making suggestions, which you can adjust. From using Mint for years, talking to Mint users, and interviewing personal finance experts and reading related books, we believe Mint is very useful as a money tracker, but there are far better tools for actually budgeting.
Mint’s budgets are tied to the spending categories it tracks across your accounts. While there are a lot of categories available, you cannot create your own, and you’ll have to constantly check to see if Mint is correctly categorizing your spending, so that your budgets are in line. This is tedious, and from our experience, Mint will always get things wrong, even after a lot of training by a dedicated user. It’s unavoidable, in some ways, because merchants sometimes use very odd vendor names when they charge your accounts. Along with the uncertainty, this also generates a good deal of phone notifications or email alerts (“Unusual spending on Pets,” when, yes, you just had your dog boarded for a few days), which leave you either spontaneously anxious or feeling like Mint is crying wolf about your money, or both.
More fundamentally, fine-grain spending tracking only accomplishes part of what a budget is supposed to get done. You could feel great that you spent less on food delivery this month than last but not have enough total money left to cover your credit card and the rent.
Mint can be very useful in building the expenses side of a better budgeting tool, because it can patch together all your checking and credit spending, debt obligations, and more. It can motivate you to see your total net worth increase as you hit your budget goals and tuck away money each month. But it’s so automated, and focused on so many things rather than just budgeting, that you don’t feel compelled to add up your expenses, adjust them as you go, and check in on your progress. And the trade-off for the free account tracking is that you grant one firm (Intuit) access to all your financial accounts and allow it to pitch you things that may or may not be good for your financial health (credit cards, insurance, different banks).
This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendations or availability updates, you can read the full “Best Budgeting Apps and Tools” guide here.