Budgeting has come a long way since my first Excel spreadsheet budget that I used back in college. I had all the line items, the amount budgeted, and I could enter each item I bought and the macro would subtract it from the amount budgeted. And really, back in 2003 that was super fancy for me.
But then all these new websites were created that allowed you to manage your budget online and enter transactions in a easy to use interface, way less clunky than entering 100 columns in the Excel spreadsheet. And with the advent of smartphones these sites could sync to your phone so you could tell at a glance when you are at the grocery store just how much you have left to spend on groceries.
The first online budget tool I switched to was the Easy Envelope Budget Aid (EEBA) which renamed itself to Goodbudget. I liked this because it was free (and I’m always looking for free), easy to use, gave me a lot of envelopes to use in the free version, rolled from month to month, allowed me to list my income and purchases separately, and the app was made to sync with two phones so my husband and I could both use it (note: I could never get him to use it so there goes that idea).
Around the beginning of 2017 I switched to Dave Ramsey’s free EveryDollar app. I like the interface and it is easy to use, plus I liked that it would track my debt balances as well. Turns out that it doesn’t subtract the debt payments and update the balances the way that I would like it to (annoying, I know), but I am still using it because it otherwise is working for me. I like that it also shows me the percentages of my income I am allocating to categories of spending, like home, lifestyle, food, etc.
So what are you looking for in an online budgeting tool and how do you choose the right one for you? There are way too many sites and apps out there and it can be a real time commitment to switch budget tool platforms and enter in all of your budget information, only to find that its not the right fit for you and is missing a key functionality that you are looking for.
First, make a paper budget. Write everything down that you make, everything that you spend, all your debts, everything. Budget every dollar and if you have anything “left over”, allocate that to savings cause that’s the responsible thing isn’t it? (or just buy yourself some ice cream, I won’t judge) If you have to write it all down in a Word document or a spreadsheet, that’s ok and totally not cheating. The goal here is to get your data points.
Then ask yourself what functionality you need and how you want to use it. Key questions are
1. Am I willing to pay for an online budgeting tool/app? If so, how much?
2. Do I want to sync the app to my bank account?
3. Do I need multiple users to use the account?
4. Am I tracking funds from several bank accounts? Does that include tracking investments?
5. How often am I paid and does this tool account for that?
6. What is my goal with budgeting?
For me, I am not willing to pay for an app because I am both broke and cheap. (Honestly, I think I have bought one single app in my life and it is to make cutesy baby pictures with little drawings on them. Priorities people).
I do not want an app to sync to my bank account because I don’t need another site that has access to my bank account (hackers are everywhere) and, most importantly, I want to be in control. Yes, it is more time consuming but I prefer to enter each line item and allocate it to each budget category. That also makes me be aware of each thing I am spending on as I want to know where each dollar is going and not just general percentages (see #6 also).
Despite my best
nagging efforts, my husband does not access our budget directly and instead I give him updates verbally and show him the site from my computer. That seems to work best for us.
I track funds from multiple bank accounts since we pay bills and spend from my personal account and our joint account. I used to have two different accounts at GoodBudget for each bank account but that became annoying. When I switched to EveryDollar I consolidated it and track both in the same budget. It may be a bit complicated but it works for me. Yes, I have some investments. No, I do not track them on a budget app. Maybe one day but I haven’t gotten there yet.
Some budget apps are set up to allocate your funds as they come in, some are set up for a lump sum once or twice a month. You need to see which kind works for you based on how your income comes in. I get paid in bi-weekly paychecks but also receive payments from mystery shopping throughout the month. So I set up a budget that puts me in the negative at the beginning of the month and as the funds come in it puts me back in the black.
My budget goals are to track every single penny to make sure we stay within our tight budget and to track our payments on debts so I can see the progress we are making (gotta get any encouragement I can get!). If you are looking for general stats on how you spend and don’t care to track each penny you don’t need to be a scrupulous in budget tracking as I am.
Once you have figured out what you want and don’t want in an online budget tool, check out Review.com’s Personal Finance Software reviews. They have reviewed 42 different personal finance software tools, most of which are online. They give you quick summaries of each and tell you their top picks and why. Not every personal finance software is listed on there but its a great place to start. Spoiler alert: their top pick is Mint, which I have heard many good things about. I always thought you had to pay for it but apparently its free so I’m gonna give it and some of Review.com’s other top contenders a try.
Finally, and most importantly, stick with it. Try out the budget tool you select for about two months. Does it work for you? What do you like and dislike? Take that feedback and select a new tool that may be a better fit. But whatever you do, keep on tracking your budget. Even if you log off and keep it all on paper, keep on tracking so you stay on top of your finances. I feel much calmer and happier when I am current with my budget as I know where I stand financially, what I can and cannot spend money on right now, and I know that I am on a path to squirrel away money for a rainy day and can see the sometimes frustratingly slow progress to pay off my debts. Good luck to you my fellow budgeters! I hope you get the same positive benefits out of budgeting that I do.