Family Finance: Budgeting Apps

Jennifer Wray
Jennifer Wray

In the years before our son was born, my husband and I were, admittedly, fortunate. Our salaries were modest, but so were our wants and needs, and we managed to do the things we wanted—travel, buy vehicles, become homeowners, eat out on a regular basis—without much worry.

That changed in late January when our son was born. Short-term disability coverage and paid time off provided us with a fraction of my income, but otherwise, my maternity leave was unpaid. Then came the bills for a Cesarean section delivery, and later, medical procedures for the baby's tongue and lip ties. Add in surgery for our dog and a car repair, and in short order our emergency fund was depleted.

According to a2017 CareerBuilder survey, 78 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. We were now among them.

Our casual system of budgeting and spending—shop for used items when possible, check in with each other on bigger purchases but not sweat the small stuff, periodically glance at our bank statements—needed an overhaul. As a proper Xennial (born at the cusp of Generation X and the Millennial generations) as well as someone who wanted to invest minimal time and money crafting a budget, I looked to apps to help us rein things in.

Here are some offerings I explored (all available on iOS and Android, and with desktop and mobile interfaces)—and the one that got me hooked.

WithYou Need a Budget, users build a budget based on income, assigning a job (categories like “eating out” or “clothing”) to every dollar, with the ultimate goal of spending money earned the previous month, instead of living paycheck to paycheck. Downsides: YNAB costs $6.99 per month after a 34-day trial, and it doesn't offer features such as investment reports or tracking.

Envelope budgeting is fairly simple: Put cash in envelopes for different categories, and when the envelope is empty, stop spending in that category. But if you're anything like me, most of your spending happens through cards, not cash. That's whereMvelopes comes in. The app's Basic version offers digital envelope budgeting with automatic transaction importing and syncing, interactive reports and weekly webinars, while the Plus and Complete plans add Personal Finance Trainers and customized options. Mvelopes' cons are similar to YNAB's: After a 30-day trial period, the software costs $4 to $59 a month.

If you prefer to focus on funds available for everyday spending,PocketGuard may be for you. It calculates bills, income, savings goals and expenses to show how much you have left. You can set spending limits (and notifications before you exceed them) and use hashtags to track spending across categories, or “pockets.”

Drawbacks: The app's free version doesn't let users track cash spending, and you're limited in how many pockets you can create. PocketGuard Plus, which allows for tracking one-time and recurring cash spending plus more categories, costs $3.99 per month or $34.99 annually.

For our sleep- and time-deprived household, the degree of “set it and forget it” capabilities provided byMint, not to mention its cost (free), made it a winner.

In short order, we connected our bank accounts to the app and added information about our home and vehicles to track their value fluctuations. Mint also has a variety of bells and whistles we have yet to take advantage of. For instance, it can track your credit score, help set savings goals and track ways to invest (as well as connect you with advertiser-supported brokerage accounts and other services).

Now, we can see exactly where our money is going (Mint automatically categorizes spending) and how that compares with previous months and our budgets. It alerts us to large transactions or ones that exceed our typical spending, and we can look at our overall cash flow or dig into the details. It's not perfect, of course. For instance, it's limited in how far back into our bank accounts it could go, so we can't presently compare year-over-year budgets.

Still, Mint has been instrumental in showing how small changes to our habits, such as limiting meals out and other “fun” spending, could make for significant savings. In just a couple of months, we've seen the benefits add up and our emergency fund return to health.

Jennifer Wray is a freelance writer and new mother.