A budget app is a software program that helps you create a budget and, in many cases, track your income and spending. Some even have advanced features to help you pay off debt, monitor your net worth, monitor your credit score, and automate your savings goals.
If you’re new to budgeting or looking for ways to automate your finances, a budget app can be a great way to do it. Here’s a closer look at how budget apps work, and how to find the best one for you.
Definition and Examples of a Budget App
A budget app is a software application that syncs to your financial accounts and aggregates all your data in one place at one time, so you always know how much money you’re earning and spending. Most budget apps can be easily used on your phone, tablet, or computer.
- Alternate name: Budgeting app
A popular free budget app is Mint by Intuit. It has built-in tools to help you reach your goals, track your spending, and monitor subscriptions.
You Need a Budget (YNAB) is a popular paid budget app. It’s based on the zero-based budgeting method, which requires that your spending and what you earn balances out to $0; every dollar is accounted for.
How Does a Budget App Work?
Most budgeting apps allow you to connect all your bank accounts, credit cards, investment accounts, and loans so you can see your complete financial picture in one place. This is a huge advantage over tracking your spending manually, which can be time-consuming and inaccurate.
Budget apps are proactive instead of reactive, too. You don’t just plan how much money you think you’ll spend this month, then review your progress on the 31st and groan about how you spent way more than you should’ve. Instead, a budget app helps you stay on top of your spending on a daily basis. As a result, you can make continuous adjustments as the days and weeks go by.
For example, Mint updates your connected accounts and transactions whenever you log in, and it classifies your transactions into categories. Through the app, you can see how much you’ve spent in each category relative to your budget for that category.
Most budgeting apps also offer features such as bill reminders, goal setting, and net worth tracking so you can see how you’re doing over time. If you find yourself in a difficult financial situation, a budget app can help you figure out how to cut back on spending and increase your income.
How To Find the Best Budget App
There’s an endless sea of budget apps out there. Here’s how to find the best budget app for you.
Identify Your Must-Have Features
Almost all budget apps sync with your financial accounts to import and organize transactions. But what other features are you looking for? List which ones matter most to you, so you can find a budget app that suits your needs.
If you’re looking to pay off credit card debt, you may want an app with a built-in debt tracker. If you’re looking to retire early, you may want an app that tracks your investments and net worth. If you’re saving for a down payment on a house, you may want a tool that tracks your credit score and helps you set savings goals.
Budget apps can cost anywhere from $0 a month to $14.99 a month or more. Some also have “freemium” versions where the basic app is free, but you pay a fee for premium tools.
It may be tempting to only look for a free budget app, but don’t underestimate the power of a paid version. The features and tools you may get access to could be the catalyst for the organization and efficiency you want to achieve with your budget.
For example, as of January 2022, YNAB costs $14.99 a month or $98.99 a year. This price may seem steep, but the app reports saving new customers $600 on average within two months of use and $6,000 in the first year.
Pocketguard, another notable app, offers a debt payoff planning feature that’s only available to paid customers.
The best budget apps use bank-grade encryption and technology to keep your data safe. They may also use two-factor authentication to access your account. These are all good security features to look for, as they help ensure your account information doesn’t land in the wrong hands.
Check Customer Support Options
It takes time to learn a new app. As you go through this learning period, solid customer support and active user communities are crucial for getting your questions answered quickly.
Give a Few Budget Apps a Try
At the end of the day, you’re never going to fully know if a budget app is right for you unless you give it a try. After doing your research, download a few that spark your interest and see which one best serves you and your goals.
Pros and Cons of a Budget App
Comes ready to use
Automates the budgeting process
Analyzes your spending habits
Comes with numerous tools and analytics
Can cost money
Some budget apps have steep learning curves
May have limited customization options
- Comes ready to use: In most cases, all you have to do is create an account, plug in your information, and get started. There are no formulas or reports to set up as there are with traditional budget spreadsheets. Everything’s done for you.
- Automates the budgeting process: Most budget apps sync to your financial accounts, so you don’t have to manually enter purchases yourself. The app pulls them into your budget as they clear your account, so you have a real-time view of where your money is going.
- Analyzes your spending habits: Budget apps give you clarity about your spending habits by organizing them into categories and trends. Armed with this information, you can more easily identify where you’re overspending, and how you can bring your spending back into alignment with your values and goals.
- Comes with numerous tools and analytics: Budget apps are jam-packed with tools to help you automate your savings goals, budget with a partner, pay off debt, track your net worth, and more. This data can be a powerful tool in helping you secure your finances.
- Can cost money: Typically, the more features a budget app has, the more you’ll pay for it. Some budget apps are completely free, others have free and paid versions, and others require monthly or annual payments.
- Some budget apps have steep learning curves: One major benefit of budgeting apps is that they’re ready-to-use platforms. However, this convenience can backfire if it takes you a while to figure out how the app works.
- May have limited customization options: Some budget apps are more customizable than others. You may find that certain apps don’t allow the level of customization you need to feel in control of your finances.
Budget App vs. Budget Spreadsheet
|Budget App||Budget Spreadsheet|
|Can cost money||Free to use|
|Connects to all your financial accounts, then automatically imports and categorizes purchases for you||Must manually enter and categorize purchases|
|Takes very little time to get started because budget formulas and reports are built into the app||Must be made from scratch. You have to set up the formulas and create the spreadsheet categories yourself—unless you download a template.|
|Can have a steep learning curve if you’re unfamiliar with the software||Almost no learning curve; just open up a spreadsheet app and get started.|
There's a good bit of debate about which option is better: budget apps or budget spreadsheets. The truth is, both are great options, but only you can decide which is best for you.
A budget app connects to your bank and financial accounts. There may be a learning curve at first. The main benefit is that it tracks and monitors your spending for you, so you don’t have to manually keep up with purchases yourself.
A budget spreadsheet is something you make yourself in Excel or Google Sheets. You may be able to find some templates online to help you build the framework for your budget, but you’ll manually do all the entering and tracking.
Tiller Money is a hybrid of a budget app and spreadsheet budget. It works in Google Sheets or Excel, but it has the added benefit of syncing to all your financial accounts.
Do I Really Need a Budget App?
Not necessarily. Some people get by just fine tracking their spending in a traditional spreadsheet or even with pen and paper. The goal is to find a method that works for you.
Don’t be alarmed if it takes some trial and error to find the right budgeting system. You may start with a spreadsheet, then decide it’s too much manual labor. You may try out a budgeting app or two before you find one that suits your lifestyle—and that’s okay. The point is to find a budgeting tool you’ll actually use, then stick with it.
- A budget app is a software program that helps you track your income and spending.
- Most budget apps work by connecting to all your financial accounts, then automatically importing and organizing purchases for you.
- A good budgeting app should be easy to use and give you an accurate picture of how much money you have available for spending each month.
- There are plenty of budget apps out there, so try a handful of them out until you find the right one for you.