You’re in debt.
It feels like you’re drowning in rivers of debt collection notices, in-the-red bank statements and monthly mortgage, student loan and vehicle obligations.
Or maybe you’re making a concerted effort to save for a down payment on your dream house while socking away money for retirement, paying the rent and putting food on the dinner table.
Either way, chances are you could benefit from a little organization, restraint and budgeting. I know — budgeting is tough. Maybe you tried it out for a while, but it fell apart when you did a double-take passing that Cinnabon cart or saw a pair of gorgeous navy-and-cream-striped pointy-toe pumps.
But thanks to the Internet, budgeting — like ordering lunch online, having a pen pal or watching cat videos — has gotten a lot easier. There are great online tools that can help you organize your financial accounts, learn to control your spending habits and take full advantage of your income. The best part is they’re cheap or free, easy to use, secure and convenient.
I tested some of the most popular online money-management tools the Internet has to offer: Mint, YNAB, Mvelopes and Check. Each offers a different philosophy for the best way to organize your finances, but all offer safe, secure and convenient methods for tracking your expenses. It’s just a matter of finding the platform that fits you best.
Let’s start with my favorite:
What does it do? Mint consolidates all of your bank accounts, lines of credit, loans, assets, liabilities and investments into one place. It syncs with your bank account, keeping track of everything you spend and everything you earn based on the transactions from your bank and using the same security software as your bank. It also keeps track of your spending habits by putting clean labels and quick summaries on those transactions. Let’s say you buy a flat-screen TV for $300 using a credit card. The charge shows up immediately on your Mint.com mobile app and/or website, and Mint categorizes it in the entertainment section of your budget. You also have the option to label the purchase yourself under a different category. Once labeled, you can see how that expenditure fits into the budget you have set for yourself.
Who’s it for? For the laid-back family — people who don’t have a lot of time to budget but who still want to keep track of money coming in and going out.
Pros: It’s free, easy to set up and completely in your hands. This option is the biggest bang for your buck — and by “buck” I mean zero bucks. It gives an easy-to-understand overview of all of your accounts and investments in one place for a quick summary of your overall financial health.
Cons: Some reviewers suggest Mint occasionally mislabels payments, but I have yet to experience that. Also, while Mint tracks your budget and spending habits, the structure does not truly allow for budgeting the next month’s costs. Mint also provides suggestions for saving money on everything from a different credit card that’s more in line with your spending habits to lower rates on home loans — some are useful, others feel more like advertisements.
YNAB (You Need a Budget)
What does it do? At youneedabudget.com, you’ll find a slightly different take on budgeting. YNAB asks its users to assign every dollar a job. Let’s say you have $1,000 in your account. You may think, “Wow, that’s a bunch of money!” But YNAB asks you to assign each of those dollars a certain job in advance — like $200 for groceries, $30 for eating out, $250 for gas, $220 for utilities and $300 on a car payment. After you’ve done that, you realize, “Actually, all of my money is accounted for, so I can’t keep spending money on anything else.” After applying this principle for a few months and saving enough for a rainy day, YNAB has this goal for you: To live on last month’s income. The program asks you to take look ahead at what costs are coming in the next few weeks and months and make sure those costs are planned in your budget. According to YNAB, this approach has helped people change their spending habits for the better.
Who’s it for? For the industrious family — people who want to take a hands-on approach to their money. What you put into it is what you get out.
Pros: The software does not sync up to your bank account, forcing you to enter transactions manually. This may sound like a con, but the idea is that each user should be their own accountant and be responsible for creating a budget and strictly following it. YNAB also allows for secure budgeting on your home server and provides a guarantee of quality service.
Cons: YNAB requires an all-up-front cost, and it does require a greater commitment of time and energy.
Cost: $60, which includes live classes and tech support (there is a 34-day free trial)
What does it do? Mvelopes is a modern, digital version of the traditional envelope budgeting system. You create budget categories represented by small envelope icons and fund them each month with money from your income. Once all the money in an envelope is spent, you must stop spending on that category or transfer money from another envelope. The interface provides an overview of how much money is in each envelope that you can easily reference through a browser or mobile app. Like Mint, Mvelopes syncs up with all your bank accounts. It prompts you to assign new transactions to an envelope and provides data on income and spending habits. It also offers budget-coaching and tips for saving money — for example, creating an envelope you can use to save for a dream vacation by putting money into it each month. The site promises savings up to 10 percent per month if you stick to your goals.
Who’s it for: For the neo-traditional family — people who want to use that old envelopes style on a new-age digital platform.
Pros: Mvelopes allows you to budget your future income and helps you set financial goals. The traditional budgeting method of putting money into envelopes has worked well for decades — we shouldn’t stick up our noses at the thought of doing it digitally.
Cons: Mvelopes isn’t as comprehensive as Mint, and some customers complain about technical glitches. If the web design were cleaner, I would be a big fan of Mvelopes. For now, I’m just a casual fan.
Cost: The basic version is free and allows for four online bank accounts and 25 spending envelopes. Mvelopes will consistently remind you about its premier package, which costs $9.95 per month and allows for more accounts and envelopes.
Check2 comments on this story
What does it do? Check is a strictly mobile application from Pageonce that focuses on two goals: easy bill pay and keeping track of multiple accounts. Essentially, it’s an app that tracks how much money you have and when you need to pay bills each month. You can pay bills directly from the app, or just set up reminders to make those payments. Check is essentially a reminder tool for your aggregated bank and checking accounts — one username and one password for all of your financial accounts. The platform is popular, with more than 10 million downloads. The home page has three sections: bank and investment accounts, your bills and your credit cards.
Who’s it for? The mobile family — people who have no time for a desktop.
Pros: Check boasts bank-level security, encryption codes and boasts more than 10 million downloads. It’s simple and doesn’t promise too much.
Cons: It doesn’t provide ways to create budgets or financial goals. Also, watch out for transaction and service fees should you not pay bills a couple days early (the payments need time to process).