Between checking email notifications, scrolling through social media and swiping left and right endlessly, we spend an overwhelming amount of time on our phones – more than three hours each day, according to a report from eMarketer. While plenty of screen time may be nothing more than an attempt to cure boredom, the smartphone in your hand can actually make you smarter when it comes to taking care of your money.
To get an understanding of the best budgeting apps, we turned to experts who know the ins and outs of money management. Here are the mobile apps financial advisers recommend to improve your spending and saving decisions and a couple of our favorites.
Top budgeting apps
If you’re looking for the best budgeting apps, Mint is going to show up in your search. With more than 600,000 reviews that add up to an almost perfect five-star rating in Apple’s App Store, Mint is arguably the most well-recognized name in the smartphone budgeting game.
Dan Herron, CPA, CFP, founder of California-based Elemental Wealth Advisors, says that Mint is one of his favorite budgeting apps because it’s “simple, straightforward to use and understand, and it’s free.”
“It will send you reminders about bills, overspending, low balances, tracking bills and other saving and spending goals,” Herron says. “It’s a great introduction to budgeting for those who are just starting the financial planning process.”
While Mint has earned a reputation for its ability to keep spending in check, Herron highlights that the app offers a range of other useful features including access to your credit score and a high-level analysis of your investment accounts.
Best for: Anyone looking for a free budgeting system with automated spending analysis and easy-to-understand look at your money.
You Need A Budget
If you know that you need a budget, well, you can download You Need A Budget (YNAB). Tara Unverzagt, CFP, founder and chief advisor of California-based South Bay Financial Partners, says the appropriately named app is an ideal solution for anyone looking to get control of their money.
“We like YNAB because it has flexibility,” Unverzagt says. “You can set up a cash flow plan, but if you end up going over budget on groceries, you can ‘borrow’ from dining out and still stay balanced.”
Unverzagt also says that the app can force users to “start thinking differently.”
“If you’re in debt or living paycheck to paycheck, it’s usually because you spend each dollar before you have that dollar in your hands,” Unverzagt says. “In YNAB, you can’t budget unless you have money in the bank. Don’t have money in the bank? Don’t spend anything until you do.”
Michael Kelly, CFA, CFP, equity analyst and financial adviser at Massachusetts-based Beck Bode, agrees that YNAB is the app he most often recommends, but he has a warning for you before you open it: Get ready to get to work.
“YNAB is robust, and that can be intimidating for some,” Kelly says. “It makes you assign a job to every dollar of income – different spending types, paying down debts, transfers to investments or simply put into savings. My view, though, is that the purpose of budgeting apps is to make people aware of their spending and if needed, change habits. This kind of change will always be a bit uncomfortable, but if one can put forth an effort and dedicate even a month to the app, they will see results. The app even lets you see how you track your progress toward goals over time.”
Best for: Anyone who’s serious enough about controlling their spending that they’re willing to spend on an app and put in the time to dig deeper into the app’s information.
Cost: $11.99 per month or $84 per year
Elliot Pepper, CPA, CFP, co-founder at Maryland-based Northbrook Financial, says that Personal Capital is a great app for anyone with assets to invest.
“There is a free version that has a pretty robust budgeting app with personalized assets allocation features,” Pepper says. “For a relatively low fee, a user can also receive investment management services through Personal Capital, so it is a nice way to keep your budgeting and investments all in one place.”
Kelly also recommends Personal Capital for the audience he calls “the DIYers.”
“It is more investment management tool than a budget app but is great for those that want to take on the investment world alone,” Kelly says. “It has a fantastic design and gives a very clear view of not only cash flow analysis, but a great portfolio composition breakdown. The visuals make things easily comprehensible, which can’t be understated.”
Best for: Anyone looking to go beyond daily budgeting with an on-the-go companion to manage an investment portfolio and maximize returns.
Cost: Free and a fee-based version for more sophisticated wealth management and investing services
More apps that can superpower your budget smarts
These three apps are the most-cited tools from the personal financial adviser world, but you’ll find a sea of other options for your phone. Which ones are worth considering? Here are two more that stand out for unique approaches to money management.
Managing a relationship can be tough, and managing money often makes it even tougher. According to a 2018 survey of more than 1,400 adults in a serious relationship conducted by Ally Bank, money is the biggest source of stress. Zeta aims to reduce that stress by getting budgeting buy-in from both you and your significant other. Instead of having the awkward conversation about why someone decided to spend $518 on face creams (take it from me, a writer who has actually had this conversation with his wife), Zeta is designed to keep both of you informed before the money is spent with shared and personal budgeting tools.
And if a transaction raises one of your eyebrows, the Memos feature allows you to ask questions. I find that the app translates to more productive live conversations, too, thanks to the ability to set goals and track progress.
Best for: Anyone who says ‘I love you’ and also wants to say ‘I love the way you manage money.’
Goodbudget is a reminder that what used to work before the app store existed still works today – with a few updates.
Before we all swiped and waved our credit cards and phones to pay for purchases, the world was built on physical cash and checks. Goodbudget leverages the tangible component of cash-based budgeting – allotting certain amounts of dollar bills to certain envelopes – to help users manage their money. The envelope system is simple: Set aside certain amounts for certain categories each month (think: rent, eating out, groceries). When the digital envelope is empty, no more spending in that department.
Best for: Anyone who enjoys the old-school cash budgeting system translated to the digital now.
Cost: Free or $7 per month/$60 per year for unlimited envelopes, longer transaction history and other features
You downloaded one of the best budgeting apps. Now what?
Installing an app on your phone alone won’t make much of a difference for your personal finances. Whether you download one of these tools or you opt for another app, you will need to do more than allow it to send you notifications.
“The key to any budgeting tool is to use it and try to be as consistent as possible,” says Elizabeth Buffardi, founder of Illinois-based Crescendo Financial Planners. “For example, if you shop at Costco, Target or Walmart, chances are you are buying a lot of groceries there. But, like any good retailer, they have other things to tempt you such as clothes, wine and household goods. When I do my budget, I call all Costco purchases ‘groceries.’ Yes, I buy other stuff, but a good 80-90 percent of what I buy there is groceries. Sometimes, when you start digging into the details (of groceries, clothing, wine, etc), the app or software gets confused and it may split the transaction in a way that is not correct.”
To Buffardi, the other key is to limit all those different categories to no more than 15.
“Too many or too few don’t give an accurate picture of where your money is going,” she says. “You don’t need a household maintenance, household improvement and a household general category. The key is to keep it simple enough that you will keep up with it and detailed enough that you can get a good sense of where the money is going.”