How much would you pay for a budgeting app that helps you save money in the long run?
As we did with the best free budgeting apps, we’ve created an overview of some of the more popular personal finance apps available for a monthly fee: You Need a Budget, Simplifi, Mvelopes, and Acorns. We’ll cover how they’re best used, highlight a few handy features, and outline the pros and cons for each. But before we get into the details of each budget app, we have to address the elephant in the room…
WHY SHOULD I PAY FOR A BUDGETING APP?
If you’re trying to save money, why would you pay for a budgeting tool when there are free options to choose from? It’s a worthwhile question—and if a free money management app works for you, by all means, carry on saving money.
But if you’re just starting out, or you’ve tried a free app and it just hasn’t worked for you, there are two main reasons why it may be a worthwhile investment:
- You can feel more committed to using the app in order to get what you paid for and avoid “wasting” the money.
- It’s possible that spending a small amount on a budgeting app will allow you to save more money in the end.
The bottom line? It’s worth comparing both free and paid options—especially with those free trials—to see what the best budget app is for you, starting with…
What it’s for: YNAB is built around four simple rules derived from the zero-based budgeting system. It’s the first rule that is most important and summarizes zero-based budgeting most succinctly: give every dollar a job. Rather than tracking expenses you’ve already paid, YNAB helps you live within your means by taking money you’ve already earned and budgeting it in advance.
It’s called zero-based budgeting for two reasons. One, you create your budget from scratch. Instead of basing your spending on the month before, you start with zero dollars in spending and decide how to distribute your income across your spending categories.
This brings us to the second reason it’s called zero-based budgeting. Anything extra that you’re not planning to spend? That gets assigned to savings. When done properly, every dollar has a specific role and nothing is unaccounted for. More saving, less splurging.
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Cost: $11.99 per month, $84 annually; 34-day free trial, 12 months free for students
- Set and track your financial goals—In addition to customizable spending categories, you can add goals for what you want to save and spend on a weekly, monthly, or long-term basis. YNAB also provides appealing graphics to track your progress for you.
- Free workshops and video courses—To help you get started, YNAB offers online tutorials about starting a budget and using the app. Even if you don’t sign up for YNAB, they offer 20-minute, interactive sessions covering a variety of budgeting topics on a daily basis that anyone can register for.
- Immediate savings—If you’re new to budgeting, you could save a lot when you start using the app. According to YNAB, new budgeters, on average, save $600 in their first two months and $6,000 over their first year using YNAB.
- Plan for your true expenses—Large, infrequent expenses such as holiday gifts may come once a year, but you don’t have to find the money to pay for them all at once. YNAB helps you earmark those expenses and start setting aside money well in advance, in addition to your usual weekly or monthly expenses.
- “Real-time” updates can be slow—Like many budgeting apps, YNAB can sync with your various accounts to update automatically. Some users find it can take a day or two to update with your latest transactions, however. This could be problematic if you think you have more money left in your budget than you have in reality.
- Pricey—All of the apps we’re going to cover come at a cost, but YNAB is the most expensive of the four.
What it’s for: Launched in January 2020 by Quicken, Simplifi is the top pick for budgeting apps by the New York Times’ Wirecutter. The app falls somewhere in between an expense tracker app like the free budgeting app Mint and a more comprehensive zero-based budgeting system like YNAB. Simplifi automatically categorizes your expenses for you and consolidates your budgeting “snapshot” to three simple buckets: income, bills, and goals.
Once you enter how much you earn, how much you spend, and how much you want to save, Simplifi spits out how much you have left to spend for the month. Not only does that number update as you get your morning coffee or Saturday night takeout, but you can see your upcoming bills and income as well, so you always have a handle on your remaining budget.
Cost: $4 monthly or $36 annually; 30-day free trial
- Spending watchlists—In addition to its simple snapshot, Simplifi also tracks your spending by category. Be it groceries, gas money, or something else, you know how much you’ve spent that month, how much you’re on track to spend for the month, your average spending over the last four months, and your year-to-date spending. You can also set targets to be more mindful of certain areas of your budget.
- Chat with a real, live human being—Sometimes, there isn’t an app for that. Simplifi provides access to coaches who can help you navigate any issues with the app.
- Monitor recurring bills—Any recurring costs the app doesn’t automatically find from syncing to your bank account, you can tag yourself. Similar to the free personal finance app Clarity Money, this helps you identify and cancel subscriptions you no longer use or need.
- Always know how much you can spend—Assuming you provide accurate information about your income and expenses, you’ll always know what’s left in your budget. By being aware of what’s left in your budget instead of what’s in your bank account, you’re more likely to set aside what you want to save.
- The best of both worlds—Simplifi is intuitive without being simplistic, and sophisticated without being complicated. The Goldilocks of budgeting apps, if you will.
- Simplifi leaves you alone—Not only are there no ads, but the app doesn’t send you constant notifications (unless you want them) or emails about how to use the app or how to improve your finances.
- No “low funds” alert—When your credit card bill comes due and you don’t have funds in your account, don’t count on Simplifi to warn you.
- Less help covering your overspending—Unlike YNAB, Simplifi won’t ask you which category you want to draw from to keep your budget balanced.
What it’s for: As the name suggests, Mvelopes uses the envelope budgeting system to help curb your spending and boost your savings. For a little background and budgeting history, the envelope system is named after the practice of parceling out cold, hard cash into actual envelopes. Each envelope was labeled with what the money was for, such as “Groceries,” to help you to spend what you could afford (and no more) until your next pay day.
With finances now digital (along with everything else), you can divide your income into virtual envelopes within the Mvelopes app to help you stick to your budget. You can link your accounts, as with other apps, and tag your purchases using your categories to make sure you don’t overspend. If this budgeting system sounds appealing, it’s worth comparing Mvelopes to its free counterpart, Goodbudget.
Cost: $6 monthly, $55 annually; 60-day free trial
- Planning tab—Depending on your pay schedule, you may receive more income in certain months. Mvelopes plots out your pay days and guides you through a “Monthly Funding Plan” so you know what you’re doing with each paycheck in advance and can use any monthly “surplus” wisely.
- Debt Center—This feature is only available if you upgrade to the Premier account for $9.95 per month. But if you’re looking to pay off outstanding debt, this extra tool provides specific help to show you how and when you can be debt free depending on which balance you pay off first.
- Quick and easy categorization—If Mvelopes hasn’t already automatically assigned a transaction to one of your spending categories, the drag-and-drop interface allows you to simply move an unassigned transaction into the appropriate envelope. Your budget for that envelope will update immediately. Whereas in YNAB you need to go into each respective account to see your various transactions, Mvelopes puts them all in one accessible place.
- Faster transactional updates—Compared to YNAB, transactions tend to show up in shorter order for Mvelopes users.
- Less appealing interface—The desktop version of Mvelopes may feel dated compared to the mobile version. Its reporting features are also less visually appealing, which could mean you spend less time examining your income and spending reports.
- No online bill pay or overspending alerts—While the app will help you create a budget, it doesn’t have these useful tools to actively help you manage your money.
What it’s for: Including Acorns on this list could be controversial (at least as far as budgeting apps go). Acorns doesn’t have the typical features to help you create a budget and monitor your spending. But when it comes to helping you save money, Acorns could make sense. Since being founded in 2014, it has made sense for over seven million users.
After you link your debit and/or credit cards to your account, Acorns uses a round-up feature to invest your “spare change” for you. If you spend $28.15 on groceries, Acorns would automatically transfer 85 cents from your preselected “Funding Source” (or bank account) into your Acorns investment portfolio.
These micro-investments are where Acorns got its name—“from acorns mighty oaks do grow.” So you can start growing your money without even thinking.
Cost: $1 to $3 per month
- Recurring contributions—To add even more to your portfolio and save for the future, you can schedule recurring investments in increments as small as $5 to make sure you set aside that money.
- Bonus investments—When you shop Walgreens, Chevron, or another of Acorns’ 350 “Found Money” partners, these brands will contribute up to 10% of your purchase toward your Acorn investments.
- Acorns Early—If you have children, the app also offers a family plan for $5 a month, which helps you get your kids started, well, early with their investments.
- Long-term planning that you don’t have to plan for—It can be hard to think about the money you’ll need 10, 20, 30 years from now. Acorns does some of the work for you by automatically setting aside money to invest for your long-term financial plan.
- Open an IRA—With a higher level subscription ($3 monthly), you have the ability to start an Individual Retirement Account under the Acorns Later program.
- Grow your knowledge—Acorns has partnered with CNBC to offer videos and articles from financial experts to help you save, invest, earn, spend, and borrow more wisely.
- No real budgeting features—While the app makes sure you set aside money for retirement, it doesn’t offer assistance when it comes to managing and maintaining your budget. It might make sense to combine Acorns with another budget tracking app in order to get the benefits of both.
- It isn’t $1 a month forever—Once you reach $5,000 in your Acorns investment account, the monthly fee becomes 0.25% of your investment total. That $12 a year becomes $12.50 a month (and counting) as soon as you hit that threshold.
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