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It’s hard enough keeping track of this month’s bills, but also worrying about the long term is stressful. Most people never really know the answers to the questions – How much money do I actually need to retire comfortably? Am I on track? Am I over budget this week? So to help, I’ve put together a list of some of the best FREE money apps that are simple to use and will easily show you whether you’re on track this week, this month and overall.
You’ve heard the phrase, “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic“, right? It refers to people preoccupied with their daily habits while ignoring the big big picture. And that’s exactly how most people handle their finances. Spending just enough time to make sure this month’s bills are paid, but ignoring their overall financial health.
Retiring comfortably doesn’t have to mean becoming a financial expert, or even achieving a huge salary. It’s just a matter of simple, consistent action over a long period of time.
We use tools every day to make our life easier. Everything from coffee pot timers to Amazon Alexa. So why wouldn’t we use a simple tool to let us know things like:
- Is my budget on track for this month?
- Did I pay that electric bill already?
- How many years will I need to work?
- What will my income be if I retire at various ages?
- What if I were to bump up my 401k by 3%.
- What’s the best way to pay off $12,000 in credit cards?
Most people don’t bother trying to calculate these things. And many of us don’t even think to ask the questions.
We measure our progress on so many other things – losing weight, working out, or any project at work. But making sure we have enough money to last at least a few decades, is at least as important as any of them.
So having an app that’ll give us a quick heads up on this month and the next decade is huge. And getting them free is even better.
Here are four free or cheap money apps that might fit your situation.
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The Basics – Good ol’ Excel
If I’m going to mention free money apps, I’ve gotta mention good old Excel. The only bells and whistles with Excel are what you build into it. But if all you need to do is list your expenses in categories and auto-total them, Excel can do it for you.
If you’re disciplined enough to keep it up, Excel will show you whether you’re living beyond your means. And if you don’t want to spend the time creating your own fancy spreadsheet, you can find plenty of free ones online.
Excel Cost: If you’re a student with a .edu email address, you can probably install Microsoft Office 365 which includes Excel, free of charge through your school. Otherwise the office suite would run about $70 and could be installed on one PC or Mac and one phone.
Another free option, if you use a Mac is Numbers which is pretty similar to Excel and comes pre-installed.
But what if you want more?
What if you’re no longer a student, and there always seems to be more month than money? You’ve tried to cut back, but you can’t seem to get out of debt.
If You’re Hopelessly Stuck in Debt and Need Help
You Need a Budget or YNAB to it’s users, is a step up from pecking your expenses into a spreadsheet. It’s designed specifically to help you stop living paycheck to paycheck. It’ll help you to pay down your debt and give you tips on how to deal with unexpected expenses. It’s clearly laid out and really user friendly.
YNAB’s overall theme is that every dollar has a job. So it won’t let you budget for money you don’t have. It’s going to force you to live on the money you actually earn.
If you happen to get in a jam, YNAB will offer advice on how you can change things to get back on track. YNAB also features an “accountability partner” to help keep you on top of things.
You do pay a monthly fee of $6.99 to use YNAB, and if you’re wondering if it’s worth it, I’d consider it this way – if you’re really struggling and haven’t found a way to control your expenses, and this can help you save a few hundred a month pretty quickly – then it may be worth a few bucks.
You’re not on your own with YNAB. They include service and support, and even online classes with a live instructor. They’re all about helping you to learn some basic budgeting skills that’ll help you to start moving forward.
YNAB Cost: Free for 34 days, then $6.99 per month.
Check out You Need a Budget
If You’re Budgeting Ok, But Want a Simple App to Track Everything
When you talk about FREE money apps, Mint might just be the most popular. Maybe you want to be more responsible with your money, but you’ve never taken the time to really track it. You’re busy. And some of those financial apps seem like they’d be expensive and complicated to learn. You want something simple to use, clearly laid out – and Free.
Of all the free money apps, Mint stands out as an all-in-one, simple tool that’s a perfect start for getting a handle on creating a budget, tracking your spending, and getting insights about where your money is going. Mint enables you to track your bank and credit card accounts, and your monthly bills. And you can do it from your laptop or your phone.
Mint will remind you when bills are due, and even provide tips to handle your budget. It’ll also give you your free credit score. The big three credit reporting agencies will give you a summary of your credit, but they charge to get the actual score. And you definitely want to know your score.
So, here’s the main difference between YNAB and Mint:
- Mint is a free money app, and YNAB will run you $6.99 per month or $84/year. Or free if you’re a student.
- YNAB focuses more on your immediate expenses – like getting through this month. And it forces you to be more aware of expenses by having you enter many of them manually. It’s kind of an electronic pad and pencil to track your budget.
- Mint is more about your overall financial picture, and automating your finances. If you want to be notified if you’re about to go over one of your monthly categories it’ll do that. But you don’t have to calculate every penny. Mint will give you a quick snap-shot of your overall finances, or give you a quick summary of how your debt payoff is going without a lot of manual work.
- With YNAB, if you want to calculate your net worth, you’ll need to do it manually. It’s designed with less automation to encourage you to really drill down and evaluate every expense.
They’re both powerful apps, and will work well depending on your personal situation.
Mint Cost: Free.
Check out Mint
If You Want to Track Personal Finances and Investments.
Like Mint, Personal Capital is also one of the most popular FREE money apps. It’ll give you a quick snap-shot of your overall finances. But where Mint focuses on your personal accounts, Personal Capital also monitors your investments. It’ll connect to a huge number of brokerages so wherever your account is invested, you should be able to monitor it via Personal Capital.
Personal Capital bills itself as a way to develop your long-term financial strategy – you can calculate your net worth, set a budget, manage investment accounts, and plan for retirement. Their aim is to give you a quick picture of your current finances, but also give you clear info you can use to be in control of your financial future.
You can quickly scan your checking and savings accounts, your IRA, mortgage, home equity loans and your credit cards.
- There’s a Fee Analyzer which shows you whether you’re paying a fair price to your broker.
- Their Investment Checkup tool analyzes your portfolio and finds any quick improvements you can make to reach your long-term goals. It’ll show you a recommended portfolio for your personal situation that’ll maximize returns while minimizing risk.
- Personal Capital will use real data from your linked accounts in the dashboard to see if you’re on track for retirement.
- One feature I like is where you can assess the impact of life events – planned and unplanned – like college, a baby, or an illness. So you can evaluate your spending and savings habits and make changes before it’s too late.
Personal Capital is a free money app, but if you want, you can also elect to pay for a financial advisor. Their fee to manage under 1 million dollars is 0.89%. But again, that’s optional.
The basic free version of Personal Capital is a great tool to view your whole financial picture within one app. It’s also great for what-if scenarios.
So where Mint is focused more on getting your personal finances on track, Personal Capital focuses less on teaching basic financial skills, and more on managing the money you have.
Personal Capital Cost: Free for the basic app (which is very thorough). Or an advisor would run 0.89% for the first million dollars of assets.
If You Want a “Set it And Forget it” Emergency Fund
If we’re talking about free money apps, I’ve got to mention one of my favorites. Digit is a free app that you connect to your checking account. And instead of having to remember to deposit money into an emergency fund, Digit will monitor your account and do it for you.
But it doesn’t just transfer money arbitrarily. Digit monitors your deposits and your spending pattern. Then it’ll only transfer small amounts when it sees you can afford it. They guarantee Digit will never overdraw your account. And even though it’s automated, you still have full control over it.
Every morning at 9AM, I receive a text from Digit showing me my checking account balance. If I want to see why it changed from yesterday, I just reply with “recent” and Digit will reply with the last 3 transactions to hit my account.
Or if I wake up on a Monday and I know I have an especially expensive week coming up, I can just text “pause 5“. And Digit will suspend any transfers for 5 days, then it’ll text me the night before it resumes to let me know.
Everyone knows they should have a dedicated emergency fund, but lets face it – most people don’t. We try to keep a buffer in our checking account. But that’s no way to budget. The balance in your checking account should be more predictable.
I was amazed to see that after about 4 months, my emergency fund had almost $1000 in it. And wouldn’t you know it – I took my truck in for a repair that I expected would be about $300. But it turned out to be over $900! Thankfully, I had the money right there, and we didn’t skip a beat.
One of the biggest reasons people get stuck in paycheck to paycheck mode is because they have no emergency fund. Knowing that you have cash to pay for things like that is a comforting feeling.
So What About You?
What do you use to keep on top of things each month? A spreadsheet? Any of these apps? Scratch your bills on a cocktail napkin? We all seem to stick with what works.
But sometimes what works is what gets us through this month, and doesn’t necessarily look out for us long term.
In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the difference between urgent things and important things.
Urgent things might be answering emails, grocery shopping, or making sure we have clean underwear for tomorrow. Important things would be deeper activity like your relationships, your goals or your health.
He explains how we often get caught up in the urgent things and let the important things slide. In fact, if you have a to-do list on your night table or your phone now, it’s probably filled with urgent things.
Getting the bills paid this month would be urgent. But the important part is making sure that as the weeks and months tick away, we have a system in place that’s looking out for our financial health. Something that can tell us in a minute when we’ll be able to retire. Or what we can do now to retire earlier.
So I’m not suggesting you reuse your underwear or anything. But if you haven’t already, try pushing a few of those urgent things aside this week, and spend a bit of time setting up a system that’ll look out for you.
Do you have a favorite system that works for you? Or do you already use one of these apps? How are they working out for you? Let me know, I’d love to hear.