I always thought of myself of someone who was pretty good with money. I only spent on essentials and considered my non-essential purchases very carefully. The only times our family spent more than we had in the bank were times when we encountered true emergencies. But unfortunately, a couple of years ago, that kind of emergency happened: My husband was unemployed for a year, and as hard as we tried to avoid it, we ended up going into debt.
Once my husband found work and we started to get back on our feet, I realized it wasn’t good enough anymore to just be “good” with money. We had to kill it in the budgeting department if we were ever going to pay off our debt.
For a while, I had a homemade budget that I kept in a Word doc on my computer. (Yes, I’ve heard of Excel, but I live in the dinosaur times when it comes to computer technology). I realized I needed to be more on top of it than that, so when a friend showed me one of the budgeting apps she had on her phone, I opened my eyes real wide and said, “GIMME!”
Like most parents, I’m on my phone pretty much all the time, and I knew that if I had a budgeting app tracking my purchases and sending me notifications, it would literally force me to be accountable for my spending. And I was right: After doing a lot of research, and testing out more than a few apps, I eventually found one that met all my needs — and it has honestly been life-changing.
But before I give you the lowdown on my personal favorites, I will say that there are actually a million budgeting apps out there, and you may find that one works better for your lifestyle than others. Lots of them are awesome, and they all have different perks depending on what your particular needs are. But whichever one you choose, just know this: THEY WORK. You may think you consider each purchase through carefully, but trust me — until you have to track each and every one on a daily basis, you have no idea how much you actually overspend.
Here are some of the best ones out there, according to parents — including one that’s helping my own family climb out of debt.
When I asked friends which budgeting app they used and loved, Mint was mentioned the most, by far. It has been around for years, and is absolutely free. One friend said the search function wasn’t optimal, but that was the only complaint I heard. Mint lets you create a budget and pay your bills. It connects to your bank accounts to keep track, and does so securely (Mint is actually run by the same company that makes TurboTax and Quicken).
The app can even send you email alerts when your accounts have been overdrawn, if you are out of budget, or if there’s any suspicious activity on your accounts. You can use it on your iPhone or Android, and there’s a desktop version as well. More than anything, it has a good reputation, and zillions of satisfied customers — which always counts for something.
Mvelopes digitizes the old school method of budgeting called “envelope budgeting,” where you pick an amount you’re going to spend in each category (or envelope), and if you go beyond that, you just stop spending. So for example, if you’ve allocated $300 that month toward eating out, and by the end of the month you have emptied your envelope, then you simply can’t eat out until you refill the envelope.
I know it sounds a bit brutal, but it definitely works in terms of keeping you to a budget. Mvelopes will connect to your bank accounts and automatically categorize your transactions for you (but don’t worry, you can edit them too). It can be used on iPhones, Androids, and most PC’s, and is free for up to 25 envelopes. If you need more than 25 envelopes, or want to link to unlimited bank accounts, you can pay $95 a year for the upgraded version, which also includes a debt management tool.
Dollarbird uses a calendar version of budgeting, where the interface of the app is a calendar that keeps track of your budget. Users say this allows them to see the “big picture” of their finances.
Here’s how it works: First, you enter your salary and your recurring expenses. Then, you track the day-to-day expenses that come up, on the calendar. (Side note: They have some pretty cute icons for your expenses, which kinda makes it fun!) It can be used on an iPhone or Android, but not a desktop. It’s also totally free, but you can’t link it to your bank account (you just enter all the information manually).
Christina, a single mom who works full-time and attends college, tells Babble that this app is her lifeline: “I love it!” she shares. “I like its ease of use and ability to track spending and help budget in advance. I could never use excel spreadsheets because I couldn’t look forward or access them on my phone easily. This app simplifies it.”
4. You Need a Budget (YNAB)
You Need a Budget (YNAB) only allows you to budget the dollars that you actually have, so you allocate money from paycheck to paycheck. It syncs up to your bank accounts, and then lets you move around any money that comes in as you wish. YNAB has special tools to pay down your debt, and charts your spending trends on colorful little pie charts.
Rachel O’Brien, a busy mom of three, tells Babble that YNAB has helped her family tremendously, and they no longer spend what they don’t have:
“We’ve been using YNAB since August and no longer end up dipping into reserve credit with every paycheck,” Rachel says. “It’s a little different than many budget programs because you only budget the money you have, so you allocate funds from paycheck to paycheck (like a virtual envelope system) but once you get the hang of it you can watch your money get older.”
YNAB is available for iPhones, Androids, computers, and can even connect to Alexa. It’s also free for a 34-day free trial, but then costs $50 per year.
5. Every Dollar
So here it is: The budgeting app that I now swear by. (And no, I’m not getting paid to say that.)
After trying out a bunch of these budgeting apps myself, I stumbled upon Every Dollar, and went to budgeting app heaven. It’s the app I have been using for the past year, and I am in love. If you haven’t heard of it, Every Dollar is the brain child of Dave Ramsey, a personal finance guru to many. It has a simple, nice layout, and it’s EASY (which is probably what I love most about it).
You set up a monthly budget with your expected incoming salary at top, and a list of expense categories you expect over the month. Like many of the budgeting apps, it connects to your bank accounts, so you don’t have to enter transactions manually (this ended up being hugely important to me). But what sets it apart from others is that is has a “drop and drag” capability, so you can see each money transaction you make (credit card purchases, cash withdrawals, checks cashed, etc.) and then drag them into whatever category in your budget you want to put them in. You can use the app with your iPhone, Android, or computer, which makes it pretty versatile.
There is a free version, but if you want the app to connect with your bank accounts (and trust me, you do), you can to upgrade to Every Dollar Plus, which is $99 per year. And yes, I know what you’re thinking after reading that. I admit I kind of balked at the price at first, too; but I have zero regrets, and the fact that I purchased it compels me to make sure I use it. The “drag and drop” feature saves me oodles of time, and I am certain I have made my $99 back (and more) by using the app.
I will also say this: Having to create a budget and then watch everything I spent come in was totally stressful at first. But it has definitely made me become more accountable and changed how I spend overall. But best of all, it’s helped me start to pay off a bit of our credit card debt, which at the end of the day, is totally empowering.More On