The best budget app for 2021
The fallout from the COVID-19 crisis has caused millions of people to be out of work. Almost 40% of Americans need to borrow money to cover an emergency. Further, because the ongoing pandemic has disrupted so much of our day-to-day lives, getting one’ finances in order is harder than ever before.
Perhaps one of the most popular ways to save money is by adhering to a strict budget. Budgeting can help you meet a savings goal, shed light on your spending habits and help you come up with a spending plan that helps ensure that you don’t go over your spending limit. However, budgeting also typically requires detailing every dollar that you earn and spend. Tracking that can be exhausting, but it doesn’t have to be. Enter a budget app. These apps, which are available on both iOS and Android devices, help people track their spending and manage their money straight from their phones.
Since everyone has different styles of how they prefer to handle their money, the best budget app will depend on your spending style and saving goals. For instance, some apps (like You Need A Budget) foster ongoing diligence around tracking spending, while apps like Mint are more passive. Here’s a roundup of the best based on App Store reviews and personal experience using the budgeting tool apps.
Read more: The best tax software
While you can set and maintain a monthly budget in Personal Capital, it’s the culmination of budgeting, investment monitoring, and retirement goal-tracking that make this budgeting app worthy of a download.
When you sign up, you’ll include retirement-focused information, like your age, when you plan on retiring, and how much money you have in your savings and investment accounts. Once you link the accounts you want to be managed, like your checking, savings, and investment accounts, you’ll be able to get a general overview of where your money is going. The charts make it easy to track your expenses and cash flow from month-to-month. It’s a great money management app to monitor not only where your money is going, but if you’re on track to meet your retirement goals and other long-term plans.
Download Personal Capital.
Many personal finance budgeting apps allow you to link bank accounts so the app can track where your money is going. You Need a Budget (YNAB) does this but also gives users the option to manually add transactions to avoid linking bank accounts. This is helpful for those who don’t want to let third-party apps have access to their financial accounts — or those who prefer manual logging.
But if you do want to connect your savings account and checking account, you can. YNAB connects not only with major banks, but local credit unions and institutions as well. You can also add a credit cards and then immediately set a financial goal for it, like paying off your balance over time or creating a budget to include your entire balance.
After linking all your accounts you want to be monitored, you’ll give every dollar currently in your accounts an assignment. Rule No. 1 of YNAB is “give every dollar a job.” This means that you shouldn’t have any leftover money by the time everything is assigned to a spending category. (If you do, leftovers can go towards emergency savings, investments or retirement contributions. Or even fun things like birthday parties and vacations.)
The greatest difference between YNAB and many other budgeting apps is you only budget the money you have; YNAB doesn’t allow “forecasting,” or creating budgets for future incoming dollars.
It doesn’t just end with tracking your money; YNAB wants to make sure you understand the importance of financial management. They offer free daily workshops on budgeting, debt, credit card debt, building savings, and more, along with a rich library of educational resources.
After signing up, you’ll get to use the app for free for the first 34 days. After that, it’s $84 a year. It’s a hefty cost, especially if you’re already strapped for cash and need a budget app like YNAB to help get you on track. But hundreds of thousands of users swear by this app, with many claiming the savings from using YNAB far outweigh the cost.
Cost: Free for the first 34 days; billed annually at $84 or monthly at $11.99.
Download You Need a Budget.
When you’re looking for ways to “pocket” your cash, that’s what PocketGuard is for. It builds a budget based on your spending habits and lets you know when you’ve saved — or pocketed — the leftover money.
You can set goals, like lowering your bills or adding more money to your savings and investment accounts. You can also browse through other financial products to see if there are ways to save on your mortgage payments, insurance, or other loans.
The visuals are helpful, like the pie charts that let you easily interpret your data at a glance. You can see your income, upcoming bills, and how much money still needs to go towards your goals. It’s like YNAB but doesn’t have the same rich user experience. If you want a similar app but the price tag isn’t in your budget, PocketGuard is a solid backup.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a loyal Mint user for nearly a decade. This free budgeting app has gotten me out of debt, helped me budget for a computer, and gotten me to set financial goals (like buy a new car). It started out as a way to track my spending by syncing up with my banks, credit cards, savings, and loan accounts. Now I use it for budgeting, making sure I’m paying bills on time, and checking my credit score every week — a newer feature but one I couldn’t find in any other app I tried out.
The more I use Mint, the more the money management app learns about me. Still, I love that I can recategorize transactions that auto-categorize into something completely wrong. I also love that I can split spending transactions. Say you get some of your groceries at Target, but you also pick up home supplies and medicine there, too. You can split your transactions to put the correct amount into each category. This is available in YNAB, but that comes with an additional cost.
Since I’ve been using Mint for years, I can see my spending over time. As Mint learns more about you and your spending habits, you’ll be able to see where your money goes each month. It details patterns and shows you graphs by category (or at a glance) on where your money goes. You can compare months, too, if you’d like.
I also like that I can change my budget based on my spending. If I took my dog to the vet last month, I can add that category to my budget. But if I don’t go back to the vet this month, I can adjust that budget to $0.
While not a saving-specific app, you can use Mint for this, too. You can add “savings” as a category and then mark that transfer in your transactions accordingly. Mint also offers a space to set goals — like buying a home, paying off debt, or anything else you’d like — but it’s on the desktop version, not the app.
For basic household money management, go with Goodbudget. Before you had the luxury of budgeting on your phone, we had to take out a pencil and paper and write everything down. There was once a time where we would “balance our checkbooks” to make sure we weren’t spending more than the money in our account.
Even though those days are long gone, the basic style of budgeting isn’t. Goodbudget has you enter all your financial details — every transaction you make, every paycheck you get — and then helps you create “envelopes.” You never sync with your bank, credit cards, or any other accounts; everything is manually entered. You can sync your account with a spouse and other household members to stay on track.
These virtual envelopes are like categories in other budgeting apps. You’ll set a dollar amount that goes towards things like your home payment, auto loan, groceries, and more. But you’re limited in only 10 regular envelopes if you stick with the free version. The plus plan gets you unlimited envelopes and some other features.
Cost: Free; upgrade to Plus for $5.99 a month or $50 a year.
Now playing: Watch this: These apps can help you save some cash
If you subscribe to only one CNET newsletter, this is it. Get editors’ top picks of the day’s most interesting reviews, news stories and videos.
The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.