• Wed. Apr 24th, 2024

The 5 Best Budgeting Apps to Manage Your Finances in 2024

If you’ve been wary of budgeting because you weren’t sure where to start or the prospect of doing math was daunting, there are plenty of apps to do the tedious work for youno spreadsheets necessary. 

Using mobile programs for budgeting can also “help you visualize your expenses and start asking yourself valuable questions about how you’re spending your money,” says Jordan Benold, a Frisco, Texas-based certified financial planner. 

There are a lot of popular budgeting methods—such as 50/30/30, pay yourself first and zero-based budgeting—but for most people, the apps make it easier to stick to a budget and automating your personal finances can have great benefits, as The Wall Street Journal newsroom has reported.

The budgeting app landscape has changed recently with the shutdown of Mint, one of the most popular budgeting tools and Buy Side’s previous pick for best overall budgeting app. That has left millions of users looking for a new tool to manage their finances. With that in mind, Buy Side reassessed its list of the best budgeting apps and came up with some new additions, including a new top overall pick.

We based these picks on my average-person budget: I’m a married 30-something with one child in New York City and saving to buy a house. I spent a month with each app, testing capabilities and comparing features, and I consulted with financial planners to identify the most important app features. 

Here are the five that met our criteria for important features, ease of use, design, price and intuitiveness. We’ve also indicated which ones have made it easy for former Mint users to import transactions. If you’d like to read how we vetted and tested these budgeting apps and which experts we consulted, scroll down for more detail.

Best budgeting app overall

Cost: $14.99 a month or $99.99 a year.

Best for: Anyone looking to cut expenses and increase savings—especially couples or families.

How it works: Monarch features more automation and fewer notifications than other apps, which makes it appealing to those who don’t want to be hands-on with every transaction. Sign up and connect your various accounts, which can include checking, savings, credit cards, loans, investments, property, vehicles and crypto. Monarch uses the zero-based budgeting technique, allowing you to plan for every dollar you make. Based on your past spending, the app suggests budget amounts for various spending categories, such as restaurants or clothing. You can create savings goals and designate how much you want to stash away for the long-term each month.

What we like: Your income and expenses are laid out in a way that allows you to effortlessly see what you have left in your budget. Little emojis next to each spending subcategory are a cute touch with a functional purpose, allowing you to quickly grasp which category you’re viewing. Akeiva M. Ellis, a certified financial planner and co-founder of financial education company The Bemused, says finding an interface you like can be important. “Something that will help you be motivated, as opposed to overwhelmed and stressed every time you open the app, can definitely go a long way toward determining which app is best,” says Ellis.

Monarch’s transaction tracker allows you to sort your purchases into high-level categories (food and dining), midlevel subcategories (groceries, restaurants) or specific merchants to see where you’re spending the most money, which is a feature I haven’t seen elsewhere. The app’s auto-categorizing feature is both highly accurate and highly customizable, allowing you to create rules for designating future transactions based on merchant and/or dollar amount. 

Savings come first with Monarch. Just input your goal—such as paying off your credit card or making a down payment on a house—and target date. The app will create a bucket with the appropriate monthly contribution and stick it right on your home screen. 

The customizable main dashboard gives you a good look at your overall budget, offering widgets that let you compare this month’s spending to last month’s, view recent transactions, track your investments and see your progress toward your savings goals. 

Monarch allows you to invite other people into your budgeting platform, making it a good fit for couples or families. I invited my partner and she was able to easily add herself to my dashboard. 

Monarch has also made the transition easy for former Mint users, adding the ability to import transactions from the shuttered app using either a CSV file or a Chrome extension.

What we don’t like: At $14.99 a month, Monarch is one of the more expensive budgeting apps on the market, though the amount you save should offset this and then some. Also, you’ll have to poke around a bit to figure out where everything lives and what areas of the screen are clickable.

Best for zero-based budgeting

Cost: $14.99 a month, or $99 for the year. 

Best for: People trying to curb their spending who want to be hands-on with their budgeting.

How it works: YNAB, which stands for “you need a budget,” is a no-frills app that employs the zero-based budget system. You map out your expenses in detail, creating spending buckets and funding them each time you get paid. 

What we like: YNAB requires you to be proactive. You’ll have to take action on every transaction the app detects and assign it to its specific category, which keeps you mindful about your spending. You can easily input cash transactions using a prominently featured “Add Transaction” button that offers a searchable list of every vendor you’ve ever paid. You can also enter bills and their due dates and indicate whether they need to be paid monthly, quarterly or eventually. 

That means you’ll see where every dollar of your income goes at the start of each month, giving you a sense of control. “Some people really like that feeling,” says Jeff Farrar, a Wilton, Conn.-based certified financial planner. “The process can become a game: How much did we save this week? Where can we trim a few extra bucks?” adds Farrar, who teaches budgeting at Fairfield University.

Since YNAB only allows you to allocate money that’s already on hand, it’s difficult to go over budget. Each category has a progress bar that changes from yellow to green when it’s fully funded with cash (or red if you’ve gone over), so you’ll also know well in advance if you don’t have enough money to cover all your expenses. An impossible-to-miss “Overspent Categories” banner appears at the top of the home screen when you’re on pace to have a shortfall. Click it and you’ll be able to transfer surplus cash from another category in seconds. 

Importantly, if you use a credit card for a transaction, you can mark it as such, and YNAB will automatically earmark this amount for your next credit card payment. This helps ensure you’ll be able to make your credit card payments each month. 

YNAB certainly requires more attention than other apps. It’s only for those who are willing to put in 10 to 15 minutes each day toward budgeting. It’s probably more work than I’d be willing to put in long term, but the fact that I stuck with it for the full month is a testament to its smart design. There’s no better way to execute on the zero-based budget. 

Like Monarch, YNAB has made it easier to migrate from Mint, offering users the ability to import transactions, categories and spending targets.

What we don’t like: Besides the name? At $14.99 a month, it’s one of the highest priced budgeting apps out there, but you can save significantly by buying an annual subscription up front. Also, the process of linking bank accounts or cards can be tricky. When my credit card transactions didn’t automatically show up after a few days, it took an email to the support team for me to realize I’d missed a step. 

Best for first-time budgeters

Cost: Free for basic version; $7.99 a month, $34.99 a year or $79.99 lifetime cost for Premium, which includes unlimited budgets and savings plans, customizable categories and bill negotiation.

Best for: People who are new to budgeting or want a more hands-off approach.

How it works: You’re asked up front what your main goals are, which can include tracking your income and spending or saving for a large purchase. PocketGuard then lets you connect your cards and bank accounts and sorts your transactions.

What we like: Creating a budget with PocketGuard is intuitive. After it initially imports your transactions, PocketGuard asks you to verify which bills are recurring expenses so it can factor them into your budget. It then tells you how much you’ve spent on each category in the current month and allows you to set a budget for that category. I found this extra step—manually setting a budget instead of the app setting one for me—helped me feel more in control of my finances and made me more likely to stick to the budget. I was accountable to a number I set myself instead of one that an algorithm chose for me.

PocketGuard’s transaction sorter is smart. If it detects ATM withdrawal, for example, the app will ask you if you want to add the amount to your cash balance. Clicking a transaction brings up a range of options, allowing you to mark it as a recurring bill, change the category for one or all transactions through this merchant, or split a transaction between multiple categories. The app detects your monthly subscriptions—from internet to streaming services to satellite radio—and makes it easy to cancel the ones you aren’t using. Through a partnership with Billshark, PocketGuard will negotiate subscription costs on your behalf, which can lead to monthly savings.

The In My Pocket feature offers a helpful snapshot of how much cash you’ll have left over in the current month once all your expenses are accounted for. On this page, you can quickly view and edit your recurring income, recurring bills, and other recent transactions. Separately, an insights tab shows a pie chart of your expenses in each category and how they compare to the previous month.

PocketGuard excels in helping you plan for the future. You can create savings goals for emergency funds, vacations or any other large expenses and decide how much you’ll allot to them each month. Separately, you can set up debt payoff plans by linking loan or credit card accounts or manually entering them. I entered my student loans and the app gave me a helpful (if depressing) snapshot of how much I’d need to pay each month to have the balance paid off by a date of my choosing.

If you’re switching from Mint, you’ll be able to import your past transactions after downloading them from Mint to a CSV file.

What we don’t like: The free version is pretty limited. You can’t manually add transactions, so the app is essentially useless unless you link to a bank account. You’ll also need to upgrade if you want to be able to create custom categories or split a transaction across multiple categories. 

Best for budgeting app for couples

Cost: Free

Best for: Couples who want to integrate their finances. 

How it works: Honeydue allows you to link your various cards and accounts, then specify whether each belongs to you, your partner or both of you. There’s also an area for inputting split expenses. “Some couples really like to be able to see each other’s spending,” says Ellis. “That kind of visibility helps them stay accountable.”

What we like: Honeydue was designed for couples and nearly every feature in the app—such as income and balances—can be filtered into joint or individual views. You have the ability to connect to your various accounts and specify whether each is a personal or joint account. 

My partner and I liked being able to track the balances of our joint savings accounts right in the app. On the transactions page, each expense is color-coded according to its category and marked with an emoji indicating which partner made the purchase. You can comment and react to individual transactions, and you have the option to hide transactions from your partner, which may be useful if you don’t want to ruin a birthday surprise. There’s also a chat feature built into the app where you can leave notes for one another.

Honeydue includes a dedicated bills page where users can enter due dates and specify which partner should receive reminders about paying them. All these due dates are nicely organized in both calendar and list form. 

The budget planning page offers line graphs that compare the current month to the previous one when it comes to spending, earnings, and transfers, which is useful if you funnel money to different savings accounts. 

Honeydue doesn’t offer deep insights into your past spending the way Monarch does, and it doesn’t let you map out every dollar ahead of time like YNAB. But this is a good choice if you’re looking for an app that isn’t intimidating and can help you and your partner manage your expenses together.

What we don’t like: There are no built-in features that help make sure you’re staying on track toward your savings goals. If you want to set money aside for saving, you’ll have to enter it as a line item. And while the app is generally easy to navigate, the design of the main menu at the bottom isn’t intuitive: Some of the options you’ll need to click most often (bills, transactions, split expenses) are relegated to a “More” button. There’s also no option to import transactions from an uploaded file, which means former Mint users might have to enter some past transactions manually.

Best free budgeting app

Cost: Free

Best for: People who are just getting started with budgeting and don’t want to commit to a paid product.

How it works: Sign up and connect your various accounts, such as credit cards, debit cards, savings, loans, investments, etc., then insert some personal information. The app will auto-categorize your past transactions and access your credit score and history.

What we like: While there are a handful of other free budgeting apps out there, most require a lot of work on the user’s end, especially when it comes to inputting transactions. NerdWallet automates this, pulling and categorizing your past expenses. It has an advantage over Honeydue, one of the other free apps that offers this feature, when it comes to your bills: The app uses your past payment dates and amounts to compile your upcoming bills into one place, something that must be done manually on Honeydue.

When you visit the home page on NerdWallet’s app, the first thing you’ll see is a “weekly insights” box that presents useful info you can swipe through. There might be a pie chart presenting a visual of how you’re spending across categories like entertainment and groceries, a line graph that plots your spending this month compared with last month, and perhaps a reminder of how much you’ll owe in bills this week.

The cash flow tab presents a nice visual of your money in and money out each month. Click on the “cash out” option within any month to see all your expenses, then click one of the emojis to see your expenses listed by category. Within the “top categories” page, you can easily sort your transactions using the various filters; visualizing your biggest expenses at restaurants last November, for example, or your top transportation charges in all of 2023, takes just a few clicks. The page is well-designed and intuitive. One other small design detail: Unlike most budgeting apps, NerdWallet uses blue text and bars to represent negative cash flow instead of the far more alarming and common red.

The app’s net worth tab lets you see where you stand once you factor in your cash, credit cards, loans, investments, and property. Click each of those options to view them individually and how they’ve changed over time. The credit score page also shows you how your score has changed over time, as well as what factors are affecting your score, and how it would change if you took specific actions, such as paying off a certain amount of your credit card balance.

What we don’t like: While the app’s insights into your spending are deep and may change your behavior, the overall experience is more reactive than proactive. For example, other apps let you set limits for spending categories and alert you when you might go over; NerdWallet lacks this feature. Additionally, the home page features ads, and the “Marketplace” tab is actually a list of partner offers—but this might be expected from a free app. NerdWallet doesn’t offer the ability to import transactions from Mint or other financial services.

How we picked

Trust us

I’m a business journalist who has covered the tech industry for the past 10 years. I wrote about technology at Inc. magazine, where I co-hosted a bimonthly video product review show called “Inc. Tested.” 

We tested

Ahead of the review process, we spoke with six certified financial planners about their most trusted budgeting theories and techniques, as well as apps they’ve used. In addition, we scoured the app store and searched the internet for available apps, eliminating a few apps based on low customer scores and small numbers of reviews. We downloaded the 18 that remained, opting into the premium version whenever one existed. 

While using each app, we noted whether it offered various features and, if it did, how good those features were. Those features included: the ability to connect with various accounts, auto-categorization of transactions, automated suggested budgets, monthly spending comparisons, graphs and other visuals, spending projections, support, price and any other features the app offered.

We also took into consideration each app’s design, intuitiveness and ease of use. We noted whether the app achieved what it was meant to achieve—e.g. ease of use for couples or for using the zero-based system. Last, we considered how likely we would be to continue using the app once this review phase was complete. 

Our experts

  • Jordan Benold, Frisco, Texas-based certified financial planner
  • Akeiva M. Ellis, CFP Board member and co-founder of financial education company The Bemused
  • Jeff Farrar, co-founder of Shelton, Conn.-based financial management firm Procyon Partners
  • Greg Giardino, Tarrytown, N.Y.-based certified financial planner
  • Mark Rylance, Newport Beach, Calif.-based certified financial planner

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The advice, recommendations or rankings expressed in this article are those of the Buy Side from WSJ editorial team, and have not been reviewed or endorsed by our commercial partners.

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