Dolla Dolla Bills: Do Budgeting Apps Really Work?

As a twenty-something actually making a legit salary for the first time, you’re probably enjoying the ability to pay for those “important” things—like rent and food—without batting an eyelash. Then there’s that little bit leftover after all the bills are paid that you didn’t even know could exist, but how do you keep yourself in check? Is it possible to keep track of your money, pay the bills, and have a little extra for yourself?

Here’s where budgeting comes in. Budgeting is difficult. It’s hard to set a specific spending goal, keep track of every little thing you buy, and mentally compartmentalize what “category” it’s going in to. Though I admittedly have a poor concept of budgeting, I like to think that I have a decent balance of spending and saving. Nevertheless, I set out to see if an app would help me keep track of my expenses and help me realize where I need to tighten the belt a little and where I can let loose. Of course, there are tons of apps claiming to do just that. After narrowing the options down to MintWally, and Spending Tracker (all free options, I said I was on a budget, didn’t I?), I set out for a month of documented expenses to see if having my purchases accounted for would make me more fiscally responsible.

For each app, I created a hypothesis (gettin’ a little scientific method here, tbt to 7th grade), documented my first thoughts, and provided a final analysis complete with ratings out of five.

Bring on the budget.

Mint 

I started Mint by breaking down my expenses into what I’m most likely to spend money on: Travel/Gas, Alcohol/Bars, Restaurants, Shopping, and Books.

Hypothesis: Out of the three apps I’ve used, Mint is the only one I had previously heard of and considered downloading. I think the neat, concise graphs they provide will prove useful.

First thoughts: Mint is pretty. Really, the app is bright and displayed nicely, and while that may not necessarily make it good for finances, it made me want to keep rechecking it (if only to look at the pretty colors).

The overview tab is great to get a broad view of everything, while the transactions page lets you view each individual purchase. You can also set up notifications if you’re starting to exceed your budget in a particular area. I went a little over my budget because I needed (i.e. had been pining over) some new makeup brushes and there were some holiday gift purchases in this round that I wouldn’t consider part of my usual spending.

Conclusions: Overall, my hypothesis was mostly confirmed. The color-coded graphs were easy to read and interpret. I love that it shows your income too; linking it up to my bank account made it easy to see what I was making the second my check was deposited. It also shows any interest you earn, gives you the option to sign up for financial advice, and lets you know how quickly you’re approaching your budget for each category. Out of the three, it was the only one to email me weekly statements of my spending and how I was doing with my budget.

However, I found that things were often placed in the wrong category. For example, any time I went to a bar, it automatically placed it in the restaurant tab. Understandable, but I wanted it grouped with alcohol and had to delete it and re-enter it manually. I did feel like it lagged as well. I was expecting it to be very real-time, that the second I spent a dollar, it would pop up. But it took a day or two and that made it harder to determine what I could spend. It also did poorly when it came to returns. For example, I returned the $107 seen here and still haven’t seen that taken off my financial chart (I also have absolutely no idea what “home phone” means and never set that as a category).

Rating: 

Spending Tracker

Hypothesis: The app got 4.5 stars on the App Store, so I’m expecting something good, though I already don’t like the way it’s set up from the brief glance before downloading.

First thoughts: Spending Tracker’s overview is set up to look like a chalkboard—white text on black background in very juvenile font. While I don’t like the user interface, the color-coding is effective and makes it easy to read where your expenses are going.

You also have to rotate the phone to see the reports, which I really wasn’t about, though I do like that you can view your expenses daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. It’s very easy to use and has the ability to send reports straight to Dropbox.

Conclusion: There were a lot of categories, which is great, but this app overall was just too beta. It was very finicky and only included one of my purchases whereas the other apps documented all of them, and it listed it more than once. When I went to delete one, it deleted all the others. There were also far too many pop-ups to upgrade the app. This was extremely frustrating and annoying. Seems like there’s a lot of bugs that need fixing to make this useable. The best thing about it was being able to export your expenses as a PDF or CSV as if you were keeping track of them on a computer or in Excel.

Rating: 

Wally

Hypothesis: After researching Wally, I was excited to see how it would stack up against Mint. I guessed that it would similarly prepare a budget for me and group accordingly, but be harder to read than Mint.

First thoughts: Again with the COLORS. Wally color-codes each day of the week, making it easy to see how and where you’re spending the most.

I really liked that you could take a picture of a receipt or price tag with their “InstaScan” feature and upload it to the category of your choosing. This is so important if you’re someone who doesn’t like to carry around (or instantly loses) every receipt you ever get. Purchases are also easily added to your overview tab, showing how much you overspent for a day, a week, a month, etc. based on your previously set budget, and the app updated almost immediately.

Conclusion: Despite the app’s promise to be a “seamless, intuitive money tracker,“ I found set up to be an issue in and of itself. Maybe it’s just me, but once I accidentally
pressed continue without linking my bank account, it was nearly impossible to find the space to add it. In fact, I ended up just deleting the entire app and re-downloading it with a new username and email—both a pain in the ass and giant waste of time.  I also experienced crashes mid-documenting the spending of the day and found that the calendar can be finicky when it comes to switching between dates.

As neat as it is to be able to group everything and see it displayed in multiples ways (pie charts, bar graphs, etc.), too much of a good thing can go wrong. Sometimes I felt that there was an overwhelming amount of things going on from my main screen and would have preferred things to be broken up a little bit more.

Rating: 

Final Conclusions:

Budgeting apps can work—if you put in the effort and stick to it. While I can definitely see where a budgeting app can keep you on track, this way of documenting my spending habits is just not for me. Besides not being able to track cash spent on most of them, I found myself thinking of this as more of a chore than something to help me keep a budget.  

Though I preferred the user interface of Mint and how easily it linked up to your checking and savings account, I was drawn to Wally. Despite my initial problems starting out with it (and let’s be honest, I was too quick to skip through all the startup instructions leading to my confusion), the InstaScan feature really sold me. Young professionals are often so busy that taking the time to manually implement everything you used cash on seemed like a colossal waste of time. Snapping a pic that instantly populated to the correct sections was easy and saved time.

I wish that at least one of the apps was compatible while offline. During my month o’ budget apps, I had to travel across the country and found myself with limited WiFi or data at points. If I had a simple Google doc or Excel sheet, I could have easily added my purchases in; however, I found myself forgetting what I bought and having to track back through my receipts (if I used cash) or my bank statements to add it in.  Something as simple as adding in purchases (even if that means foregoing the instant connection while offline) could be very useful when traveling or in an area with limited service.

Overall, I think if you have the patience to keep every receipt you get (or have incredible memory skills), documenting your expenses on an Excel sheet is the best way to see your money and edit it if you make a return. Point blank: budgeting apps may help you see where you’re spending the most, but it’s really up to your self-control and discipline to stick to your financial plan.

Feature photo: TaxCredits.net/ VIA Flickr