Technology is changing how we handle money.
When I got my first bank account as a kid, I had a little passbook with my balance history stamped in it. There were no debit cards. And certainly no iPhone apps. And that was less than 20 years ago.
Ten years ago, online banking started to emerge, but few people trusted it.
Five years ago, I wrote about new personal finance manager software programs like Mint.com that would replace manual budgeting with a snapshot of all of your accounts in one place. But adoption was slow. This comment was typical:
…I am concerned about privacy and do not like having my financial information stored on more servers than necessary. Partially because of these concerns, I’ve elected to use money management systems stored locally on my own computers.
Now, Mint.com has more than 7 million users. Intuit bought Mint in 2010 for $170 million and has been investing in technology and growing Mint’s user base ever since.
Times are changing. Personal finance software is becoming commonplace. Today, there are a lot of able Mint alternatives. Most of them, like Mint, are free.
Here, we pit Mint against three alternatives: Personal Capital, HelloWallet, and PowerWallet. When we first published this piece we had also included two relatively different personal finance managers — Adaptu and Manilla — that we liked. Unfortunately both have since closed. We also featured HelloWallet, a solid personal finance manager as well. HelloWallet is still around but offered exclusively through employers to its employees.
Mint was the first free personal finance manager software to attract a critical mass of users, and, a couple years ago, the best.
Mint’s greatest strength is how the program takes your transaction histories from multiple checking accounts and credit cards and automatically categorizes purchases. Mint then shows you—in a list or colorful graphs—where you’re spending your money. You can also create budgets and have Mint alert you when you exceed the monthly limits you set in each category.
Mint also offers investment tracking, goal setting, mobile apps and integrated product recommendations. (For example, if you bought sunglasses, Mint might show an ad for other fashion accessories under that transaction.)
Mint is free and powerful software, but it’s designed to be everything to everyone which, in my opinion, makes it a bit clunky.
- Large user based and fully-developed features
- Budget feature sends alerts if you spend too much in a category
- Occasional pop up ads and product recommendations
- Failed to automatically categorize my investments
- Cluttered interface
Personal Capital is another personal finance manager newcomer showing potential. In fact, after trying Personal Capital I’m hooked on their investment feature because it does the best job automatically figuring my total asset allocation across all of my investment accounts. (The screenshot below shows just one of the ways you can view your entire portfolio with Personal Capital. The colored bars represent different asset classes—foreign and domestic stocks, bonds, cash, and alternatives.)
Personal Capital aggregates checking accounts and credit cards, too, but it’s clear that their development priority is investing, which isn’t a bad thing. Unlike most personal finance management programs that make money by advertising or recommending products, Personal Capital’s business model is based upon selling investment advisory services to a small percentage of users.
Personal Capital Pros
- Best investing tools
- Great dashboard providing at-a-glance look of both spending and investing
- Provides integrated spend tracking, too
Personal Capital Cons
- Fewer spend tracking features than competitors
- No budget feature
You Need a Budget (YNAB)
You Need a Budget (YNAB) has become a popular option among the DIY personal finance crowd. It’s more expensive — $60 for Windows or Mac — but offers a 34-day full-featured free trial.
You Need a Budget works on four simple financial rules:
- Give every dollar a job
- Save for a rainy day
- Roll with the punches
- Live on last month’s income
So unlike other tools that simply aggregate your transactions and track your spending, YNAB actively helps you get better with budgeting. Because there’s a bit of a learning curve, YNAB provides free online classes to get you started, which are very cool.
YNAB syncs between your desktop and your mobile device, and allows you to enter transactions on your mobile device in real time.
LearnVest, like Personal Capital, combines spend tracking and investment insights. It may be the best too for big picture financial planning as LearnVest incorporates helpful hints and other content that is tailored to your finances and goals.
LearnVest adds a personal touch to budgeting, and takes it to the next level, with its educational tools. You can pay for premium services which help you put together a five-year plan, and you can access “boot camps” that teach you the basics of money management and investing.
The best personal finance manager app is the one that you’ll use consistently, whether it’s Mint, a mint alternative or even a simple spreadsheet.
That said, it pays to try a few and play around. And you’re certainly not limited to web apps. For example, iBank is a powerful (although more expensive) app for Macs and iOS devices. SavvySpreadsheets offers an Excel-based experience that does more than you might do with your own spreadsheet but leaves out syncing accounts.
I’ll be honest: I don’t have the time at the moment to manually enter every expense I have, so account syncing is attractive. But training myself to use these apps in the last few weeks was like trying to teach an old dog a new trick — I kept checking my online bank account statements, and adding them to yet another site felt like a chore.
I do love Personal Capital for the investing insights it provides. I haven’t found anywhere else that I can get such a useful analysis of my entire portfolio (even though it’s spread across four different brokers and mutual fund companies).
Feel free to leave your thoughts about these or other programs in the comments!