It pays to track your finances; few would dispute that. But for many (including me!), traditional budgeting has always felt too tedious. Too inflexible. Unmaintainable. Just plain "ugh." Has modern money management technology changed all that in the decade or so since I gave up on it, I wondered?
I decided it was high time to take another look. All in all, I figure I spent 10-12 hours installing, setting up, and checking these products out. I share my findings here so that you might make shorter work of it.
Picking My Poison
JD Roth of MoneyBoss.com recently published a review of personal finance tools, including You Need a Budget, Mint, Personal Capital, and Quicken. A quick Google search confirmed these as the top contenders. So deciding where to start my evaluation was easy. No sense reinventing that wheel.
What about selection criteria? As suggested by the title of this series of posts, the overarching goal is minimalism. The goal is to be thorough enough, but not too thorough, in keeping with my beliefs that "time is money," money management is both art AND science, and only maintainable systems get maintained.
- Requirements - track spending and net worth, identify need for course corrections; bonus: investment insights
- Ease of use/setup - low tolerance for glitches, tedious tasks, lack of support
- Platform - iPad
- Cost - the closer to $0, the better
Not Exactly Love at First Bite
So how did the apps fare?
You Need a Budget Once I learned this tool costs $50 per year, is tedious to set up, and more targeted at those looking for a very detailed budget analysis, I decided to start elsewhere.
Quicken Still smarting from years of being tortured by Quicken in a previous life, I was having a hard time mustering the enthusiasm to evaluate the current offering. After the review on MoneyBoss revealed that it has fewer features than the old one and is similar to Mint (same parent company), I was even less inclined to do so.
Mint Per MoneyBoss, Mint appeared to be the best fit for my goals since it offered automated account setup, robust cash flow tracking, and at-a-glance view of overall financial picture. I wanted to use my iPad, so I started with the Mint app for iOS.
Unfortunately, the app is super light on features and too focused on transactions. In particular, maybe there's a way to show the balance in my main checking account, but I'll be darned if I could find it. That seemed silly and unacceptably inefficient. OK then, how about the browser version, which is presumably more feature rich? To be fully functional, it requires Adobe Flash... which is not supported on the iPad.
Personal Capital My plans for tracking cash flow called for less detail than MoneyBoss JD Roth's, so I thought it might work for me. Plus I was curious about the features for investments and retirement planning. True to the review, they were pretty cool and worth setting up the tool to see. But I had enough trouble with automated account setup (3 persistent fails) to want to look elsewhere.
Banktivity With my efforts thwarted so quickly, I got to wondering if there were other viable options not explored by MoneyBoss. This led me to Apple's Banktivity. Reviews on the Internet were pretty good, but it seemed to be geared towards Mac users. Apple reps said you could use it standalone on the iPad (vs. as an adjunct to a Mac, which I don't have.) But there's no free trial for the iPad version, and the refund policy was fuzzy at best. I briefly considered paying the $19.99 just to see if it was the Holy Grail, but decided to take a step back and regroup first.
Core of the Matter
Out of options, it was time to think outside the box. And that led me back to Mint... I do have a noisy, slow dinosaur of a PC which I don't like to use. But I realized its support for Adobe Flash would allow me to at least get a look at a fully functioning version of browser-based Mint. Preliminary results were promising, so I pushed forward and got the whole thing set up with my data.
Now that Mint has been set up on the PC, I think I can get pretty much what I need with minimal hassle on the iPad (browser version.) But that remains to be confirmed as I Beta test it on real data going forward.
So that is how Mint emerged as the frontrunner in the battle of the personal finance apps. Admittedly, some of the decision-making was arbitrary, or born of frustration, rather than the robust testing methods I might have used when I worked in corporate. But I would argue that is how real (read: busy, impatient, lazy) people do this. Or maybe it's just me. Stay tuned for follow-up posts in which I test this all out!
p.s. If you know of workarounds or reasons why I was too hasty to dismiss one of the contenders, please let me know.