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How to Choose the Right Personal Finance

If your finances haven’t taken a hit from the
COVID-19 pandemic, you’re very fortunate. The shutdown of countless businesses, and the resultant ripple effects, have knocked the wind out of the
US economy. Roughly 30 million people have filed for unemployment at this
writing, and the stock market continues to take one step forward and two steps
back. The government is scrambling to shore up the finances of both businesses
and individuals.

More than ever, you need to keep a close eye on your income
and expenses, your budget, and your investments. There are many websites and
desktop software products that handle personal finance exceedingly well. We
review 10 of the best here. Three of them are first-time reviews for us: Credit
Sesame, Moneydance, and Personal Capital.  

Critical Connections

All the applications we reviewed have new features, but share some common characteristics. Most of them support online connections to
your financial institutions. That is, you can download cleared transactions and
other account data from your banks, bank card providers, brokerages, and other
financial institutions, and see all of it neatly displayed in registers in the
applications. Typically, you only have to enter your login credentials for those financial sites, though occasionally you have to provide
additional security information.

Once you import a batch of transactions, you may need to spend time cleaning up the data. For example, transactions need to be categorized correctly
as income (salary, freelance payment, and interest, for example) and expenses
(food, mortgage, utilities, and so on). The personal finance solutions guess at
what an appropriate category might be, but you can always change it—and you can
split transactions among different categories. If you’re conscientious about
this, you’ll see charts and reports that tell you accurately where you’re both
getting and spending your money. This information can also be helpful when tax
preparation
time rolls around.

Depending on which product you’re using, you might be able
to add tags to transactions. That way, you can search for those that are
related in ways other than through their category assignments. You can add
notes and attach files, too. If you bought something with cash, though, your
bank won’t have a record of it. In those circumstances, you can create a
transaction manually. CountAbout and others go a step further, providing additional
tools that let you designate selected transactions as recurring, for example.
Moneydance is very good at transaction management, but Quicken Deluxe is better
than everyone.

A Different Kind of Dashboard

Every service reviewed here has what’s called a dashboard, or home page, you see when you first log in.
Sometimes, the dashboard is the only screen you need to see, because it
displays the most pertinent information about your financial
situation, such as your account balances and perhaps any
pending bills.

You see charts and graphs that tell you, for example,
what your income is versus your spending, and how you’re doing on your budget.
You may be able to set goals and gauge your progress, as well as see live updates
on your investment portfolio if markets are open.

Basically, this overview shows you snippets and highlights of the data analysis these services do behind the scenes with options to dive deeper. Click on a checking
account balance in Mint, for example, to go to the account’s
register. Click on your credit score in Credit Karma to learn what
contributes to it and how it’s changed recently. So, the dashboard in a
personal finance application can either provide a quick look at your money
situation or serve as a springboard to a deeper study of the numbers.

Budgets, Goals, and Bills

If you’re a freelancer or sole proprietor, budgets can be
challenging. You often don’t know for sure how much money you’ll make in a
given month like a W-2 employee does, so you might find that a small business
accounting website
is a better fit. 

Being conscientious about your finances includes trying to minimize
your expenses, so that they come in below your income. That’s the philosophy
that the developers behind Personal Capital take: Spend less than you earn
every month. You can’t micromanage your
budget using that website like you can if you subscribe to YNAB (You Need a
Budget).  

The mechanics of creating a workable budget are much easier
than the process of specifying your limits. It’s often guesswork until you’ve
been working with a budget for several months and start to see how your money
comes and goes. For that reason, some personal finance solutions, like Quicken
Deluxe, allow you to use past income and expenses as a model.

Mint treats each category as a budget. You select one,
choose a frequency for it (every month, etc.), and enter an amount. The site
shows you how well you’re adhering to each budget by displaying a series of
colored horizontal bars that show where your spending is currently compared
with your budgeted amount. Green means you’re doing OK, and red means you’ve
gone over your self-imposed limit. You can tweak each budget as you learn more
about your spending habits by clicking up and down arrows.

Other applications, like Quicken Deluxe, consider a budget
to be a comprehensive table that contains all categories. The software also
lets you view your budgets on a variety of time periods (monthly, annually, and
so on). And it provides tools to help automate your data entry.

Setting goals, like trying to establish an emergency fund,
isn’t rocket science. You specify the amount you’re trying to save and your
target date for achieving it, and the application tells you how much you have
to save every month to achieve it. NerdWallet, for example, lets you link your
goals to the appropriate spending account, so your progress is automatically
tracked. Quicken Deluxe includes additional planning tools that help you
accelerate debt reduction, plan for taxes, and establish a comprehensive
lifetime financial plan. Personal Capital offers some planning tools for free
on its website, but it also has a team of financial professionals that provide
advanced planning services for a fee.

Of the applications we reviewed, only one offers online bill-paying
tools: Moneydance. You can set up a connection to the bank where you have a
checking account and use the bank’s bill-pay tools through Moneydance.

Some of the other applications let you at least record bills
and bill payments, because those can figure into your personal finance picture significantly. Mint and Quicken Deluxe are especially good at this. You can
set up automatic connections to online billers (like Xcel Energy and Verizon) or
enter offline bills from suppliers who don’t offer bill pay on their websites,
like your gardener or your occasional tech support person. The site alerts you
when they’re due to be paid and lets you record payments manually if they don’t
get downloaded as cleared transactions from your bank.

An Important Number

An excellent credit score is gold. Beyond helping you get
approved for a credit card, mortgage, car loan, and so on, it often helps
minimize the interest rate you’ll pay. So, it’s important to know not only what
it is at any given time, but also to understand how it gets calculated and what
you can do to improve it.

Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, NerdWallet, and WalletHub, all free
websites, meet all these critical needs. Credit Karma is especially
comprehensive and efficient here. It pulls your score regularly from two of the
three major bureaus, and gives you access to your credit reports.

One of the ways you can improve your credit score is to use
financial products—credit cards, mortgages—that have attractive interest rates
and other benefits, making it easier for you to pay off debt as quickly as
possible. The four dedicated free websites we reviewed help pay for the services they provide by
displaying occasionally intrusive ads for products that might appeal to you based on your credit
profile. You can also browse marketplaces for additional candidates. Mint uses
a similar business model so the site can remain free.

Of course, frequently canceling credit cards and/or
acquiring new, different ones can affect your credit score. Still, it’s good to
learn about these suggested products so that when the time comes, you’ll know
what the best options are.

Other Considerations

You may only want to use a personal finance solution for
day-to-day income- and expense-management, budgeting, and goal setting. That said, financial applications like Quicken Deluxe and Mint let you track all your
assets, including homes, vehicles, and investment holdings. If you keep your
financial data updated, the applications keep a running tally that, when
combined with your debt, reflects your total net worth.

You probably don’t need advanced tools when you’re away from
your computer or laptop. But when you’re out spending money, it’s good to know
how much you have. All the solutions we reviewed offer both Android and
iOS apps. Most don’t have absolutely all of the features found on the
browser-based or software versions, but you can at least check your account
balances; view and add transactions; and see graphs illustrating numbers
related to things like spending and cash flow. You may also be able to get your
credit score and check the status of pending bills. Moneydance is the exception
here; its mobile apps are not as mature as the competition’s.

Are all the applications reviewed easy to use? The short
answer is yes. Credit Karma and Mint are the most user-friendly, incorporating
state-of-the-art interfaces with can’t-miss navigation tools. NerdWallet blends
editorial content on personal finance topics with credit score and limited
income- and expense-tracking tools; these dual purposes make the site somewhat
confusing until you understand how the two co-exist. CountAbout and Moneydance are
certainly easy enough to use, but their user interfaces look outdated. Quicken Deluxe has been around for so long and offers so much, its user
experience is a little uneven. This blending of old and new content can be a
little jarring when compared with a solution built from the ground up to live
online.

Each of these personal finance solutions offers something
the others don’t. But their skill at delivering the tools consumers need, and
the cost at which they offer them, varies widely. Mint has won our Editors’
Choice before, and it does so again this time for free personal finance
services. Quicken Deluxe, on the other hand, wins the Editors’ Choice for paid
personal finance services. We’d send people first to Mint if they’re
considering online personal finance, because of its usability, thorough
selection of tools, and the feedback it provides users who keep up their end of
the bargain by visiting it regularly. And, of course, it’s free. Free is good
in these days of economic uncertainty.

  • Mint.com

    Pros: Simple.
    Fast.
    Offers both birds’ eye and in-depth views of personal finance.
    Works with most US and Canadian accounts.
    Supports Bitcoin.
    Useful design.
    Free.

    Cons: For US and Canadian accounts only.
    Can’t create or manage alerts from mobile app.
    No percentage-based savings or budgeting options.

    Bottom Line: The excellent Mint iPhone app gives you both close-up and big-picture insight into your money in real time. It’s the best all-purpose personal finance app we’ve tested.

    Read Review

  • Quicken Deluxe

    Quicken Deluxe

    Pros: Robust set of personal finance, planning, and investment tools

    Mobile and web companion apps

    Flexible transaction tracking

    Useful reports and graphs

    Excellent support options

    Cons: Expensive

    Inconsistent user experience

    Electronic bill pay through biller websites not available

    Bottom Line: Quicken Deluxe includes more personal finance management tools than any competitor, but it’s relatively expensive and many features aren’t available in the mobile apps. Still, no one does personal finance more comprehensively.

  • Credit Karma

    Credit Karma

    Pros: Pulls credit reports and scores from two bureaus.
    Great for learning about credit.
    Pros and cons listed on offers.
    Useful credit simulator tool.

    Cons: Underdeveloped tools for tracking spending.
    No features for budgeting, financial goals, or bill payment.

    Bottom Line: Credit Karma lets you see your credit reports and scores, and it provides a good deal of information about how to change them.
    It’s free, though it does serve you some targeted financial ads.

    Read Review

  • WalletHub

    WalletHub

    Pros: Free

    Monitors your credit report and score

    Updates daily

    Great educational resource

    Useful financial calculators

    Excellent mobile apps

    Cons: No tools for budgeting or monitoring individual accounts and transactions
    Sprawling interface

    Bottom Line: If you want to know your credit score, monitor your credit report, and learn more about personal finance, give WalletHub a try.

    Read Review

  • Credit Sesame

    Credit Sesame

    Pros: Free Tier
    Excellent user experience
    Good debt tracking and analysis
    Great mobile apps
    Paid options for power users

    Cons: Paid level is pricey

    No credit report

    Only one credit score, updated monthly

    Bottom Line: Credit Sesame, a website that tracks credit scores, offers an excellent user experience and great mobile apps. Its free version, though, lacks the competition’s tools.

    Read Review

  • Moneydance

    Moneydance

    Pros: Fast
    Detailed dashboard
    Supports multiple currencies, including cryptocurrencies
    Excellent security
    Capable transaction management, budgeting
    Online bill pay
    Handles investment tracking and reports

    Cons: Dated user interface

    Weak mobile apps

    Requires workaround to connect some financial accounts

    Bottom Line: Moneydance is a desktop-based personal finance manager that boasts strong security, online bill pay, and support for multiple currencies (including cryptocurrencies). A dated interface and limited mobile apps prevent it from competing with the best software in its category.

    Read Review

  • NerdWallet

    NerdWallet

    Pros: Tracks income and expenses

    Thorough handling of credit score issues

    Useful editorial content

    Strong financial product browsing and educational tools

    Good mobile apps

    Cons: Unusual dashboard
    Minimal transaction management
    Few transaction categories
    Odd layout
    Non-standard account registers

    Bottom Line: NerdWallet gives you the tools to understand and improve your credit score, plus tracks your income and spending. The service would be more effective if it offered a better interface, though.

    Read Review

  • Personal Capital

    Personal Capital

    Pros: Free

    Excellent user experience and investment tracking

    Smart assignment of categories

    Retirement planning

    Automatic online bill tracking

    Good mobile apps

    Cons: Weak transaction management and budgeting

    No credit score information

    No reports

    Bottom Line: Personal Capital is lighter on personal finance tools and heavier on investment tracking than its competitors. Its web-based tools are free, but the company also offers paid advisory services.

    Read Review

  • CountAbout

    CountAbout

    Pros: Imports Mint and Quicken data.
    Thorough budget.
    Good transaction tracking.
    Customizable categories and tags.
    Exceptional recurring transaction options.

    Cons: Dated user interface.
    No dashboard.
    Unwieldy category list.
    Limited mobile apps.

    Bottom Line: If you need a reasonably priced personal finance service that doesn’t have tons of adds, CountAbout is a decent alternative to Mint and Quicken.
    It has a dated interface and limited mobile apps, however.

  • YNAB

    YNAB

    Pros: Personal budgeting app filled built on a solid money-management philosophy.
    Flexible.
    One-time fee (no subscriptions).
    Great in-app and video tutorials.
    Live instructional webinars available.

    Cons: Does not automatically connect with financial accounts.
    No real-time automatic updates.

    Bottom Line: YNAB stands for You Need a Budget, and it’s true.
    You do.
    This offline app, built around a philosophy of financial responsibility, requires a lot of manual maintenance, but it teaches sound principles about money management.


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