September 15, 2014

Study: Best Budgeting Software - Quicken vs Mint vs YNAB

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If you want to get ahead in life, you're going to have to make a budget and stick to it. Even those who have gotten a taste of fortune have learned this lesson the hard way: many lottery winners spent their winnings and then some. It was gone before they knew it. The hard truth is simple: you must spend less than you earn (or win) if you want to save up for a special trip or plan for retirement.

In the old days, people scrawled their numbers on paper. Determining if you were striking the right balance between life expenses and frivolity was a lot of work. It could take hours to calculate your income and expenses, much less figure out how much you were spending eating out, buying clothes, or wasting on bank fees and interest. Thankfully, the technological age has brought us many tools that make the process much simpler.

Yet, with so many money management platforms out there, how do you know which one is right for you? Is the program really as user friendly as described? Can you import bank transactions easily? Does the mobile app offer all the same functions as the online or desktop platform? To help you get your finances on track as quickly as possible, CreditDonkey has reviewed the top three budgeting tools - Mint, YNAB, and Quicken - to see how they stack up against each other.

Study Methodology

Here are the main factors we considered:

  1. Setup Process
  2. Capability
  3. Support

The first, and often most important, issue one faces when choosing budgeting software is the complexity of the setup process. If it takes too long to enter your account information or create a budget, you have to wonder if you’ll be able to muster the time and energy to keep up the effort toward financial happiness.

Once all the necessary information does get into the system, the richness of the data the software can compute becomes a key question, in addition to your ability to follow along. Some programs merely track whether you’re able to keep up with a budget while others can also be used to prepare for tax time and easily export information to the proper forms. Some programs carry over the budget you created from month to month while others require you to input each month’s budget separately.

You will also want to consider what technical and educational support the software company offers. Some companies provide optional tutorials on money management while others blatantly pinpoint areas where you could cut back, based on analysis of your personal data.

Best Setup Process: Mint

  • Setup Process: Imports information directly from your bank, easy to use interface, auto-categorizes most transactions to match your budget, free, 5/5
  • Capability: Doesn’t work with all banks (U.S. and Canada only), easy to quickly set up budgets that include savings goals online (but those goals don’t show up in the phone app), information is not exportable for tax purposes, 3/5
  • Support: Run by a reputable company, information protected by 128-bit SSL encryption, responds to issues and requests by email, 4/5
  • CreditDonkey Score: 4/5

If you know you should get serious about your finances but don’t want to spend any money or dedicate much of your free time to budgeting, Mint is the program for you. It is a free online budgeting tool (and mobile app) that quickly and easily organizes your finances and helps you meet your monetary goals.

Mint is owned by Intuit (the makers of Quicken). Both Lifehacker and Forbes have listed Mint as the best personal finance software available.

Why We Like It
Besides being free, Mint is so easy to use. Just open an account online, log in to your bank accounts, create a budget, set some goals, and presto! You’re on your way to smarter spending. Unless you open a new account or your budget or goals change, all you need to do is keep an eye on the reports and add a tag to the occasional transaction Mint is unable to automatically categorize for you.

Its Downsides
You cannot manually add accounts into the Mint system. If your bank isn’t supported or you have a private loan, you won’t be able to track it properly.

The goals you set up online are nowhere to be seen in the mobile app. Another issue worth noting: Mint is only a budgeting tool. None of the data collected is usable for tax purposes nor will it remind you when it is time to pay your bills.

Who It Works Best For
Anyone who is new to online budgeting and hasn’t become enamored with similar software will likely favor this free tool.

Best Capability: Quicken

  • Setup Process: Imports information directly from your bank as you set up accounts, allows manual entry, engages users with a colorful, logically organized interface, auto-categorizes most transactions, budgets cannot be copied from month to month, $39.99 and up, 3/5
  • Capability: Organizes and exports financial data for tax purposes, tracks expenses to budgets, diverse report options, allows users to set alerts and reminders, does not allow mobile transaction entry (but users can view data using the mobile app), 5/5
  • Support: Created by one of the leaders in the financial management software industry, encrypts financial data, many help forums and online tutorials available, 4/5
  • CreditDonkey Score: 4/5

Quicken is possibly the most popular personal finance software available. It has all the features of a standard accounting program - it can calculate your net worth, track your expenses to a budget, and give TurboTax the information it needs to compute your taxes at the end of the year.

Quicken has been recommended by Tom’s Guide and many others as one of the best personal finance products money can buy. It’s a bit more comprehensive than some people need, but for those who want to account for every penny they earn, spend, save, and invest accurately, Quicken is a great choice.

Why We Like It
People who use Quicken to track their finances don’t need to hire an expensive accountant to do their taxes at the end of the year. The program organizes the data so you can easily complete the returns yourself.

Since all data must be accurate in order to be used for tax purposes, Quicken allows users to manually enter transactions and create accounts, or they can import the data from their bank.

Its Downsides
Checking every transaction to make sure your tax records are accurate can be tedious work. Plus, although the simplest of tax returns can be filed for free with TurboTax online, anyone who owns a home or has even mildly complex filing requirements will have to shell out $49.99 or more to finish packaging their financial data for the IRS. For that matter, each version of Quicken is eventually “retired,” forcing you to continue investing in a product you already bought by purchasing upgrades.

Who It Works Best For
Those who want a program that does more than simple budget tracking. You get a head start on your taxes, and you get to manage your cash flow with this program.

Visit: Quicken Website

Best Support: YNAB

  • Setup Process: Imports information directly from your bank, plain interface, auto-categorizes most transactions to match your budget, $60, 4/5
  • Capability: Doesn’t work with all banks but allows accounts and transactions to be entered manually, easy to set up budgets that include savings goals, allows transactions to be entered by mobile app, information is not exportable for tax purposes, 4/5
  • Support: Offers free tutorials on both its software and budgeting strategies, manages an excellent support forum, accepts suggestions and responds to issues submitted online, 5/5
  • CreditDonkey Score: 4.3/5

YNAB (“You Need a Budget”) is a powerful financial tool created by a man who wanted to share the money juggling techniques that had produced stability for his family. In the free online tutorials, the company teaches you how to use the program to “give every dollar a job, save for a rainy day, roll with the punches, and [eventually] live on last month's income.”

Why We Like It
YNAB allows you to import financial data as well as manually enter information for odd accounts or cash on hand. And it lets you enter transactions through the mobile app. YNAB is a plain, user-friendly way to take control of your finances. And, for many users, the online tutorials are key to their success in budgeting.

Its Downsides
YNAB does not work in conjunction with any additional software to help you at tax time. Other than the ability to track accounts not endorsed by the software and take free budgeting seminars, YNAB has features very similar to Mint but is not free, and you’ll have to pay for upgrades.

Who It Works Best For
Those who are new to budgeting and desire guidance as well as those who dabble in foreign currencies or bank somewhere out of the ordinary will enjoy YNAB’s versatile yet simple platform.

Other Software to Consider

AceMoney Lite rated higher than Quicken on Forbes’ list of best budgeting software options. The free version has nearly all Quicken’s features (its more robust counterpart costs $40). It’s a bit less visually engaging than Quicken, but if you really need to pinch pennies, it seems worth sampling.

If you are an independent contractor or operate a small side business, you will need a more powerful program than Quicken to prepare you for tax time. Quickbooks is the most popular small business accounting software. (Or, you can use a free program like Mint to manage your personal budget and use Quickbooks to calculate your “extra” income.) Quickbooks online accounts begin at $12.95 per month after a 30-day free trial.

We hope our research will leave you feeling motivated and inspired to get your finances in order and start saving towards your goals with ease. Everyone spends more when they aren’t paying much attention to where it’s going, but these days – when you can view your budgeting process at any time on your smartphone – there’s no excuse for spending blindly.

Rachel Hoyt is a contributing writer at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and financial education website. Write to Rachel Hoyt at rachel@creditdonkey.com. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped families make savvy financial and lifestyle decisions. (read more)

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are those of the author's alone. Please support CreditDonkey on our mission to help you make savvy financial decisions. Our free online service is made possible through financial relationships with some of the products and services mentioned on this site. We may receive compensation if you shop through links in our content.

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