These free budgeting tools won't cost you a dime and can help you track your finances.
June 21, 2018 – By Maryalene LaPonsie and Lars Peterson
Not everyone relishes the idea of proactively managing money and maintaining a budget. However, creating a budget – and sticking to it – are key first steps toward reaching financial goals large and small. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the complexity of creating and keeping a detailed budget, not to mention the time required.
“Some people cringe when they hear the word budget,” says Carl Casper, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Connex Credit Union in North Haven, Connecticut.
The good news is that creating a workable spending plan doesn’t have to be complicated, and there are plenty of budgeting tools and resources such as spreadsheets and computer software to get you started.
Once you are ready to start making your budget, the following free tools will make the process easier:
- Pen and paper.
- Banking Tools.
Pen and Paper
While budgeting apps and software are popular, you don’t need anything more than a pen and some paper to write a budget. “To get started, you need to write down all of your expenses, from your home payment to the coffee you got on your way in to work,” Casper says. Then, categorize those expenses according to whether they are needs or wants. Next, add up your income. Earmark your income for your needs first and any money left over can be spent on wants.
The biggest challenge for many people is developing a budget that takes a big-picture view of household finances, says Jonathan Clarke, associate professor of finance in the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech. “(They) tend to focus on balancing their budget for the month or over a short-time horizon,” Clarke explains. “They don’t anticipate some of the future expenses that could come along like kids, child care expenses, home repairs, etc.”
A good way to prepare for those future needs is to live below your means and pay yourself first. You can do that by depositing money into savings before covering other expenses. “The goal is to operate your household off 40-65% of your net income,” says Scott Morris, lifestyle wealth advisor at the financial firm International Assets Advisory, which is headquartered in Orlando, Florida. “Pay yourself the difference to minimize revolving credit to cover vacations and incidentals.”
If your expenses exceed your income, you’ll need determine what changes to make. You may be able to balance your budget by cutting wants like dining out or a gym membership, but in some cases, you may need to consider more significant changes such as moving to an area with a lower cost of living.
Using envelopes is another low-tech way to budget. “The envelope system is pretty simple,” explains Rachel Cruze, a bestselling author and host of “The Rachel Cruze Show.” Cruze’s father, personal finance expert Dave Ramsey, helped popularize the system. “Once you have set your budget, you will use cash for each category of your budget and keep it tucked away in envelopes.”
An envelope system makes it easy to see how much money is available for each spending category. When money in a particular envelope, such as clothing or groceries, is gone, it signals that no more spending should occur in that category until the cash is replenished. “This is a great tool to help you stop overspending,” Cruze says. “You will also make more intentional decisions with your spending because you know that once that cash is gone, it’s gone.”
For a highly customizable way to track income and expenses, use a spreadsheet. Despite all the other budgeting tools that are available, “I also still sketch out a budget in (Microsoft) Excel to start,” Clarke says.
Both Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets offer free budget templates to users. You can also create your own, though there can be a learning curve to using the programs. Microsoft provides free online training lessons on its support website for Office products. Otherwise, plenty of tutorials can be found on YouTube. Maintaining a spreadsheet budget can require more time than other options, but the extra effort may help you have a better understanding of your money.
For those making a budget for the first time, Morris often provides a budget sheet or packet, depending on the complexity of a person’s financial situation. “If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you can do a search on the internet and find a budget form that works best for you,” he says.
One organization offering free budgeting worksheets online is American Consumer Credit Counseling. The nonprofit credit counseling provider has sheets for household budgeting, expense tracking and budgeting for specific needs. “You should have a budget that you stick to every month, but it’s also a good idea to have an individual budget for things like school supplies for your children when they go back to school in the fall,” says Katie Ross, education and development manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling.
Several free computer software programs have been designed specifically with budgeting in mind. “If you’re looking for software with a few more bells and whistles than Microsoft Excel, try BudgetPulse,” suggests former U.S. News contributor David Bakke. “It will let you input your financials onto its site, then begin to manage expenses, cash flow and even create longer-term financial goals for yourself.”
GnuCash is another free option and unique in that it’s available on the Linux operating system as well as Windows and macOS. It offers robust tools that make it suitable for both home and small business use. You can use it to track income and spending as well as bank, investment and retirement accounts. This is a serious accounting tool, but it’s simple enough for most home users.
Free budgeting tools may be as close as your bank’s website. Bank of America and Connex Credit Union are among the institutions that provide customers budgeting resources that can track expenses, run spending reports and export data to spreadsheets or computer software.
These tools won’t create a budget for you, but they do offer the information you need to develop a workable spending plan. For example, they may categorize your expenses, making it easy to see where your money is currently going. Banks may also offer other tools that aren’t specific for budgeting but can be helpful to manage money. For instance, you may be able to set up automatic transfers to savings or receive alerts when account balances are low, Casper says.
No list of free budgeting tools would be complete without mentioning the many free budgeting websites available today. Mint may be the most well-known of the internet and smartphone-based budgeting applications, and it offers comprehensive services at no cost. Once you’ve entered basic information such as banking, credit and investment accounts, Mint begins automatically tracking your money. The default categories are sufficient for most people, and you can add your own. The built-in goal-setting tools are robust and easy to use, and since it’s owned by Intuit, your data feeds directly into TurboTax at tax time.
This savvy budgeting software is intended for those who like the idea of an envelope cash management system, but don’t want the hassle of carrying physical envelopes. Instead, Goodbudget lets users fund virtual envelopes that are used to track expenses and sync and share budget information across devices. The free version includes 10 regular envelopes, 10 more envelopes, one year of account history and access to community support forums.
EveryDollar is based on Dave Ramsey’s financial philosophy and uses a zero-based budgeting method that encourages people to track and plan for every penny. The free version of the service lets users manually enter income and expenses, while upgrading to EveryDollar Plus ($129.99 per year) will let users sync to their bank account for automatic tracking. All free accounts come with a 15-day trial of EveryDollar Plus, so you can decide if the convenience is worth the cost.