May 19, 2022 – By Maryalene LaPonsie
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. It’s also something that is increasingly important given today’s economic situation.
“With rising inflation, consumers are paying closer attention to their budgets,” says Sonali Divilek, head of digital products and channels for JP Morgan Chase & Co.
Having the right tools is essential to being able to track expenses and monitor income, and fortunately, you don’t have to break the bank buying expensive software to do that. From old-school methods to the latest apps, here are 10 simple and free budgeting tools to keep your spending on track:
- Pen and paper.
- Banking tools and apps.
- SoFi Relay.
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. The basic budgeting process involves writing down all your expenses, from monthly bills to small discretionary purchases such as morning coffee or lunches. 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.
If your expenses exceed your income, you’ll need to determine what changes to make. You may be able to balance your budget by cutting out wants, such as 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.
An envelope system involves placing cash into envelopes marked for major budget categories such as groceries, clothing and dining out. It makes it easy to see how much money is available for each spending category.
“The envelope method is a great tool for budgeting because it forces people to take control of their spending with cash in hand,” says Howard Dvorkin, CPA and chairman of Debt.com. When money in a particular envelope is gone, it signals that no more spending should occur in that category until the cash is replenished.
For a highly customizable way to track income and expenses, use a spreadsheet. “People can download budgeting spreadsheet templates that come formatted with formulas, dates and labels,” Dvorkin says. “This method helps take the guesswork out of organizing a budget, and it can also make it easier to edit a budget and track income.”
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.
If you’re making a budget for the first time, a worksheet can eliminate some of the guesswork. These papers often have recommended percentages to indicate how much of your earnings should be spent on each category each month.
Several organizations offer free budgeting worksheets online. American Consumer Credit Counseling, a nonprofit credit counseling provider, has sheets for household budgeting, expense tracking and budgeting for specific needs. Meanwhile, Regions Bank has free worksheets anyone can download from its Next Step Financial Education website, including a personal spending plan worksheet and daily spending tracker.
“The resources and tools we offer through Regions Next Step, like these worksheets, can help people improve their financial skills, stay organized and take the next steps to meeting their goals,” says Joye Hehn, vice president of financial education strategy and implementation at Regions Bank.
Banking Tools and Apps
Free budgeting tools may be as close as your bank’s website. Bank of America, Chase and even local credit unions are among the institutions to provide customers budgeting resources that can track expenses, run spending reports and export data to spreadsheets or computer software.
“At Chase, we are constantly enhancing our digital banking features to help our customers make the most of their money,” Divilek says. With the Chase Mobile app, customers can use a budget feature to track their spending throughout the month and determine how much is available after bills and transfers.
By paying bills online, banking tools may create charts and graphs that categorize spending, and this information can be used to develop a household budget. 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.
No list of free budgeting tools would be complete without mentioning the many free budgeting websites and apps 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.
Mint users can link multiple financial accounts to the service, which then tracks and categorizes spending. It includes a payment tracker with bill reminders, and its calculators allow people to see how their decisions may impact progress toward goals.
Designed specifically for partners who are managing money together, Honeydue helps couples stay on the same page financially. The free app allows people to link multiple accounts to share balances and spending information. A chat feature allows partners to discuss specific transactions if needed.
In terms of budgeting, Honeydue categorizes expenses to make it easy to ensure your monthly spending stays on track. The app will also send bill reminders. For those who are looking for a joint bank account, Honeydue offers those as well, with deposits insured by Sutton Bank.
SoFi Relay is another free budgeting app. It allows users to link accounts, review balances and set spending targets. It aggregates accounts and makes it easy to review spending by category.
The app also provides access to VantageScore 3.0 credit scores and makes it simple to connect with a professional to discuss financial goals and strategies. SoFi Relay users are entitled to a complimentary 30-minute call with one of the company’s in-house financial planners.
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.
Reducing expenses is often an integral part of creating a workable budget, and Truebill is an app that helps users identify sources of spending that may fly under the radar. Once you link a bank account, Truebill will automatically search for recurring payments such as subscription services and, if you want, cancel those accounts.
Truebill can also create a budget based on your transactions and monitor your spending. Through its bill negotiation feature, it may be able to lower monthly expenses for wireless, cable and insurance bills, among others. While the app is free to download and use, Truebill will collect 40% of your savings if it successfully negotiates down a bill.