Make your own budget | Grace DeSandro
Make your own budget | Grace DeSandro

If you’re like me, you’ve probably opened a blank Excel spread­sheet dozens of times to try — and fail — to make your own per­sonal budget. Some are quite suc­cessful using Excel for their bud­geting uses, but others are not (i.e., me).

Enter tech­nology and a slew of bud­geting apps all mar­keted to people like you and me, who may or may not have a clue what we’re doing when we try to make our own budgets. Unfor­tu­nately, nav­i­gating the world of financial apps can be extremely con­fusing — that’s why I’ve done the work for you.

The first thing you need to know is that there are two types of bud­geting apps: apps that show you where your money is going, such as Mint, Pock­et­guard, and Wally, and apps that force you to account for every dollar you earn and spend, like You Need A Budget, Every Dollar, Good­Budget, and Mvelopes. Which app you choose depends largely on your goals: if you just want to know how much you’re spending on enter­tainment or trans­portation per month, then using an app like Mint might be a good idea. But if you want to create a budget and decide where your money goes every month, then you need an app like Every Dollar, You Need A Budget, or Good­Budget.

Mint gives you a diagram of where you’re spending all of your dollars. It syncs to your bank account and credit cards so that when you spend $20 on gro­ceries, that $20 shows up in the Gro­ceries Cat­egory in the Mint app. When you open Mint every day, it shows you where you’re spending your money and how much of it is going into cat­e­gories like Enter­tainment, Dining Out, Student Loan Pay­ments, etc.

While this tool is free and may be useful, Mint doesn’t actually force you to make a budget. It just pro­vides a snapshot of your spending. Some people are nat­u­rally more fis­cally respon­sible than others, so maybe glancing at the big picture of their pur­chases is all they need to stay on track with their financial goals.

But for the vast majority of us, assuming com­plete control of our money is the only way for us to learn to be respon­sible with it.

When I was deciding which bud­geting app to use, I ended up choosing You Need a Budget, and here’s why: YNAB syncs to my mul­tiple checking accounts and then forces me to, in the app creator’s own words, “give every dollar a job.” The app itself can be used on your laptop or on your phone and syncs to your checking and savings accounts and credit cards. It’s your job then to assign each dollar you own to a cat­egory. Unlike Mint, YNAB doesn’t log your trans­ac­tions for you, so when you spend $20 on gro­ceries, you have to man­ually enter that data and YNAB auto­mat­i­cally sub­tracts it from your Gro­ceries cat­egory. Then the app shows you how many dollars in the Gro­ceries cat­egory are left to spend for the month. That way you can keep track of all spending and saving, and plan for big pur­chases or loan pay­ments.

Even though YNAB costs $50/year for me to use, the app has enabled me to save money for trips to Nashville and New York, to plan for rent pay­ments and my phone bill, and also pay off my credit card debt at the end of every month.

If you don’t like the sound of using Mint or YNAB, do not fear: per­sonal finance has exploded in the app world, so there are lit­erally dozens of other apps to match your financial needs and pref­er­ences. Some are free, and some are available for a sub­scription fee or one-time payment. Just remember: using an app is incredibly useful tool to help you take control of your money, but apps like Mint and Wally aren’t going to budget for you, they’re only going to show you where your money is going. If you’re serious about setting up a per­sonal budget and sticking to it, then you’re better off investing in an app like YNAB or Every Dollar.

Ms. Patrick is a senior studying history and jour­nalism.