While advances in technology have made it increasingly easy for people to part ways with their money in recent decades, technology has also been leveraged to provide a counterweight to all this frictionlessness. Online personal financial management — PFM for short — is perhaps this impulse’s greatest expression.
These programs allow you to get a detailed, instructive, and sometimes shocking look at the way you spend your money. They help you make budgets and see where you can trim your spending. They’re a useful tool, and they are many. To help narrow down the field a bit, here’s a rundown of our favorites and least favorites.
Budgeting isn’t rocket science. You look at how much money you make, how much you have, what you need to buy and what you want to save. Ideally, you spend less than you take in and you save the excess. But in practice, this can be difficult. And worse, it’s not fun or easy to sit down and consider your retirement when you’re 25 years old.
So ideally, a PFM will help make budgeting easier, and give you previously inaccessible insights into where you can save money. It should help you see what you couldn’t see before. And also, it should be easier than just crunching the numbers on your own. Budgeting isn’t fun, so the user experience ought to make the experience more pleasant than it might be otherwise.
That said, our three favorite PFMs are: Mint, LearnVest and HelloWallet.
Mint is the leader in the space, and seems to suffer somewhat due to its popularity — but that’s another issue entirely. For the most part, Mint is simple to use, quick and pretty to look at. It gives you an accurate and complete look at your finances without being pushy. It’s well known for good reason.
For someone seeking for more from their PFM, there’s LearnVest, which started out as a financial education portal for women and grew into being a PFM. Like Mint, it’s well-designed and easy to use. Its user experience is perhaps not quite as slick as Mint’s — it’s a bit garish by comparison — but it’s still worth using. Our only issue is that it pushes its editorial content very aggressively. If you want to read this stuff, that’s great — if not, it can be annoying.
HelloWallet is a relative newcomer, but is the best-looking and easiest-to-use PFM out there. It really is fantastic, but there’s one catch: it costs $8.95 a month to use. When a web tool promises to help you budget better, it ought not cost nine bucks when there are free products to be had elsewhere. Want to know what $8.95 a month looks like over 40 years when you’re saving for retirement? It adds up!
But not all PFMs are all that great at what they do. Some are pretty ugly. Namely, Yodlee MoneyCenter and Adaptu. We did not like these. That said, they won’t cost you a thing. HelloWallet being the lone exception, you can use these to your heart’s content, all at once, and it’ll never cost you a dime. So use them or don’t. But don’t say we didn’t warn you about these clunkers.