5 must-have tech tools for streamlining finances

Many people put off organizing their finances because they believe it will be a time-intensive chore. Fortunately in this technological day and age, it doesn’t have to be. A wide variety of free and fee-based tools exist that can make the entire process as easy as pushing a button or two. Unfortunately, with over 4,000 personal financial websites to comb through and app libraries filled with hundreds of options, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds.

That’s why I have taken the time to create a short list of the top tools for streamlining and organizing your finances. I’ve organized them into three critical categories: financial aggregators, expense trackers, and debt monitors.

Financial Aggregators (for getting clear on the big picture)

When was the last time you zoomed out and took a look at your personal financial big picture?

It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day management of your accounts. But when you approach finances exclusively from a tactical standpoint, it can be a bit like shooting in the dark. You may cross off tasks, like balancing your checkbook and paying your bills on time, but you cannot be sure your individual steps are taking you where you really want to go in the long run. Happily there are a variety of (mostly) free tools that can help you get a handle on your big financial picture within minutes. If you are one of the 61% of Americans who either has no household budget or fails to stick with one, you should absolutely start by organizing your big picture using one of these tools.

Top Web Aggregator: Mint.com

This comprehensive web-based financial aggregator is owned by Intuit. It organizes all of your financial account information in one spot, the cloud, which makes it accessible from any device – desktop, tablet or mobile phone. It connects with virtually every US bank (as long as it has internet banking), which means setting up your account takes mere minutes. It has excellent security, which you can read about in this New York Times article. Best of all it is free. The interface is both beautiful and incredibly easy to navigate. Once you have set up your accounts, Mint calculates your average spending in every category to help you easily create a budget based on your historical spending (increasing the likelihood you will stick to it). You can also input financial goals and monitor your progress against your goals. Bottom line: if you use this tool, your big financial picture will be buttoned up in fairly short order.

High Quality Alternates

While I feel Mint.com is the best option in this category, I understand that not everyone is comfortable having their financial information in “the cloud.” For those wanting a computer-based option, we recommend these two paid programs: Quicken, and MoneyDance or this free one: GnuCash.

Tracking Receipts and Expenses

If you don’t track where your dollars are going each month, it is only a matter of time until you break your budget. When that happens, you land right back in that spot where your finances are controlling you, not the other way around. Happily breaking this vicious cycle has never been easier. There are literally hundreds of apps that make it a cinch to track every penny you spend. We’ve zeroed in on our three favorite.

Top 3 Tools for Organizing Receipts & Expenses

• Mint.com: When you create a Mint.com account, you can also download their Apple or Android app for free so that you have your complete financial picture with you wherever you go. If you’re wondering whether or not you should buy those shoes, take a gander at your budget before splurging. Mint.com automatically updates expenditures made with an ATM or credit card. But you can also manually enter transactions too. The app is password protected for an added layer of security.

• Balance: While auto-updating programs like Mint.com are nice, it is often helpful from an accountability standpoint to have to enter information by hand. Balance is a basic app that tracks the balances on all of your accounts. Every time you make a purchase or a deposit, enter the transaction amount into the app. It then automatically updates your balance information. You’ll see pretty quickly how those little ATM fees and lattes add up.

• Expensify: If you are in business for yourself or are an employee that has to frequently incur business-related expenses, you know how painful the process of filling out expense reports can be. But it is critical; ill-managed expense reimbursements wreak havoc on personal cash flows and budgets. Fortunately there’s Expensify, a spiffy free app that imports expenses and receipts from credit cards, lets you send copies of paper receipts using your mobile phone camera, and makes it possible to submit expense reports through email, and even get reimbursed via direct deposit.

Of course, sometimes a pencil and paper is the best way to keep yourself honest about what you are spending, just as writing down your calorie intake is often the best way to keep yourself honest about what you are eating. In that case, there is always this free printable budget tracker from Buttoned Up.

Reducing Debt

Quite a few people mentioned on our Buttoned Up facebook page recently that their top financial goal included paying off student loans. Having climbed out of that hole myself, I know that it can be a slog. When you’re trying to pay down any kind of debt, you need all the help you can get tracking not only what you have due, but the progress you are making in paying it off. Happily there are a few programs and apps that do a wonderful job of just that.

Top Tool: Debt Snowball Pro

This simple app is designed to help you power through your debt. It has a very clean, easy to use interface. The app’s designers have given users three different approaches to eliminating their debt. Your accountant will love option 1: pay off your higher interest loans first and save the most money. Your amygdala will prefer option 2: pay off the smallest debts first and work your way up to larger ones so you see a “snowball” effect in paying off debts. Your local stores will like option 3: pay off the minimum due each month (so you have more to spend with them). Regardless of the option you choose, all you have to do is enter all of your debt information into a debt list once and the app will take it from there.

High Quality Alternates

While I personally love the streamlined interface of Debt Snowball Pro, there are quite a few good apps and spreadsheets in this area. Other notable options include: the Vertex42 Excel Spreadsheet Calculator, Pay Off Debt, Debt Payoff Planner, and iQuick Debt Payoff. Regardless of which option you choose to go with, having a complete picture of how much you have to pay off is a powerful deterrent to profligate spending. Of course, any debt reduction plan is likely to be aided by a low tech tool: scissors.

Are you comfortable using tech tools to organize your finances? Which tools do you swear by? I’d love to hear.

  • Susan Heid

    I love mint!  We have used for nearly a year and it has changed our finanaces.

  • SarahButtonedUp

     @google-6ca1e29afc29cedc01c1e131dc6a4eea:disqus – me too. I’m obsessed. I’m SO visually oriented – the Mint.com interface had me at hello.

  • http://aboutone.com/ Tara from AboutOne

    I never thought about using the debt reduction tools (thanks for the great suggestions!) but I’m another longtime Mint user. It is useful for me throughout the year, but I especially love it at tax time when I can pull in expenses and income throughout the year.

    Another great option for receipts & expenses is Neat. I have the Neat Desk scanner, and I use it several times a week.

  • MomofTwoPreciousGirls

    Does mint let you track cash?

  • SarahButtonedUp

     @1450105f16d328e1b9ac6e340780f44d:disqus – yes, it definitely lets you track cash. You can do it two ways (or a combo of the two): input your cash account manually OR link it to your financial institution (they link with most banks/credit unions). If you do the latter, it will pull in all of your transactions. You can then further classify what you spent your cash withdrawls on. You just click on the line item for the withdrawl and “split” it into the different cash transactions you made so you can see where your money is going.

  • SarahButtonedUp

     The Neat scanner is, well, neat isn’t it? :)

  • Samantha Sand

    I use iBank for Mac. Mint is probably safe enough, but it’s important to be aware of the risks. Mint and any of their vendors/partners will have access to a lot of personal information which could be at risk for identity theft. This problem is growing unfortunately. My husband and I (two IT geeks) wrote about this topic on our blog Digital Zen. You can read more here: http://bit.ly/GT8NNY.

  • SarahButtonedUp

     @google-bc8716e2bf72dc7ca69e9dce79f723c7:disqus – thanks for the comment and for the helpful link to your post about security. It’s not a topic I take lightly because I agree with you, it’s so important to take steps to protect your identity and important information.

  • Samantha Sand

    Mint is a great tool. We are definitely more on the conservative side of privacy/identity protection because of my husband – this is his area of expertise and he consults to banking, military, etc. and sees how real the problem is from the inside. Thank you for all the great organizational advice, I love ButtonedUp! Maybe one of your challenges could be buttoning up our digital lives :-)

  • SarahButtonedUp

     @google-bc8716e2bf72dc7ca69e9dce79f723c7:disqus – what a great idea! Although I’m thinking that might take at least 5 challenges (not just one!). :) So glad you love Buttoned Up – makes my heart smile to hear it. Love doing this!

  • Leslie

    LearnVest is great as well!

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Time-management-Community/554894041201119 Vincent Churchil

    I am sure mint is an excellent finance management tool, but we use Quickbooks for maintaining our finance and tracking expenses. At the same time we use Replicon time clock software integrated with QB for time tracking.