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Use these budgeting apps for more money, fewer problems

January is coming to a close, but it’s not too late to get serious about a New Year’s Resolution. In fact, I just got started on one of mine today: I reevaluated my monthly budget so I can build toward going on a fancy vacation this summer. And that takes us to the one resolution that all of us can benefit from at any time of year: saving money.

Luckily, a whole slew of mobile apps are ready and able to help you keep your spending and savings on track for the year. With a little self-control on your end, these apps can guide and advise your spending habits so you can take a memorable trip, start a savings nest egg, or reach another goal. Now, show me the money!

Mint: Make cents sense of your budget

The most comprehensive budgeting and money management app I’ve seen is Mint (free; iOSAndroid, and Windows Phone 8)—a catchall service protected by Intuit’s security infrastructure. Mint tracks all of your finances in one place: It also shows each transaction you make in real time and sorts them by category.

To get started, link any accounts you want to monitor, enter your monthly income and expenses, and watch Mint go to work. It will check all of your recent transactions and assign each of them to a category, such as 'Food & Dining', 'Entertainment', or 'Transportation'. You can double-check these categories to confirm that they’re accurate, assign them to a subcategory (like 'Transportation: Gas & Fuel'), and add a descriptive or explanatory note.

Categorize each transaction to make sure your Mint budget is on track.

Mint also records your income, highlighting it in green. You can further mark it as income from a paycheck, a reimbursement, a gift, or some other form of revenue.

But for Mint to be as useful as possible, you need to establish a monthly budget and a savings goal. After Mint evaluates your spending, it will automatically build a recommended budget based on your income and what you usually spend, breaking down how much you should spend per category. If you’re spending more than you make, Mint will highlight frivolous spending—the fun stuff like entertainment and shopping—and suggest for each such category an amount to cut back by. If you don’t like Mint’s suggestions, you can create your own parameters.

Mint remembers everything, so you can keep track of your habits over time. The more you use it, the more it knows you, and Mint will notify you if any of your transactions seem unusual, or if your accounts are getting low on funds.

I’ve been using Mint for a few years now, and it has helped me dramatically improve my day-to-day financial behavior. Just seeing how much I spent on things like coffee and clothing every month was a big eye-opener, and paying attention to Mint encouraged me to curb bad spending habits. I also use it as a reminder for paying bills, and as a way to check my investment portfolio—it really is a one-stop shop.

LearnVest: Budgeting and portfolio management

Although Mint has long been my go-to budgeting app, LearnVest (free; iOS) can give it a run for its money (har har). It follows a similar category-based budgeting strategy that looks at your individual transactions, and it includes portfolio management with a financial advisor as an optional add-on.

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LearnVest suggests savings goals for you and makes it easy to start saving.

Investing can be intimidating for beginners, but LearnVest can help: It starts as a category-based budgeting tool, but it also includes a free call with a LearnVest financial planner if you want to get advice and next steps from a professional.

LearnVest requires you to link your accounts when you first use it, so the service can estimate your monthly income. Before it looks at your transaction history, LearnVest asks you to indicate what your necessary and unnecessary expenses are, in order to calculate a realistic budget. It sorts all of your transactions into category-based folders that you can update or change at any time.

Setting up a goal is easy as pie. LearnVest suggests goals for you to start with, such as paying off a credit card, building up your savings, making an investment, or paying back a loan. Pick the account you want to save with, give your goal a name, and enter a total amount. LearnVest will tell you how long it will take you to reach that goal based on how much you are saving.

LearnVest’s gorgeous design and comprehensive money-managing tools make it a solid budgeting platform with a little something extra.

Level: Take it day by day

Level (free; iOS and Android) is a budgeting app that focuses on keeping your spending within a daily limit instead of tracking categories à la Mint. The idea is to change your focus from compartmentalized budgets—such as groceries, transportation, and shopping—to a new system of cash flow, or “spendability.”

Level gives you a daily allowance to stick to in order to stay within budget and reach your goals. 

When you first use Level, you link any account you want Level to monitor—be it a checking, savings, or credit card account. Level then creates your plan, calculating your spendable money by subtracting your bills and savings goals from your overall income. Three circles indicate the maximum amount you should spend today, this week, or this month. Any leftover money from one day gets rolled over into the next day’s spendable amount. Once it’s good to go, Level tracks your transactions in real time and automatically updates your spendable balance.

Currently, Level doesn’t support one of my savings accounts from a small, local bank. My other savings account is with a major online bank, yet Level won’t log me in because it doesn’t recognize my PIN as a valid password. (I’ve spoken with a member of Level’s support team, who said that this “has been a common issue,” and they are working on a fix, but that was more than a week ago.) As a result, Level marks my current weekly savings transfers as money that I’m spending, which throws off my budget.

My workaround is to re-list each savings transfer as “unusual,” which excludes them from the list. Yet, due to the app’s calculation, it still won’t quite work as intended with this workaround.

I really wish Level well. I like its day-to-day budget strategy versus looking at the big picture of categorizing every tiny transaction. But with Level, every account needs to be in cahoots in order for it to work properly. It’s a relatively new app, and as such it has a few bugs: Level users can even become bug trackers and file reports on things that don’t quite work. But once it works out the kinks, Level could be a game-changer.

Spender: No-frills expense logging

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Spender keeps it simple: Just jot down your transactions manually.

Linking bank accounts to mobile apps  makes some people uncomfortable, so Spender: Expenses Only ($1; iOS) adopts a hands-off model instead. As the name suggests, Spender tracks your expenses and where they go. Every time you make a purchase, launch Spender, enter the amount, pick its category, and add a note.

By default, Spender suggests five categories: Food, Shopping, Car, Payments, and Leisure. You can add categories or change any of the suggested categories if something else seems more useful to you. Spender is mostly helpful for data, showing how much you spend every day—and what you spend it on—as well as tracking your average daily spending for the month. The extended version of Spender logs income, too, following a similar no-bank-account-required model.

The app is dead simple to use and has a clean, thoughtful design, but I found entering every transaction in this way to be a little tedious, and I wish Spender had more ways to make your spending data actionable. It doesn’t let you add a savings goal or to set a daily spending limit.

52 Weeks: Because everyone likes a challenge

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52 Weeks helps you save some cash, $1 at a time.

Arguably the hardest part of budgeting is making sure you have enough dough in savings to meet a major emergency or for rainy-day spending. One way to start (or add to) your own little nest egg is to build it up slowly, which can be less of a shock to your wallet.

If you’ve been anywhere near Facebook lately, you’ve likely come across the “52 Weeks” money challenge, under which you set aside a certain dollar amount based on the particular week of the year it is. For example, the first week in January, you save $1; the next week, save $2; and the next week, $3 (or set aside $26.50 per week and be done with it). If you follow this plan, you’ll have saved $1378 by the end of the year—not a gigantic lump sum, but a respectable place to start.

The 52 Weeks app (free; iOS and Android) helps you stay on track to win the money challenge. It’s a simple app that records your motivating goal and sends you a weekly reminder to set aside that amount in savings. You can start low ($1 the first week), and increase it by $1 every week for a full year, or start high ($52 the first week) and decrease it by $1 every week. 

No matter what your savings goal may be, these apps can guide you in the right direction, day by day, dollar by dollar. 

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