Simplify Finances

The 4 Most Popular Ways to Track Your Finances

Last post we talked about why it’s important to track your money, and today I’m going to show you some of the most popular products used to track finances. I’ll tell you a brief snippet about each product and then talk about the pros and cons of each.


This product is pretty self-explanatory, I’m sure you’ve used a spreadsheet before. I’m a bit of a spreadsheet nerd, so I love playing around with them. I used to use Excel but moved to using all Google products a few years ago. They function very similarly, but I prefer Google because I can access it anywhere I can log in to my account. I think this is a great place to start to get an overview of how much money you have coming in and how much is going out, as well as differentiating fixed vs. discretionary spending.

  • How to use: list out all your income and all your expenses. I originally started using a spreadsheet to track my bills so I wouldn’t forget anything. It’s now morphed into a way for me to play around with different budget ideas and examine my spending. I’ve never had much success using it for the nitty-gritty, tracking every transaction.
  • Pros: Completely customizable; If I have an idea of something I want to track, I can create a report to track it. Most recently I made a sheet to track our yearly personal care expenses. From there I was able to analyze our spending and make some decisions on things that I could cut out to reduce our yearly spending.
  • Cons: You make it completely from scratch, no direction, manually input data

Mint is a free and completely secure service that will pull your account information from each of your financial accounts. I have all my accounts input into Mint- checking, savings, credit cards, mortgage, loans, investment accounts, etc. Mint’s focus is on giving you an overview of where your money is, tracking your spending, and budgeting.

  • How to use: connect your accounts, make a budget, categorize transactions. Here’s a great in-depth tutorial from Mint about getting started with a new account: Mint Tutorial
  • Pros: Instant snapshot look at all your accounts, transactions show up almost immediately
  • Cons: too many category options (I forget which ones I was using), limited customization for budget, hard to start mid-budget (I had a hard time setting up my different money buckets that I already had money set aside for- savings, medical, pets, personal care, etc), it just doesn’t jive with my budgeting style.

Personal Capital is the same idea as Mint: it is also free, completely secure and pulls your account information from your financial accounts. Personal Capital is more robust when it comes to your investment accounts. It tracks your gains and losses, your allotments, and the fees you’re being charged. If all this sounds a little scary, confusing or you don’t know why it matters, don’t worry. I’ll have a post soon with an intro to investment accounts

  • How to use: connect your accounts, make a budget, categorize transactions, Personal Capital has some brief Youtube videos with overviews on different features: Personal Capital Features
  • Pros: great for keeping an eye on investments and net worth
  • Cons: limited budgeting, category options, it also doesn’t jive with my budgeting style, so I haven’t used it extensively

You Need a Budget (YNAB)

YNAB is a paid service that is completely secure and pulls your account information from your financial accounts. Its main focus is on financial education, tracking your spending and helping you budget (if you couldn’t tell from the name). Because of its focus, I only have my checking accounts, savings accounts, and credit cards synced.

  • How to use: Jesse Mecham’s, the creator of YNAB, first rule (YNAB Method) is that you should give every dollar a job, so YNAB is designed to be a zero-sum budget. After you connect all your accounts, make a budget and categorize your transactions. At the top, you’ll see your “to be budgeted” total. The goal is for that to be at 0, so all your money has been assigned. At the beginning of a new month, I go through and budget for savings, then all my fixed monthly expenses and set aside money for all my non-monthly recurring expenses (auto insurance, home insurance, health insurance, all the insurance!). Then I budget for discretionary spending. Left over money I either place in savings or I start budgeting for the next month.
  • Pros: tracks all your different money pots, I like the way they treat credit cards, designed for you to jump in mid-budget. There’s a big focus on education so they have a whole method on how to manage your money, and they have financial literacy classes, and live tutorials (YNAB Classes)
  • Cons: delay in transactions appearing, $60/year, hard time dealing with my HELOC (though, I may be doing it wrong)

So which one do I use? I confess, that in this, I haven’t done a good job of simplifying- I use all the products. I appreciate the “pros” from each product, so I use them for their strengths, but none of them fully encompass what I need to track my finances. I use a spreadsheet to work out “ideal” budgets and to track things, like how much I spend on personal care and pet supplies and finding ways to pare them down. I mainly use YNAB to track my daily spending, but use Mint to pull up all my most recent transactions and to reconcile my accounts, when YNAB isn’t fast enough for me. I like Personal Capital to keep an eye on my investments, but I never used it much for budgeting because it couldn’t link to all my accounts. It now links to them all, but I don’t find it robust enough to effectively track my spending. I may be a little bit of a control freak when it comes to my finances…

Have you used any of these products before? What are the pros and cons that you’ve found? If you haven’t tried them out, I encourage you to give each of them a try. They’re all free to use, except YNAB, which has a month free trial.

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