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Personal Finance App Review: Mint, Toshl and The Birdy

Kristin McGrath

June 22, 2012

A few blogs ago, I mentioned I was going to test out some free personal finance apps to get into the habit of tracking where my money goes. I’ve been using Mint, Toshl and The Birdy for more than a month — and the beauty of these services is that I don’t have to get good at tracking my finances, as they are willing to do it for me.

Because I’m a just-the-basics kind of person, I only scratched the surface of these services’ features. Yet even using them in slack-off mode, I was able to learn a lot about my spending habits. Here are my thoughts on each.

No review of personal finance apps would be complete without this one. Now I know why so many of my friends use Mint — it did all that budgeting/organizing/tracking stuff I hate for me. All I had to do was live my life, and Mint kept track of it.

How it works: Mint requires you to link your bank accounts. It then monitors your spending, and it’s smart enough to categorize most of your transactions automatically. I was pleasantly surprised when I logged in for the first time to find that Mint had figured out what I’d spent on food, clothing and fuel. There were a few things it couldn’t figure out (like my rent payments), but it’s easy to manually assign each transaction a category.

My favorite part: You can create custom categories and then view all the purchases made in that category. For example, I created a category called “Summer trip,” for the trip I’m taking soon. Every time I log into Mint, I slap the “Summer trip” label on all the bug spray, outdoorsy gear and warm clothing I bought since the last login. I can then select the category to see how much I’ve spent to prepare for the trip (a lot, by the way). This helps me keep my spending under control — and also reminds me that this is money I won’t be spending next month (and should be saving instead).

The drawbacks: Because Mint does so much of the heavy lifting, it’s easy to ignore it. And I often did, for days at a time. That’s not Mint’s fault though — it’s mine. The website provides tons of ways to interact with your money. You can create budgets and set goals. You can even ask it to nag you by text message, if you want. Unfortunately, I did none of these things.

What Toshl lacks in bells and whistles it makes up for in simplicity. Unlike Mint, you have to enter each expense (and your income) manually — and that’s a good way to acknowledge your spending.

How it works: It takes seconds to sign up for Toshl, and you don’t have to link a bank account. You’re up and running almost immediately. When you make a purchase, you open the app, give your phone a shake, type in the dollar amount and tap the category. You can do the same with income.

My favorite part: If you’re diligent about adding your expenses and income, you get a useful visual on the “Sum Up” page — a green bar with your income, and a red bar with your expenses. This single image provides a great bird’s-eye view of your financial life. It also gives you the simplest of goals: to make sure the green bar stays a lot bigger than the red bar.

Toshl also lets you export all the expenses and income you’ve entered into a spreadsheet and have it emailed to you. This reduces the boring chore of making an expense spreadsheet to tapping a button on your phone and opening an email. Easy.

The drawbacks:
Each time you make a purchase, you have to enter it. This involves taking out your phone each time you take out your wallet. Because I forget to enter so many purchases, the picture of my finances Toshl is able to present to me is, sadly, incomplete.

The Birdy
Centered around daily emails, this service is the most low-maintenance one I tried.

How it works: Each evening, you get an email asking what you spent that day. You reply with the dollar amounts followed by a description of that spending in hashtag form (#food, for example). The Birdy then takes those short messages and arranges them into charts and spending calendars on the website. I especially liked the spending calendar, which allowed me to see that Saturdays and Sundays are my most dangerous spending days.

My favorite part: The Birdy’s emails always seemed to reach me at the right time — in the evening, when I’m checking my email one last time before bed (you can adjust what time you receive the emails). So tracking my finances quickly became an easy habit to get into.

Another plus — using The Birdy is sort of like visiting a confessional. At the end of each day, there’s an email prompting me to confess my spending. If I have a no-spend day, however, I can ignore that email. More than once, that’s been motivation enough to thaw the frozen chicken in my freezer instead of going to a restaurant.

The drawbacks:
As with Toshl, the onus is on me to enter all my spending. Although responding to emails is blissfully easy (and I responded to about 75 percent of them), my personal finance picture is incomplete. I’m also notoriously bad at keeping receipts, meaning my spending confessions each day were merely estimates.

I plan to continue using all three services. Although my track record wasn’t perfect, they made my spending hard to ignore — and that’s exactly what I need.

With budgeting and tracking finances in mind, here are the best personal finance blog posts of the week:

MoneyNing has a guest post about how to stop worrying about money.

Couple Money has some tips for how to get a spouse onboard with financial planning.

Girls Just Wanna Have Funds tells you how to pinpoint your financial weaknesses.

Give Me Back My Five Bucks confesses her travel spending in spreadsheet form.

Money Saving Mom tackles a tough question: Would living frugally be worth it if you died tomorrow?

So Over Debt shares three lessons she learned from bankruptcy.