Monday, April 13, 2009

Budgeting Software Comparison & Spreadsheet

Over the past 6 weeks, my wife and I have been attending Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University course online. If you have some debt and want to learn how to get rid of it for good, do yourself a favor and take this course. It has absolutely revolutionized the way we use and think about money.

The trickiest part of the program is coming up with monthly budgets and sticking to them. As a software developer, I wanted to find an easy way to track the monthly budget on the computer, and I had some very specific ideas about how I wanted the information laid out.

I've spent several weeks now trying different software programs to see what works best:
  1. Gazelle Budget: This is an online application you are given access to when you take the FPU course. pros: Makes it easy to create a zero-based budget. Good category groupings. Nice interface. cons: After the 4-month subscription to the courseware ends, you have to pay an annual fee to continue using the software, which is a little pricey. This program also does not connect directly to your bank, but it can import transaction files.
  2. Microsoft Money: Boxed software that runs on your computer. pros: Allows you to create a budget and can connect directly with the bank to download and automatically categorize expenses. cons: Not free. Not well suited to creating a zero-based budget (doesn't show income remaining for example). Clunky interface. Automatic categorization is often wrong, and the program doesn't learn from the categorizations you make. Not online, so only available on one computer. My copy of this program is a couple years old, so maybe some of these items have been addressed since then.
  3. mint.com: Relatively new, free online budgeting site. pros: Can be used to create a budget. Excellent, intuitive, web-2.0 interface. Uses Yodlee's authentication mechanism for connecting directly to your bank (if your bank is supported) to download and automatically categorize expenses. cons: Like Microsoft Money, not great for creating a zero-based budget. Security is a little suspect; while they authenticate with the bank using Yodlee, the site itself does not employ the same security devices that the Yodlee site does (in other words, the same ones used by the bank like security questions, CAPTCHAs, etc.)
  4. yodlee.com: Free online budgeting site. pros: Can be used to create a budget. Decent interface. Great security that is trusted by some of the biggest banks out there. Automatic categorization of expenses, with the ability to split transactions across multiple categories. cons: Interface is not as nice or intuitive as mint.com's. Also difficult to create a zero-based budget.
  5. Excel spreadsheet: pros: Free to use. Highly flexible and customizable. Easy to emulate the best features of the other software programs, and ignore the ones you don't care about. cons: Takes some time to create the templates. No transaction tracking. Mostly only available on one computer (unless it is shared in some way).
After reviewing these options, I ultimately decided on a hybrid option: use an Excel spreadsheet to create the budget, and use mint.com to track and categorize expenses in certain categories to keep the budget honest. The categories I am tracking on mint.com are groceries, entertainment, gas & fuel, restaurants, home improvement, lawn & garden, and fast food. I really don't feel the need to track anything on there except the categories that might go over budget.

If you search online, it is easy to find budgeting spreadsheets, some of which mesh nicely with FPU teachings. Being the picky person I am though, none of them laid things out as nicely as I would have liked. I ended up creating my own spreadsheet to meet the following goals:
  • One Page: I want to be able to see my entire month's budget on one page, without having to scroll down. Many of the templates I looked at did not utilize space very well, and often included details I don't care about in a monthly budget.
  • Easy to Modify: I want to be able to add, change, and remove subcategories easily. This means the formulas should work no matter what I change, I shouldn't have to insert entire rows into the spreadsheet to add things, and no putting things into an "other" category squirreled away in some corner of the sheet.
  • Annual Expense Savings: I want to be able to see when periodic expenses happen throughout the year (holidays, birthdays, water bill, homeowners insurance, etc.), and how much I should deduct from each paycheck to cover those expenses.
Here is a screenshot of the monthly budget section (using fake names and numbers). Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version:


So the categories on the left have space for up to 7 user-defined subcategories. Adding, changing, or removing subcategories causes the category total and percentage to re-generate, and the Remaining to Budget number to regenerate. Color coding is used to indicate when a category is within Dave's recommended ranges (black = under, green = within range, red = over). Remaining to Budget is also colored based on whether there is money left to budget (green), zero remaining (black), or too much budgeted (red). Everything is on one screen, the layout makes sense, and changing items is a breeze.

As I mentioned though, I also wanted some tracking on annual expenses for things like holidays, birthdays, fertilizer, license plate renewals, etc. For this I created a sheet on another tab (more made up numbers and names):

The idea with this sheet is that you create a separate savings account that acts as a "buffer" for months that have more known expenses than others. So what I did was to change my direct deposit to take the amount listed for DEDUCTION PER CHECK, and send that directly to the savings account. Then, at the beginning of each month, I transfer the monthly total on the spreadsheet from that savings account to checking. This has the effect of evening-out expenses over the course of the year, and it means that the items on this sheet don't even need to be included in the regular monthly budget, simplifying monthly budgeting in the process.

This works much the same way as the budget sheet; you can add, change, or remove expenses on each month, and the monthly total, yearly total, and deduction per check changes automatically. In my case, I get paid bi-weekly so the deduction per check is simply the yearly total divided by 26. Of course, if you are paid on a different schedule, it should be easy to change this formula.

This spreadsheet is not written in stone; it makes some choices based on our situation, and should be adjusted to fit yours. I'm providing it as a suggested layout for tracking these things. I know I tend to stick with technology that is easy to use and gives me the right level of detail, and that was my goal with this sheet. When it comes time to generate the next month's budget, I recommend right-clicking on the current month's tab, and copying it onto a new tab.

With that, here is the spreadsheet for your budgeting pleasure: DOWNLOAD

I'd love to hear any feedback on my budgeting software reviews or the spreadsheet itself. Thanks!

24 comments:

  1. Wow, no comments yet. We've been a Dave Ramsey family for about 4 years and have been debt free except the mortgage for 3. I've had very similar problems finding a budget software. I've been loving Mint.com for showing me where we spend but the budget process it offers is lousy for what we do. We've been just using pen and paper which is time consuming since 50% of our bills are recurring. I like your spreadsheet and am going to give it a try. Thanks for the free bee.
    William

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  2. I would love to try and use your software, but being cheap, never paid for the full blown MS Office software. Does it work with any other spreadsheet software? I use Quicken to keep track of my checking and savings, but don't like their budget part.

    Thanks in advance for your program and help!

    Ray

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  3. William - Cool! I hope you find it useful.

    Ray - Good for you, I would love to dump MS some day myself. I would recommend trying out OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org). The "Calc" program in there is equivalent to MS Excel, and I have verified that it can use my spreadsheet equally well. OpenOffice is also a great office suite for those who don't want to pay MS for their rather expensive applications.

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  4. Thanks for sharing your spreadsheet. We just started the course (just finished wk 4). I like it as well. The only modification I will attempt is adding an allocated spending tab. I like the DR forms using the zero-based budget.

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  5. Ben,
    I like what you've done. Have you ever reviewed mvelopes.com? If so, what do you think?
    Joy

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  6. Hey, thanks, this looks great. I just started the DR MyMoneyMakeover program online and was also looking for a decent budgeting software to buy rather than subscribe to. The only modification I made to your sheets was to protect both sheets so I can't accidentally wipe out or modify the formulas! (Readers, even if you're not a programmer, it's not hard to do...) I unlocked the ranges of cells that need to be changed and then protected each sheet. If I ever need to enlarge a category, I can just unprotect the sheet, modify and reprotect.

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  7. Based on the demo, mvelopes looks like a great solution. You can create a zero-based budget easily, something I had difficulty doing with the other applications. I like the drag-n-drop interface for categorizing transactions too. The only real downside I see is the cost, which unfortunately is a bit high, but this does seem much more useful than the other applications I reviewed so maybe the cost is justified.

    The spreadsheet approach is certainly more work, but I think we'll probably stick with that while we're working our way out of debt. Every little bit helps. But after that, I think mvelopes deserves a serious look. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Also, thanks to Anonymous for the 'protect spreadsheet' suggestion, that sounds like an excellent idea.

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  8. Online systems take automatic backup of your data and any software updates are done automatically free of cost. If you are working in a network, an online budgeting system might be more convenient because you can share files and also work on common files which are accessible to the entire network. Online budgeting is beneficial to People who are regular user of the website. For more details refer free online budgeting

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  9. Thanks for all the great tips and the free spreadsheet. We have been looking for a useful and less expensive budgeting tool ourselves.
    I also checked YNAB(http://www.youneedabudget.com/). It looks good and only have a one time fee but I want to really make sure it works great before paying. Right now, (free trial) I don't know how to tweak it to suit our needs.

    We will try your free spreadsheet first, it seems easier to tweak and it is FREE. :) Again, thank you. (((THUMBS UP)))

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  10. We really like mvelopes.com. It's definitely been worth the monthly fee because it saves us TONS of time because it's easy and it's integrated with all of our banks (and neither of us have the patience for something complicated or detailed).

    All we spend time doing is once a month deciding how much money we need for each category or "envelope" and then periodically throughout the month we drag our transactions into the appropriate envelope and we can see how much left we have to spend.

    We've managed to dumb down all the functionality by spending all the money we earned the previous month in the current month so we don't have to worry about the timing of our paychecks and bills.

    For example, all the money we made in october, we distribute to all of the envelopes for the month of november (including savings). Then at the end of the month we start over with all the money we made in november, and pre-spending it into our envelopes for what we will need in december. so we're always spending a month behind, meaning if we lose our jobs or something, we'll still have at least a month's worth of income to hold us over (plus our emergency fund that we've been able to save up)and we don't have to ever worry about living paycheck to paycheck.

    mvelopes actually offered us a life-time subscription so we jumped on that, even if they won't be around for our entire life time. The amount of money we spent on it means it will be free for us after 3 more years.

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  11. Your spreadsheet is very user friendly.

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  12. Ben, I've been looking for a straight forward, no bells and whistles way of electronically managing my fledgling budget for months. Tonight the Gods took pity on me, smiled and sent me to your blog and your Perfect budgeting spreadsheet link.
    Using MS Money etc. was like mowing my lawn with a Hummer. After just inputting my expenses etc into your spreadsheet, I'm now looking out over Centre court at Wimbledon.
    For all the hard work in creating this spreadsheet, you should be knighted. Sir Ben Dotte. Has a pretty cool ring to it, don't you think!
    Thanks a million. ('cos thats how much I'll have after using your spreadsheet to get out of debt!)
    Best regards,
    Jase
    Merseyside, UK

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  13. I have gotten some usefull debt snowball spreadsheets from here. follow the instructions easy to use.

    http://www.vertex42.com/Calculators/debt-reduction-calculator.html

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  14. Thank you for your post. My husband and I really appreciate your evaluation of the options as well as sharing the solution that works for you (including the excel sheet!) Thanks again!

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  15. Has anyone tried Mvelopes.com (www.mvelopes.com) which combines both budget and downloading? I would be interested in a review.

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  16. Thank you so much for sharing your spreadsheet! I have been searching the internet for reviews on budget software. I currently use a spreadsheet that I made a year ago, but yours is much better. I start FPU in 3 weeks. Thanks again for doing the leg work, and sharing your talent!

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  17. I like your budget website! Have you considered turning it into an app for Android or Iphone? My sister has an Android phone & really needs an easy to use budget maker. I have an Ipod.

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  18. Thanks Melissa! A mobile version of the app is a great idea, and I'd love to implement that at some point. For now we're working hard on expanding the expense tracking portion of the site, but I'll definitely keep the mobile app idea in mind as we evaluate the direction of the site.

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  19. Hi Ben. Really like the spreadsheet. I have been through FPU and the Crown financial Class and this was the best spreadsheet I have seen so far. I decided to add to it a bit and created a cash flow portion to the right side of the main monthly budget screen so that on a two paycheck or bimonthly pay system one could easily see which check went to what bills. This is how I have been using it and that seems to work well. Also, I have been using the mint website for those items such as gas expenditures where the debit card is preferred over cash by my family for time savings and convenience. Nice site. Keep up the good work!

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  20. Congratulations on having twins. I hate to hear that RecurTrack is going away. Is the spreadsheet still available to download?

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  21. Thanks, yes the spreadsheet can still be downloaded here:

    http://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0B3KF87b2wlANZjE5MDAxZWEtZjY2YS00YzFhLWI3M2YtZjJhNjlkODlkNzZk&hl=en

    Just click the "Download Original" button after going to that link.

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  22. Correction, RecurTrack is NOT shutting down. We switched hosts and simplified our server setup to keep the day-to-day tasks at a minimum. We are excited to be moving forward with the service and the many new features we have planned!

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  23. I am more more comfortable with a desktop-based application as opposed to a web-based program. But I want to switch to online. Thanks for writing an informative article.

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  24. Wave has an online version of accounting software so you dont need a desktop version

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