If you’re planning on tracking your spending for just a few months, a spreadsheet might do the trick. If all of your accounts reside at a single financial institution, its online money management tools might be adequate. But if you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll want something that’s purpose-built—and preferably tailored for Canadians. You can find plenty of mobile apps, websites and desktop software for budgeting, many of them free. But many are thin on features and designed with Americans in mind, so choose carefully. Before settling on one, check which software your financial institutions support: if you can’t download and import your transactions, move on.
If you manage every other aspect of your life from your mobile device, then make sure the product works with that, too. So only try products that have been consistently updated over several years, because discontinuance is a big risk with personal finance applications. Microsoft killed its relatively popular Money product, for instance, and a similar fate befell the web service Wesabe.
A better choice is Intuit’s Quicken, which has a Canadian version. Available for both PC and Mac, it has long been the industry standard, so virtually every Canadian bank lets you download transactions into it. Owing to Quicken’s popularity, there are quite a few tutorials available, and there’s also a stripped-down version called Quicken Cash Manager –a good option for beginners.
Other credible products include AceMoney and YNAB. Generally, these alternatives tend to be less expensive and sport a simpler interface, but the trade-off is that they have fewer features and are less tailored for Canadians. Apple users might consider iBank, which runs on Mac OSX, iPhones and iPads.
For those comfortable storing their intimate financial secrets in “the cloud,” there is a plethora of web-based services. Intuit offers Mint, a free online product that’s been praised for its simple design and ease of use. Competitors include MoneyStrands and PocketSmith. Despite assurances about modern encryption and other measures, security breaches pose an obvious risk. And according to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, providing a web service with your user ID and passwords to aggregate your data may violate your financial institutions’ online user agreements.
Even desktop packages allow you to store data online, raising similar issues. Get ready to carefully wade through 20-page user agreements and privacy policies.