Help me and my budget actually work this time?
May 7, 2007 5:42 PM   Subscribe

Mac BudgetFilter - Help me find the best thing to track my expenses and tame my impulsiveness, and use my powers for good and not evil! (more inside)

Alright, so I've searched for a few weeks now for a good piece of software, or even a spread sheet that makes a budget simple and easy to make, use, and stick to. And i'm about freaking lost. I'm making good money, and I'm also a student, and I dislike debt. I already realize I need to pay off my credit cards (and I have, i'm slowly whittling away one) and my goal is to be debt free in 3 months. My debt ratio is not bad at all, its just this odd nagging sense that I owe money that just kills me. So, I'm looking for software that can track expenses (provided i input it reasonably well) or it can categorize by downloading the information from my online bank (this latter feature is not a must). I want to be able to firstly ESTABLISH a budget (i have no idea how to do this..for all the smarts I have, I'm not so hot with this.) Right now, I pay my bills off, and have plenty of spending money, and i put something in savings all the time, but I feel like i should be doing things far more efficiently. Secondly, something that will help me STICK to a budget, i.e., I want to say, go on a trip somewhere, i can put that 'i need xxxx amount of dollars by xx date, how much do i need to be saving each paycheck?" and thirdly something that can SHOW me my budget and how it's working out. Help ? I've tried some software but its not scalable i don't believe, and I've even tried spreadsheets (don't seem to be detailed enough, and i'm excel retarded when it comes to super-tricky stuff and values). Every time I've tried to make a budget, i'll make it, and it'll last about 2 weeks. Hardly successful. Help!
posted by vrdx to Work & Money (16 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
All the cool net kids are raving about Wesabe.
posted by nicwolff at 5:47 PM on May 7, 2007

I really like iBank. I think you would like the budget tools on it. When you input your expenses, it shows your monthly average (so you can say "ok, I need to make sure I set aside $18 a month to pay that annual bill") and has a budget monitor so you can see how close to your limits you are coming (assuming that you are good about the input of your expenditures).
posted by stefnet at 5:53 PM on May 7, 2007

Also - about establishing a budget. This is what I did with iBank:

The easiest thing to do is track all of your spending for a month. That means save all your receipts and make note of bills you pay and where the cash that you take out of the ATM goes. In iBank you can make checking, savings, cash, credit card, etc. accounts to track all of these things.

When I made our budget, I input set expenses like the phone bill, internet, and all of the other stuff that is usually the same amount. I round up a bit for some cushioning. Then come up with some numbers for how much you spend on variable expenses like groceries and eating out and any hobbies you have, etc. etc. It doesn't matter if this is "right" or not.

After you've tracked your spending for a month, you can go back and look at those numbers and see how they compared with what you actually spent. Maybe you splurged a lot on eating out and need to rein that in or maybe you underestimated your groceries and need to allot more in the budget for that. That's the thing... It doesn't need to be static, but you just need to pay attention to it. If you know where the money is going, you know where you can make changes to make sure you have enough for trips and the like.
posted by stefnet at 6:09 PM on May 7, 2007

Cha-Ching is awesome, and dead simple.
posted by SansPoint at 6:23 PM on May 7, 2007

iBank's great, and I have it, but I certainly didn't, and would not, pay $49.99 to get it. Those greedy bastards are ripping people off for a buggy, simplistic piece of sofware.

Using Excel teaches you some valuable spreadsheet skills and is a heck of a lot cheaper, but if that's too much like "roughing it", I would just use Quicken. It's tried and true. And for the money, it's a heck of a lot more professional than iBank.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 6:29 PM on May 7, 2007

I did all my budgets in college using pen and paper. I mostly put myself through school. I was a computer science major.

If you only shop twice per month or so, and just write things down (which you can do because you can easily carry a small piece of paper with you everywhere), it can work well.

Simplicity is a good friend.
posted by amtho at 6:37 PM on May 7, 2007

I would recommend Quicken for the PC but not for the Mac. I used it for years on the PC so I'm used to it but have never loved it on my Mac. I tolerate it out of shear inertia.

I use Quicken, though, to download info from my bank and catagorize expenses. However, in order to get my budget figured out so that I could start saving money for good stuff I went to Excel as others have recommended here. I started with this person's spreadsheet called Pear Budget and then made a much simpler spreadsheet for myself. However, if I didn't have Quicken going for tracking, that Pear spreadsheet would have been a good way to start tracking.

At the end of every month, I "zero out" my budget. Whatever is left over (I do have a target) goes into savings.
posted by amanda at 7:06 PM on May 7, 2007

Seconding Cha-Ching. I think it is what the cool Mac kids are raving about. Which makes it better than if it were just net kids raving.
posted by sneakin at 7:11 PM on May 7, 2007

P.S. One other thing about impulsive expenses that you mentioned... we have two expensive hobbies in my household -- eating out and riding bikes. In order to figure out our "budget" for those things, I started with what we were spending. After a couple months we discovered we were spending X huge amount on dining and Y huge amount on bike stuff. Okay, put it in the budget. This goes under "variable" expenses. I think the huge key for me in figuring this stuff out is that a "budget" does not necessarily mean austere, monk-like living. You may already know this but it was very interesting to me to just put the number down and see what happens. Then the next month, you have power -- I went over my "budget" on dining by this amount and now I'm squeezed. If I can keep it under X dollars next month, life will be better.

Then you go on and keep adjusting and revisiting your budget and your goals. It's easy!
posted by amanda at 7:12 PM on May 7, 2007

Since I have *NO* self-control whatsoever when it comes to money and shinyshiny toy gadgets, I started by buying a lockbox. The credit cards and stuff stay in the lockbox, and it goes under my bed. It's fireproof and cost very little.

I kept my receipts for a couple of weeks and figured out what I needed per month to pay for gas, what I needed to pay for groceries, and what I needed to pay for other things like prescriptions, dog food, etc. Then I figured out monthly expenses.... pretty easy, just find your bills for the past month and keep an eye on them. I knew what they were costing me because I paid them. Duh.

The gas ended up being $150/mo, prescriptions were $50/mo, and food with a small allowance for beer and luxury items was $100/week. I don't have to buy clothes regularly, I go clothes shopping on the annual Tax Holiday we have here.

So what I starteed doing was giving myself a $100/wk allowance for food and walking around, and I had a credit card for gas with a $250 allowance. I only carry that credit card, and my cash with me when I leave the house, the almost-paid-off-FINALLY credit cards are locked up in the lockbox. Oh, and when I have money left at the end of the week, I have a few envelopes in the lockbox... each is for a project. I.e "Motorcycle", "New Bed", "New Laptop"... and money goes to each one at the end of a week depending on how I'm feeling about the item at the time. I've already bought a hard drive for my laptop, and a laser printer to replace my ten year old inkjet. (Both of which I could write off as business expenses and were things I *needed* right then -- but isn't that always the case?)

I can feel free to spend $100 on beer on a monday night, but that's it... I don't have access to more cash than that to get into trouble with. (There's the CC, but ... $100 in beer in this town is a *lot* of beer.) And it's going to be kinda hungry around my house for the next week, because my self control knows that after I pay my bills and my automatic payments fire off to my IRA and savings accounts (which are at other banks), it's a pain in the ass (and I'm too lazy) to transfer money back from savings, and takes a few days to boot... hence, I no longer raid my savings for impulse purchases.

Before I worked this system out, I had gone for years trying different systems and pieces of software. The above system is instant and visual -- I don't need web access to find out how much money I actually have and can spend, I just look at my wallet.

The moral of the story: Find something that works for you. Read blogs like and ... and don't trust some miracle piece of software to solve your problems for you if what you really have is no self-discipline.

That being said, my best friend loves iBank.
posted by SpecialK at 7:56 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

vrdx: I want to be able to firstly ESTABLISH a budget (i have no idea how to do this..for all the smarts I have, I'm not so hot with this.)

Andrew Tobias's The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need has a great chapter on making a budget: "You CAN Get By on $165,000 a Year." It's funny as well as informative.
posted by russilwvong at 8:35 PM on May 7, 2007

GnuCash (download) is a Money/Quicken type program that's free and open source. They just released the windows version.

This works best for me because I can download my bank and credit card statements and have GnuCash sort them into categories for me. Then I can break down everything by category. (Oh crap! I spent too much on booze and video games again!)

It has a budget feature, but I'm not familar with it. I rolled a spreadsheet based on one of the many great templates available from a simple search.

As with any financial software, there's a little bit of a learning curve, but it was worth it for me.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:06 PM on May 7, 2007

Sorry - missed that you were on apple. GnuCash can also be installed on a Mac
posted by chrisamiller at 9:12 PM on May 7, 2007

It's awesome that there's now a GnuCash release for Windows! Unfortunately, it's not a stable release yet... there'll be a stable release soon, I hope. Just a note, Windows users, so that you don't rush to download & install it only to be upset if it crashes. If you can just wait a little longer, there should be a "real" version.
posted by amtho at 7:06 AM on May 8, 2007

This is the second time I've pimped You Need A Budget in the same number of days, but I swear I'm not affiliated with them in any way. They have an Excel spreadsheet which you use in conjunction with 4 simple rules, and it works very, very well for actually planning and sticking to a budget.

It is a bit clunky since it's just a spreadsheet, but I have looked extensively for a more "Mac-like" application to do the same thing, and I haven't been able to find it. Cha-Ching looks great, but like most finance software, it doesn't really seem to do anything. Quicken and Wesabe and the other options I've tried basically just import your bank statements and sit there. They'll let you assign categories, but if you really want to make and maintain a comprehensive budget, you're on your own.

With YNAB, you assign every dollar you make to a category before you spend it, and when you overspend, it is accounted for the next month in a unique way. It seems very simple, but I haven't found anything else like it yet. The spreadsheet costs $19.95, but there's a 60-day money back guarantee.
posted by designbot at 7:56 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

When establishing a budget, the tool (legal pad, software) isn't where you start. The plan is. Having recently gone from just where you are, to having and running a budget for many months, I feel your pain. Money runs you, not the other way 'round.

So tell us, does your primary income arrive twice a month? (If so, I can share my spreadsheet with you. Just send me an email.) Are most of your bills paid monthly?

A budget is nothing more than a plan to spend this coming months money. Don't go for an average, don't plan for a year. Each month you will create a new plan. The first month the plan will fail miserably, but each month you will get better. By month 3 or 4 you'll be good at it.

Let me state that again, because this is the most important step: knowing what a budget is. Plan for this coming months income to be spent -- all of it. That money that isn't going towards living expenses (food, housing, energy, internet, insurance) will be spent on debt. That money that isn't spent on debt will be "spent" on some form of savings (emergency fund, retirement, investments). When you have a plan for each dollar, each dollar will behave. Be sure to include in your plan some money for impulse buying. You are going to do it, so plan for it and limit yourself.

Okay, so you've made a budget, now you need a tool to do the math for you, since we Neticans are lazy. YNAB comes up often when recommendations are sought. I like my spreadsheet, but I made it and I understand it. You might hate it. If you don't mind paying a little, I understand the tools at are really great. I haven't used them, I don't know.

The last thing I'll say is make this a daily routine. Each day, enter your expenses and income as it happens. It'll take two mintues; do it during a commercial break. Each day, find something to read about on the subject. That will provide some encouragement to do what needs to be done. I read personal finance blogs and listen to the Dave Ramsey show. I even re-read some of his book from time to time. Need a little personal encouragement? Email me.
posted by kc0dxh at 8:29 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

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