The Best Tools for Managing Household Finances
When Johnny and Joanna Galbraith got married eight years ago, they quickly realized they needed a way to coordinate their spending and saving with each other. "We didn't know what we were doing at the beginning of our marriage, but we opened up a joint checking account to make it easier to communicate," Johnny, 30, recalls. That account only addressed a small subset of their finances, though. "We still needed to find the time to chat about goals and what's motivating us," he says.
The Gailbraiths, who live in Salt Lake City with their two young daughters and have since founded the money website ourfreakingbudget.com, started tracking their financial accounts through shared Google Drive documents and reviewing them together once a month. To share daily spending with each other, they use the HomeBudget app, which syncs across their phones.
As the Gailbraiths discovered, managing household finances can be challenging, especially when it requires coordinating multiple people's spending habits and staying on track to meet shared goals. While Mint, a free money management website and app, is often cited as the best starting place, a handful of new tools have hit the market in recent years that give consumers more options.
A recent cash flow management tool competition hosted by the Financial Solutions Lab, which is funded by JPMorgan Chase (JPM), received almost 300 contenders. "There's been a revolution in personal financial management tools. It's a big trend over the last few years," says Colleen Briggs, vice president of financial capability and consumer initiatives at JPMorgan Chase. "If you give people better information and pair it with a product around their needs, that's where you see people building better habits," she adds.
Here are more tools that can help you stay on top of your household finances:
HomeBudget app. The tool embraced by the Galbraiths allows both of them to log in at any time and check out their latest spending updates. "We tried out Mint, but it felt so automatic and easy that we found we weren't checking it often enough and we weren't feeling the pain of our spending," Johnny says. On HomeBudget, Johnny and Joanna, 28, manually enter their spending right after a purchase, and that transaction is then shared with the other person. (To keep gifts a surprise, they stay off their accounts for a couple of weeks around the holidays.) They each paid about $5 to download the app to their phones.
Shared spreadsheets. To track their net worth, including savings, 529 account balances and retirement investments, the Galbraiths update a spreadsheet on Google Drive, which is free and accessible to both of them. It also forces them to sit down once a month to review their accounts and manually update them. They keep account numbers and passwords offline, though, to protect their accounts from potential fraud.
HelloWallet's emergency savings calculator. While many people know they need to save more, doing so -- or knowing how much they need to save -- is not always easy to figure out. That's why Morningstar's (MORN) HelloWallet, an online financial wellness company, recently launched a free tool that allows people to calculate an emergency savings goal for themselves, based on their expenses, lifestyle and earnings.
"There's a lot of generic emergency savings advice out there to have six months or 10 months of salary saved, and if you think about it, you realize that's pretty insufficient in terms of advice. One person might need that much, and someone else might need far less," says Aron Szapiro, policy and finance expert at HelloWallet.
For example, a two-income family that has 80 percent of income going toward fixed expenses needs a much larger emergency savings fund than a couple that could live off just one person's salary should a job loss occur. And since most people aren't saving enough for emergencies, Szapiro adds, aiming for a specific target can make it easier and less overwhelming to set money aside.
FileThis. If you struggle to keep track of an ever-growing collection of financial paperwork, then this tool is for you. Co-founder Brian Berson was inspired to create a digital way of organizing financial papers after finding himself suddenly in charge of his mother's paperwork when she became ill. "[My family] had to go through four huge filing cabinets of paperwork and figure out what we needed," he says. After mistakenly tossing documents and then having to ask financial institutions to resend them -- a process that took hours -- he decided to create FileThis in 2011.
"It's a digital filing cabinet," he explains, and it automatically uploads financial account information, bills, W-2s, health insurance information, tax documents and other essential paperwork from banks to insurance companies. All the data is encrypted and can be downloaded (or deleted) at any time. The "freemium" model offers free automatic uploads from up to six institutions and then costs $2 a month for up to 12 connections to institutions. The rates go up from there for consumers who want more connections. While FileThis doesn't disclose its number of users, Berson says the number has grown 500 percent over the past year.
Puddle. Aimed at consumers with limited access to traditional credit sources, Puddle, one of the winners of the Financial Solutions Lab competition, makes it easy to borrow and lend money to friends, family members and other users through small, short-term loans. "Sometimes people just need extra cash for things -- a lot of people borrow for travel -- and [Puddle] establishes a line of credit for people who need it," says Skylar Woodward, one of the co-founders of Puddle. Over $1 million has been borrowed through the website, with amounts ranging from $250 to $2,000 for periods between three and six months. Most Americans, Woodward adds, don't have access to liquid cash when they need it, and this tool meets that need.
The goal of all these tools is to make managing finances easier and more automatic, so you can spend your time on more enjoyable activities. As Johnny Galbraith puts it, "There's 100 Netflix shows that we'd rather watch than talk about finances." But they use their motivation to save as a way to power through those important conversations. "Wouldn't it be great if we could save for our girls' college education now when we don't have a lot of other expenses, or save for retirement or vacation?" Those discussions, he says, leads them to set mutual savings goals, which helps guide their daily spending choices in a relatively painless way.
Kimberly Palmer is a senior editor for U.S. News Money. She is the author of the new book, "The Economy of You." You can follow her on Twitter @alphaconsumer, circle her on Google Plus or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.