Take control of your spending with these budgeting apps

The lives of millions of people in Britain are so precarious that a third of families would have trouble finding £500 for an emergency bill. With average wages still below where they were eight years ago, it’s hardly surprising so many people, particularly the young, struggle to make ends meet. But there are a string of smartphone apps that could make the task of staying in the black that little bit easier.

They all claim to be simple to use, and are not just for geeks. They track your spending closely and alert you when you’re going wrong, with some claiming to save you thousands. Unfortunately, they aren’t all free – so your budget may have to include spending oney on an app. But are they worth using? Guardian Money put them to the test.

You Need A Budget (YNAB)
There’s quite a buzz about YNAB in tech circles, with plenty of “lifehacker” articles tipping it as the standout budget app. YNAB makes the bold claim that after nine months the average user will have saved more than $3,300 (around £2,326).

YNAB is a digital take on the concept of having pots of money for different things. Its mantra is “give every dollar a job” (it is American but you get the option to work in pounds). Users divide their income into separate pots, such as rent or groceries, when they get paid, and every pound is accounted for. If you over- or under-spend in an area you can move money to another pot.

YNAB also encourages users to save money each month for larger expenses such as car insurance or birthday gifts.

However, it isn’t free. It costs $5 (around £3.50) a month or $50 (£35) a year with a 34-day free trial. Nor is it, strictly speaking, an app: it is desktop software with an iOS or Android smartphone app running alongside it. But the phone app is handy to keep track of spending while you’re out and about.

Previously called the Easy Envelope Budget Aid, Goodbudget is another app based on the “envelope budgeting method” – dividing your cash into pots of money for different things.

You can check your envelope balances as well as your bank balances, and expense tracking is also available. Envelopes and balances can be synched between different devices and other people – useful to work out the household budget with your other half.

There’s a free version of Goodbudget and a “Plus” version with more features for $5 (£3.50) a month. It’s available for iOS, Android and desktop.

Bought by financial website MoneySuperMarket in 2014, the app, or desktop version, lets you view all your bank accounts from different providers in one place with one login. It’s a read-only service, which means it cannot be used to move money in or out of accounts.

Unlike YNAB, which is focused on planning ahead and recording every penny you spend, OnTrees concentrates on where your money has gone. You don’t have to enter transactions manually as it sorts your bank and credit card transactions into categories.

OnTrees is free but only available for desktop and iOS. Developers are working on Android and Windows apps.

This is another app with rave reviews. Its developers claim the free app offers a “360-degree view” of your money, tracking what comes in, what goes out, what you have saved and what you have budgeted.

Wally also works with smartphone location services to track where you’re spending your money. Another feature is the ability to photograph your receipts to update your spending and expenses.

Notifications will remind you of upcoming payments and when you have reached a savings goal.

Wally is available for iOS and Android, but there’s no desktop version.

Money Dashboard
Another app that shows you all your account balances in one place. Like OnTrees, you need to enter your bank login details for the software to read your bank statements. This may make some users uncomfortable, although the application is read-only so no payments, withdrawals or transfers can be made from accounts.

Once each account is linked to Money Dashboard your transaction types will be automatically grouped and categorised into various tags, such as electricity and food. It claims that “with a clearer view of how, when and where you’re spending your money you’ll be in a better position to organise your finances more effectively”.

Money Dashboard is free and available for Android and iOS.

Halifax Balance Extra
This isn’t an app but a feature available to Halifax current account customers.

It provides a simple view of the money customers have available to them before their next payday by deducting forecasted payments, such as standing orders and direct debits alongside pending transactions.

For example, if you were paid a salary of £2,000 each month but had a £800 mortgage, £100 council tax bill and £100 energy bill to come out, Balance Extra would calculate you had £1,000 left to spend before your next payday.

Food for thought

You can also use apps to shop for your groceries, saving money or even earning cashback in the process.

Money-saving sites
The Mysupermarket app lists prices from Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Waitrose, Tesco, Ocado, Asda, Iceland and Morrisons. You can scan products by their barcodes to find out where they are cheapest, check product prices and find out where your basket would be cheapest overall.

There’s a grocery section on the app for deal-sharing community HotUKDeals, which allows its 1.4 million members to share information about bargains. You can search for products, scroll through posts and sign up for keyword alerts for specific items. To make the biggest savings, sign up for keyword alerts on pricier items such as meat, fish and alcohol.

Cashback sites
Some apps let you earn cashback by taking a photo of your supermarket receipt. With TopCashback’s Snap Save app you buy an item, upload a photo of your receipt and the cashback (advertising commission paid to the site by the retailer) will be credited to your account.

Quidco is similar, though there is an option to activate personalised offers. With the ClickSnap app, when you go to a store and buy a featured product you upload the receipt to earn money back. Alternatively, you pick a supermarket, share that choice with the app and buy featured products online.

Shopitize, meanwhile, allows you to earn money when buying certain brands. You browse the offers, unlock them by answering consumer-focused questions, do your shopping then scan and upload the barcodes and your receipt to earn cashback.

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