Personal finance apps can act as the ringmaster to your budgetary circus

By Elna Schütz 1 June 2021

As a student, I used to stand in the supermarket, tallying up my basket, and putting back items if I went as much as a few rands over my allotted weekly amount. Budgeting seemed easy when it came down mostly to how many notes and coins were left for that Friday night beer.

Elna Schütz

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Now a 30-year-old, with a fluctuating freelancer’s income, getting my day-to-day financial ducks in a row feels more like a budgetary circus. Luckily, there are many apps available that can act as the ringmaster to your circus needs.

“Don’t rely on willpower” is finance writer Sam Beckbessinger’s main piece of advice when approaching budgeting. She is the best-selling author of Manage Your Money Like a F*cking Grownup and has worked in the budgeting app space. She explains that, however you decide to do it, you should have a system in place to allocate your money and then track how you are really spending it.

Short of spending your money and hoping you’ll be alright (what a friend calls the “YOLO budgeting method”), there are three main types of day-to-day budgeting apps or tech.

The first is arguably the safest and most rudimentary: simply setting up a great spreadsheet and filling it in at the end of the month, or more often if you are overeager. Beckbessinger has a version of this on her website, but you can build one yourself with basic Excel skills.

The second is an app that links to your bank account and monitors your real-time spending according to the budgetary categories you have set. 22seven, backed by Old Mutual, is arguably the most established option that supports most South African accounts, including from different banks.

Banks such as FNB and Capitec have similar tools that you can use, which are good options for those who want to keep it simple.

Third, there are apps that rely on you to note down every expense yourself.

International options such as You Need A Budget (YNAB) often don’t support South African bank accounts but have easy-to-use interfaces.

Beckbessinger says YNAB could be a good choice for someone who has bits of money spread globally, or who is extremely nervous about sharing banking data.

“But there’s no reason to be scared,” she says. “Apps like 22seven have security that’s as good as your bank’s.”

Having dipped into all three options in the past, I thought I’d give them all an equal chance again.

Regardless of what approach you choose, there will always be the need to spend some time on initial setup, particularly around deciding how much you really want to – and can – spend on various budgeting categories.

I found this broad thinking to be easiest on a spreadsheet, where I could try various balancing of categories and see everything at a glance, though most apps would likely give you the same result. I will likely keep the spreadsheet in a folder somewhere for when my spending goals change.

But telling your money where to go is only half of the battle, and I find the other part – knowing where it is really going – impractical to the point of being impossible on a spreadsheet.

When I tried to input directly into the Money Manager app, the exercise ended as quickly as it began.

The thought of stepping aside to log transaction details into an app after every swipe for a coffee or cash bill handed to someone frustrates me and seems unnecessary, though I can imagine that it would give a sense of control and self-discipline to people who want or need a very tight, granular grip on their expenses.

Instead, I went the quick and easy route by letting the robots do the hard work for me. I chose to set up a linked bank account app as a view-only account user on my bank’s online banking system. This makes the process more secure but is a bit of a hassle.

Once everything was linked and my categories were set up, I could track not only how much I was really spending, but also look at the fluctuations of particular categories to understand how I am doing, month to month.

For me, this is the easiest way forward – I can regularly check to see if I am on track, and budgeting doesn’t feel like a looming task that is likely to make me cry into my two-minute noodles for fear of ever spending again.

It must be said that, while the apps do a lot of the heavy lifting and include options such as splitting bills into different categories, the way we use our money remains complex. There are often nuances that the apps cannot pick up, such as me picking up dinner while my friend pays for the Uber. Some apps may also be better suited for those focused on global investing or saving towards specific goals.

Regardless of which mix of software you use to count the daily cents, it’s certainly an upgrade from standing by the frozen veg wondering if you can afford tomato sauce. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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