App review: iPhone expense trackers

Smartphones have ceased to be just a phone; it’s also our calendar, music archive, mobile browser, photo album… you get the idea. One of the useful functions of the smartphone would be to help us track our expenses, so as not to well, overspend. Before I carry on I have to point out that I’m looking for expense trackers, not finance managers. With that in mind, here are the apps (in no particular order) I’d be reviewing today:

First, I’d be looking at the ease of setup then the speed and ease of creating entries. Then I’d look at reviewing expenses and budget from the app, and conclude with some final comments.

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Setup

To track your expenses well, one must first set the budget so as to view your expenses within the context of your budget. Here’s how the various apps handle setup of the budget upon launch:

Saver: tap on Budget, key in the numbers and tap Done. There’s also the option of renewing the budget monthly.

BudgetCare: tap on Budget & Balance, then Monthly budget, key in the numbers and tap Save. There’s also the option of renewing the budget monthly.

MoneyBook: tap the arrow next to the Main salary label, key in the numbers and tap Save.

Expenditure doesn’t allow for budgeting at all; it is as its name suggests — an expenditure tracking app. Having said that, you can create a budget as an Income entry; more on that later.

Verdict:

Personally I love how Saver and MoneyBook handles the setup of budget. It’s fast and intuitive. To be fair, BudgetCare’s approach required just one more tap but well, that is still one tap too many. As for Expenditure, the idea of budgeting is a little different in the sense and we’d soon see how to create our own budget.

Also, Saver has one thing against it and that is the inability to set a budget start-date apart from start of the month. This is a problem if your income comes in mid-month and you want to start a budget after your income has arrived.

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Creating entries

This is probably most important part of an expense tracker — the entry, for if it’s unintuitive or a hassle to key in my expenses fast, then I probably won’t do it and it defeats the purpose of the app as well as the habit.

Saver: tap on + (which is logically placed right in the middle) and then key in the numbers. By default your expense category will be General but with a tap you can set the other categories and before tapping Save. To do more, tap on the same category and you’d bring up the sub-categories as well as options to modify the date, add a note or a photo.

Saver entry

creating entries in Saver

BudgetCare: tap on New transaction, then key in the amount. From the same screen you can choose the categories and set the date. There’s a More options which brings you to another screen to modify the payment mode, add a note or set the expense to be a recurring one. One little note: by default the expense category is… nothing. Hence you have to choose a category for your expense.

MoneyBook: tap on New transaction and key in the numbers. In the same screen you can change the date or the categories (swipe to reveal more) or add a note. One very nice touch is the in-built calculator which allows you to do simple addition or subtraction within the screen. This last point is useful when you have multiple expenses. One caveat is that if the app is in other screens (see below) besides Overview, you’d need to tap on it because the New transaction button is only available in that screen.

Expenditure tap on New transaction (the button looks very similar to that of MoneyBook’s; or the other way round), key in the numbers and decide if it’s an Income or Expense. Here you can also tap a two way arrow to change the currency of the entry. Nice. After all these, tap OK and you’d be brought to another screen where you can choose the categories, change the date and set repeating, as well as add a photo or a note before tapping Save transaction.

Now, here’s where you create the budget for Expenditure. Enter your monthly budget as an Income entry and set it to repeat if necessary.

similar buttons for Expenditure (left) and MoneyBook (right)

Verdict:

Saver’s other options wasn’t exactly intuitive (tapping the same category twice) but once you’ve gotten the hang of it it’s rather natural. Here I’d say that MoneyBook and Saver won me over by their ease of use and also for giving me the ability to bring up multiple options only when I want them — meaning I can just key in the expense amount and save. BudgetCare does that too but the need to key in a category makes the flow a little cumbersome; Expenditure’s second screen of multiple options feels the same.

I have a minor irritation with keying in of numbers within Expenditure and that’s because the app starts your amount in the cents, meaning I have to tap 8, 0, 0 to get $8 else it’d be $0.08. All the other apps start in the dollars and offer a decimal point for cents.

However, Expenditure has a feature that trumps all — multiple currencies and this is a big deal for Singaporean users who purchase on blog shops or iTunes often (since iTunes charge in US$).

In terms of recurring expense, all the apps do it except Saver (for now).

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Reviewing

After a while, assuming that you have been faithful in keying in your expenses, you’d probably want to review them. Here’s how the apps stack up against each other in this aspect.

Saver: Saver has a beautiful pie graph of your expenses (by week, month or year) which opens up to more details when you tap on a specific part of the graph. Being a graph, it’s quite easy to see how your various expenses compare against each other. There’s also the option to toggle percentages. However, the graph screen only tells you how much you’ve spent and the breakdown; to see the balance you’d have to go to the Balance screen. There, the budget left is shown in an unassuming grey.

BudgetCare: BudgetCare has only one main screen and the bar at the bottom shows the money spend; you are only in trouble if it’s full. Personally I find it a little counterintuitive, especially since it’s green (read: safe). On the main screen you can select Statistics and there you are treated with a list of expenses. There’s also a pie-looking button which brings you to a pie graph which also shows you your daily, weekly, monthly or yearly expenses by value or by percentages.

MoneyBook: MoneyBook has the most intuitive design to monitor your budget — a vertical gauge. There’s also a $x per day thing shown which seems to work by averaging your expenditures over the days in the budget. However, towards the end of the budget the numbers go wonky and I’m not sure how useful it is. As for monitoring your expenses, MoneyBook doesn’t have a pie graph; instead it sports bar graphs when you tilt your phone into the landscape mode. And there’s two sets of graphs: in Transactions, the graph shows you your expenses by categories; in History the line graph shows you your income and total expenditures over the months.

As if it’s not enough, MoneyBook allows you to export the data to a web app so you can see the data over the Web.

Expenditure: Expenditure is very straightforward in reviewing your budget — how much you have left is shown as big numbers right on top. Under the numbers you can toggle to see the Top categories (meaning you spent the most), Recent transactions and Top months.

4 apps reports

reports of Expenditure (top left), Saver (top right), BudgetCare (bottom left) and MoneyBook (bottom right)

Verdict:

Expenditure is no nonsense and clean while the rest all sport graphs of different kinds. MoneyBook and BudgetCare are the most powerful, but only the former uses the tilt of the phone which is a nice touch, eliminating the need for more buttons. Saver has the prettiest graph but MoneyBook and Expenditure allows you to see your balance at one glance.

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Conclusion

There’s still much to talk about, like the ability to export data and having password protection. However, to the causal user, especially those who want to just use their phone for expense tracking, such features are moot. I initially wanted to conclude a ‘winner’ for each section but realized that they all approach this complex habit differently. Here’s my take on them all:

Saver is the most eye catching but it still lacks in certain features. Having said that, it’s the newest and there’s a lot of room for growth — it’s only version 1.0! It’s currently selling for the introduction price of US$2.99.

BugetCare has a very clinical look and feel to it (and I hate the icon), but it is undoubtedly powerful. However,  if you are going to spend US$1.99 on it, I would actually recommend you to consider MoneyBook instead.

MoneyBook is US$2.99 but it’s as powerful as BudgetCare, though in different areas. BudgetCare has more reports than MoneyBook, but my guess is that the average user isn’t going to be bothered about the lack of them; MoneyBook on the other hand has offers you a more visual look at your monthly expenses, and feels a lot more intuitive.

Expenditure is US$1.99 and it works very well by being simple. Sure there’s no fancy graphs nor icons for categories (quite a bummer to visually inclined people), but it works and it doesn’t feel as clinical as BudgetCare.

So which will I recommend? If you don’t want to spend much and don’t mind a lot of words, get Expenditure. If you don’t want to spend and don’t mind a more clinical look as well as want the reports (read: you are a data whore) you’d want to get BudgetCare. For US$2.99 I’m torn between the more modernistic looking Saver and the slightly dated looking but more powerful MoneyBook.

Ultimately these apps are here to help you track your expenses and hopefully cause you to save more! As long they achieve that, it doesn’t matter which app you use. Is there other expense tracking (not finance manager) apps you’d recommend? Add it to the comments below!

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