The Best Personal Finance App Isn’t an App

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The best personal finance app isn’t an app. And it isn’t a desktop computer program. It isn’t a program or app at all.

The best personal finance app is a modern, cloud-based spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets are the most flexible tool for budgeting, tracking expenses, understanding cash flow, visualizing money trends, paying down debt, monitoring net worth, and collaborating with a spouse or partner.

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Of course, modern spreadsheets actually have a lot in common with apps.

For example, today’s spreadsheets have automatic backups, beautiful visualizations, real-time collaboration, and cloud-based online access.

And, of course, they even have their own native smartphone apps.

But spreadsheets also combine many incredible features unavailable in any single app.

These include real-time collaboration, a vast library of free, easy personal finance templates, useful extensions and add-ons, even scripting languages and a vibrant developer community.

The limits of personal finance apps

Personal Finance App

The most frustrating, limiting thing about personal finance apps is their lack of flexibility.

Most apps want you to track your money their way.

But the “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work for long. After all, you have your own way of thinking about your financial life and goals.

Lack of flexibility is partly why personal finance apps have such massive churn. Just 3.4% of personal finance apps are still being used 90 days after they were downloaded.

What a software company thinks is an “easy” or “engaging” way to manage money is often complicated and limiting. Even worse, it probably doesn’t apply to your situation.

So, as millions of people say each day, back to the spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets are incredibly popular

A recent survey found that 24 million Americans use spreadsheets as their primary personal finance tool. 

Google spreadsheets are especially popular among millennials, who often have complicated goals like buying a house, starting a family, and paying down student loans. (Here at Tiller Money, our biggest user cohort is aged 25-34.)

People who use spreadsheets rate them very highly. An Inc. Magazine survey found:

  • 89% say spreadsheets give them more control over how they track their finances
  • 83% think spreadsheets are easier and simpler to use than the app they tried
  • 81% say spreadsheets have better reporting options than apps they’ve tried

Why do people prefer spreadsheets for managing money?

“I value flexibility first, which is why Google Sheets has been my personal finance GOAT (greatest of all time).”

– Alex Cohen, Google Sheets, the Personal Finance GOAT

People who use spreadsheets to manage their financial lives rate them highly for power, simplicity, familiarity, and collaboration.

But the highest-rated feature of spreadsheets is flexibility. Spreadsheets provide ultimate flexibility for how you track your financial life.

Here are some specific spreadsheet features that make them better than any app for managing your financial life.

12 reasons spreadsheets excel (sorry) for tracking your financial life

1. Track multiple financial goals in one place with one tool

You probably have several big financial goals, obligations, and desires. When we asked over 500 people about their biggest financial goals, the top five answers were:

  1. Spend less money
  2. Pay Down Debt
  3. Save More and Make a Budget
  4. Create an Additional Income Stream
  5. Get Financially in Sync With Your Spouse or Partner

You can easily track all of these with spreadsheets. In fact, if you wanted, you could simultaneously track all of them in multiple tabs on a single spreadsheet.

Here’s a page with links for tracking the most popular goals in a spreadsheet, complete with easy templates to get you started.

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2. Budget with complete control of transaction categories

Properly categorized transactions are the basis of any effective financial tracking system. But most personal finance apps force you to use predefined categories, with limited control to delete or rename them.

With a spreadsheet, you can use as many of your own categories as you want. You can change or delete them anytime. And you can go beyond categories with category groups and custom tags.

3. Experiment with hundreds of free, customizable templates

“Budgeting is hundreds of years old, so why try and reinvent it? It’s much easier to use a Google Sheets budget template.” – Your Money Geek  

Speaking of templates, there are thousands of free, easy, high-quality spreadsheet templates for every kind of personal finance task and job.

Templates give you the benefits of using a spreadsheet without having to build a dashboard from scratch. Of course, many spreadsheet pros also use templates to get started, then modify them to meet their specific needs.

4. Use custom reports, graphs, pivot tables, and visualizations

Many personal finance apps feature charts that can’t be customized or exported. Even worse, they don’t let you build custom reports.

Spreadsheets, however, offer hundreds of ways to report and visualize data.

From pivot tables to pie charts to waterfall charts and beyond, there’s always a new way to see your financial trends in a spreadsheet.

Your charts and reports automatically update as new transactions enter your spreadsheet. And you can easily embed them in other docs, or export your reports for safekeeping.

  • Bonus: Check out Tiller Money Labs for free personal finance reports for Google Sheets

5. Use more than one budget scenario and budget with custom time periods

Similar to tracking all your financial goals in one place, spreadsheets allow you to track multiple budgets with custom time periods.

Need a monthly budget and a yearly budget in one place? No problem. Want to add a simple 50/30/20 tracker? Here you go. Do you earn “lumpy” freelance income? Great. Spreadsheets are truly the most flexible tool for budgeting.

6. Secure, real-time collaboration

Share Your Google Sheet

Seeing our discretionary spending — things like travel and eating out for example — helps us understand our spending habits and find ways to save more money in a healthy way. – How we manage our family finances with Google Sheets, Ben Collins

Spreadsheets are the best tool for people who want to manage money together. Real-time collaboration is one of Google Sheets’ most powerful and popular features.

There are many ways to share and collaborate in your spreadsheets with your spouse, bookkeeper, or financial planner.

7. Easily extend your spreadsheet and add new features

Cloud-based spreadsheets are extensible by design. Give your spreadsheet new powers with thousands of free add-ons, scripts, formulas, and automation tools. You can even use Google Apps Script to create your own custom features.

8. Modify every aspect of your spreadsheet’s appearance

You’re more likely to keep using a personal finance tool if you enjoy how it looks. Especially if you designed it yourself.

You can modify almost every aspect of your spreadsheet’s appearance, with custom colors, fonts, emoji, checkboxes, and forms.

9. Your data is protected with powerful security

Every personal finance app should require 2-step verification. 2-Step verification means you’re the only person who can sign in to your account, even if your passwords have been stolen or compromised.

Unbelievably, while some personal finance apps still don’t support 2-step verification, both Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel have long supported this protocol.

10. No annoying ads or partner offers

Many apps monetize through ads targeted to your financial profile. They send you “partner offers” from credit cards, loans, and insurance companies. They may even call you to sign up for premium services.

You won’t see ads in Google Docs or Sheets. Google’s CEO has explicitly said the company will “never sell any personal information to third parties.” And for its ad network, Google “does not include the personal data in apps such as Docs.”

11. Spreadsheets are a lifetime financial tool

“Real talk, Level Money is the only budgeting app that has ever stuck with me. So I’m bummed to report that Level Money is shutting down.” – Level One, my Beloved Budgeting App, Is Shutting Down by Megan Rose Dickey

The road to financial fitness is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s important that you have tools that will help you along that personal journey.

Unfortunately, because of the churn mentioned above, personal finance apps shut down all the time. But spreadsheets have been around since the 1970s, and they are here to stay.

It’s annoying when you take the time (and headaches) of setting up a personal finance app, only to outgrow it.

In contrast, you can use a spreadsheet for years, through every stage of your financial journey, even as your life and goals grow and change.

Some people even have spreadsheets with over 20 years of financial data!

12. Your data is yours

Speaking of data, with a spreadsheet you own your data and can easily export it anytime.

Your data is never trapped in an app you no longer use, or some proprietary or obsolete data format.

You even have your choice of universal formats for exporting and archiving your financial data, such as CSV, XLXS, PDF, even HTML.

Bonus: Spreadsheets are free!

Google Sheets is completely free for personal use. Most add-ons and templates are also free. For example, Tiller Money Labs is a free add-on with dozens of free templates and personal finance tools.

Here’s a workflow with a free template to help you see your financial picture when you’re dealing with high money stress.

At Tiller Money, we originally planned to build a new personal finance app

When we first started working on Tiller Money, we were focused on building a better financial app.

However, we quickly learned that the people who were most engaged with their finances already used a tool they loved. That tool, of course, was spreadsheets.

So instead of building yet another app, we looked at ways we could solve two of the biggest frustrations with spreadsheets:

  • Manual data entry, which is tedious when you have several accounts
  • Ease of use, as spreadsheets can seem complex for beginners

Eliminate data entry with Tiller Money

Tiller Money automatically updates your Google spreadsheets with daily finances from all your accounts, including banks, credit cards, brokerages, and loans.

By eliminating manual data entry, multiple account logins, or CSV files, Tiller Money Feeds makes personal finance spreadsheets 10x faster.

Finding a tool that suits your needs is a great step to better financial management, particularly in helping you create awareness. If you want more flexibility and control than you’ve found with other apps, then try Google Sheets powered by Tiller Money.

The road to financial fitness is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s important that you have tools that will help you along that personal journey.

Using a spreadsheet for budgeting doesn’t have to be the cumbersome experience of the past. Tiller Money provides data feeds, templates, and customer support to make it easy. Now more than ever, the best budgeting “app” isn’t an app.

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