Taking control of your personal finances is simple in theory. But if you’re struggling with budgeting, saving, or investing, trying a new tool may be the ticket to making better decisions and improving your success.
Here are eight of the best personal finance tools to make sense of your money, stay organized, and achieve your financial goals.
8 Best Budgeting and Personal Finance Tools
Keep reading to learn more about each of these budgeting and personal finance tools.
Quicken has been around a long time and is considered the gold standard in personal finance software. They have a suite of products that connect to multiple types of accounts, such as banks, credit cards, lenders, and investments, to aggregate your transactions.
Like many companies, they’ve moved to a subscription model where you pay an annual fee and get automatic updates for new features and services.
The Starter version gives you a lot, including automatic expense categorization, limited budget tracking, and a bill dashboard, for $35 per year. Upgrading to Deluxe ($50) or Premier ($75) gives you the Starter features plus customizable budgeting, loan tracking, investment tracking and analysis, bill pay, and online backup.
Quicken has far more features than I’ll ever use, but it’s my favorite way to manage money.
You can use Quicken on your PC or Mac, but PC users can also get a Home & Business version for $100 per year. It helps you manage a small business or freelance work by separating personal and business expenses, emailing custom invoices with payment links, and tracking business tax deductions.
You can enter transactions manually into Quicken if you don’t want to connect to your financial accounts online. And there are Quicken mobile apps to sync up with your desktop version, although you can’t see all your data.
Quicken has far more features than I’ll ever use, but it’s my favorite way to manage money. Every week I import new transactions and make sure they’re categorized correctly, especially those related to taxes, so I can easily create reports at tax time.
Mint is one of the original web-based personal finance management programs. It’s free to sign up and connect your financial accounts, such as a bank, credit card, loans, and investments through an easy-to-use dashboard.
The Mint mobile app has a lot of functionality, allowing you to check account balances and monthly budgets.
Socially Responsible Investing: Is It Also More Profitable?
Since the Dawn of Mustachianism in 2011, the same question has come up over and over again:
I see your point that index fund investing is the best option. But when you buy the index, you’re getting oil companies, factory farm slaughterhouses and a million other dirty stories.
How can I get the benefits of investing for early retirement without contributing to the decline of humanity?”
And in these nine years since then, the movement towards socially responsible investing has only grown. Public pension funds have started to “divest” from oil company stocks, and various social issues like human rights, child labor, climate change or corporate corruption have bubbled to the surface at different times.
And all of this has led to the exploding new field of Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), and a growing array of new ways to do it.
So it seems that this is not just a passing trend – people just might be starting to care a bit more. And since capitalism is just an expression of human behavior, the nature of capitalism itself may be starting to change.
This leads us naturally to the question:
What can I do with my money to help fix the world? And even better, is there a way I can make money in the process of fixing it?
The answer is a good, solid “Probably.”
As long as you don’t get too hung up on getting every last detail perfect, because just like real life, investing is a haphazard and approximate and unpredictable thing. But by understanding the big picture, you can make slightly better decisions on average, which lead to slightly better results. And slightly better results, stacked up consistently over time, can lead to a much better life, or even a much better world.
This is true in all of the main areas we care about – personal wealth, fitness and health, even relationships and happiness. And while your money and investments are certainly not the most important thing in life, they are still worthy of a bit of easy and effective optimization.
So anyway, the first thing to understand with SRI is, “what problem am I trying to solve?”
The answer is, “You are trying to make your investing (especially index fund investing) have a better impact on the world.”
On its own, index fund investing is ridiculously simple. You just get an account at any brokerage like Vanguard, Etrade, Schwab or whatever, and dump all your money into one exchange-traded fund: VTI.
When you do this, you are buying a stake in 3500 companies at once(!), which is both impressive and overwhelming. How do you even know what you are holding?
Well, this is all public information, and easily available with a quick Google search. For example, here’s a list of the top 90 holdings in VTI (click for larger):
As you can see, the biggest chunk of money is allocated to today’s tech darlings, because this index fund is weighted according to market value, and these are the most valuable companies in the US today.
Through a convenient coincidence, the total value of the VTI fund happens to be just under $1 trillion dollars, which means you can just throw a decimal point after the ten billions digit of market value to get a percentage. In other words, about 4.7% of your money will go towards Apple stock, 4.4 towards Microsoft, and so on. Together, these top 90 companies are worth more than the remaining 3,410 companies combined, so these are what really drive your retirement account.
And within this list, you will see some of the usual suspects: Exxon and Chevron (oil), Philip Morris (tobacco), Raytheon and Lockheed (bombs), and so on.
But what about the less-usual suspects? For example, I happen to think that sugar, and especially sugar-packed beverages like Coke, is the biggest killer in the developed world – a major contributor to 2 million of the 2.8 million deaths each year in the US alone. Should I exclude that from my portfolio too?
And what about drug and insurance companies – aren’t they behind the political stalemate and high costs of the US healthcare system? Comcast funded some election disinformation campaigns here in my home town in the early 2010s, should I exclude them too? And if you’re part of a religion that is against charging interest on loans, or in favor of pasta and Pirate costumes, or against a spherical Earth, or any number of additional ornate rules, you may have still more preferences.
The higher your desire for perfection, the more difficult this exercise will become. However, if you are like me and you just want to get most of the desired result with minimal effort, you might simply have a look at the Vanguard fund called ESGV.
ESG stands for “Environmental, Social and Governance”, and in practice it just means “We have tried to avoid some of the shittier companies according to some fairly simple rules.”
And the result is this:
The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s almost the same. In fact, the top five holdings – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet (Google) and Netflix not far behind, collectively referred to as the FAANG stocks – are completely unchanged – and this means that there will be plenty of correlation between these funds.
It’s also the reason that the stock market as a whole has recovered so quickly from this COVID-era recession: small businesses like restaurants and hair salons have been destroyed by the shutdowns, but big companies that benefit from people staying at home and using computers and phones are making more money than ever. The stock market isn’t the whole economy, it’s just the publicly traded companies, which are the big ones.
But let’s look at the biggest differences between the normal index fund versus the social version.
The following large companies listed on the left are missing in the ESGV fund, in order of size. And to make up the difference, the stake in the companies on the right have been boosted up to take their place in your portfolio.
The omission of Berkshire Hathaway was a bit of a shocker, as it is run with solid ethical principles by Warren Buffett, one of the worlds most generous philanthropists. And in fact the modern day nerd-saint Bill Gates is on the Berkshire board of directors, another person whose work I follow and respect greatly.
(side note: Apparently the company fails on the “independent governance” category. And Buffett disputes this category, but in his characteristic way has decided to say, “Fuck it, I’ma just keep doing my own thing with my half-trillion dollar empire over here and you can have fun with your little committee” – I’m paraphrasing a bit but he totally did say that.)
Furthermore, both funds hold the factory meat king Tyson foods, while neither holds Roundup-happy Monsanto, because it was bought by the German conglomerate Bayer AG a while back. Nextera is a giant electric utility in the Southeastern US that claims to be the world’s largest generator of renewable energy. Some do-gooders are against nuclear power, while others (including me) think it’s the Bee’s Knees and we should keep advancing it. And all this just goes to show how nobody will agree 100% on what makes a good socially responsible fund.
But What About The Performance?
In the past, some investors were nervous about giving up oil companies in their portfolio, because while it was a dirty substance, it was also what made the world go round – which meant it was a cash cow.
Now, however, oil is on its way out as renewable energy and battery storage have crossed the cost parity threshold – meaning it’s cheaper to make power (and vehicles) that don’t use oil. In its place, technology is the new cash cow, and tech is heavily represented in the ESG funds. The result:
As you can see, the performance has been similar but the ESG fund has done significantly better in the (admittedly short) time since it was introduced at Vanguard.
Of course, we have no idea if this will continue, but the point is that at least our thesis is not a ridiculous one – environmentally sustainable companies do have an advantage, if the world gradually starts to care more about these things. And if you look at the share price of Tesla and other companies that surround it in electric transportation and energy storage, you will see that there are many trillions of dollars already lining up to benefit from this transition. And the very presence of so much investment money creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Tesla is now building or expanding five of the world’s largest factories on three continents simultaneously.
So What Should You Do? (and what I do myself)
First of all, it helps to remember a fundamental piece of economics: your spending dollars will probably have a much bigger impact than your investment dollars. This is because you are sending a direct message to the world rather than an indirect one:
When you buy a new gasoline-powered Subaru (or a tank of gas for your existing guzzler) or a steak at the grocery store, or a plane ticket, you are telling those companies directly that consumers want more of these products, so they will produce more of them immediately.
When you buy shares in Exxon, you are only subtly raising the demand for those shares, which raises the average price, making it ever-so-slightly easier for Exxon to maybe issue more shares in the future. In other words, you are making it easier for them to access capital. But capital is only useful if there is demand for their products. And with oil there is a nearly constant surplus, which is why OPEC and other cartels need to work together to artificially restrict supply, just to keep prices up.
Plus, as a shareholder you are theoretically eligible to place votes and influence the future direction of companies – even companies that you don’t like. If you look up the field of “shareholder activism”, you’ll see this is a tradition that goes way back.
So I have tried to take a few simple steps on the consumer side myself, and I find it quite satisfying: Insulating the shit out of all of my properties, building a DIY solar electric array on one of them, and buying one electric car so far to eliminate local gas burning. And a few electric bikes including a super fast one I made myself.
Each one of these steps has provided a very high economic return, percentage-wise, but that still leaves a lot of money to account for, which brings us back to stock investing.
As someone who loves simplicity, I have done this:
- Bought almost entirely VTI (or similar Vanguard funds) from 2000-2015
- Started experimenting with Betterment in 2015, liked it, and have been adding a percentage of my ongoing savings to that account to that since then. (Note that Betterment now also offers a socially responsible portfolio option.)
- Switched the dividend re-investing of my old Vanguard VTI over to Vanguard ESGV, to avoid “wash sales” in making the most of Betterment’s tax loss harvesting feature.
- Bought some shares of Berkshire Hathaway separately, and also make a few sentimental investments in local businesses, including the MMM HQ Coworking space.
But you could choose to be more hardcore in your ESG/SRI investing:
- Buy your own basket of stocks based on the index, but with different weighting based on your own values
- Spend more money on other things that generate or save money (a bigger solar array on your house, better insulation, electric car, an ebike to reduce car trips, etc.)
- Invest in local businesses of your choice, rental real estate, community solar projects, or other things which generate passive income – publicly traded stocks are just one of many ways to fund an early retirement!
Like most areas of life, investing is not something you have to do perfectly in order to succeed – even socially responsible investing. If you apply the 80/20 rule to get the big picture right, you have probably found the Sweet Spot and you can move on to the next area of life to optimize.
In the Comments:
What is your own investment strategy? Have you thought at all about this ESG / SRI stuff? Did this article bring anything new to the table?
One half of this millennial couple is cheap, the other doesn't believe in budgets at all
It’s like clockwork. When a 37-year-old HVAC technician we’ll call Rick is plugging away at piecing together a new system, the push notifications on his phone come in rapid succession: Boom, boom, boom. Rick, who earned $185,000 in 2019, receives an alert each time his wife, a 31-year-old stay-at-home mom we’ll call Leslie swipes his credit card. On cue, Rick’s Apple Watch will send him a follow-up notification: This one simply says, “breathe.”
Sometimes, it’s hard for Rick to remember when he knows he earned $8,900 in a recent month and he and his wife spent all but $1,050 of it.
It sounds like something out of the 1950s sitcom the Honeymooners, with Rick and Leslie living out an episode that’s been updated for the modern era. For them, friction over money isn’t an old-fashioned cliché, it’s at the centre of their relationship.
Rick earns $51.67 per hour and regularly works 60-hour weeks to generate the income his family needs to live its current lifestyle — one where they can afford to have two condos, spend more than $10,000 per year on vacations and spoil their kids. Leslie usually does most of the spending.
They say opposites attract and that seems to be the case here. Rick sees himself as frugal — he’s a penny-pincher working those long hours because he’s concerned they won’t be there forever. Naturally, he wants to be on a budget.
There’s just one problem.
“(Leslie) doesn’t believe in budgets,” Rick said.
Leslie won’t think twice about spending on food or shopping, especially if it’s for her children. She doesn’t believe her husband when he brings up the need to save.
“He wants to save money because he’s cheap not because he actually needs to save money,” Leslie said. Rick, she says, earns enough money to make watching what they spend an irrelevant exercise.
“I wouldn’t say I don’t believe in a budget, I just don’t understand a budget,” she said. “I feel a budget is for people who don’t have money. I feel (Rick) makes a substantial amount of money and it doesn’t apply to me.”
Whenever Rick floats the idea that Leslie should be spending less money, she fires back and says that any extra savings should come from his expenses and not hers, particularly when it comes to money he spent on alcohol ($450), eating out ($101) or new clothing, like a shirt from Nordstrom ($121). It’s almost insulting to Leslie when he suggests that she reduce the grocery budget by shopping at a discount grocer.
“If money is as tight as you make it seem, why are you spending it on yourself?” Leslie asks.
Meanwhile, Leslie spent more than $1,000 on groceries and treats like ice cream and candy for her kids. More than half the shopping expenses were hers — mostly in toys and clothes, again for her kids.
Inevitably, a discussion around budgeting will lead to Rick suggesting that Leslie goes back to work. Rick suspects she might be able to earn around $50,000 as an administrative assistant.
I asked Leslie if she’d consider that change.
“I refuse,” she said. “I have zero desire to get … a good job or a career, because I need to be there for my kids.”
Leslie had two complicated childbirths and grew very close to her children because of it. One of them is also autistic and needs extra attention and she doesn’t trust a babysitter to do the job.
There’s only one work scenario she’ll entertain and it’s outside Toronto.
Leslie wants Rick to sell the two condos he owns — the family lives in one and he holds the other as an investment property — so they can move to a house in Stoney Creek, Ont. Her parents live there and own a mom-and-pop shop in the community. She wouldn’t mind working 20 hours per week with them close by to help with the kids.
She’s at her “breaking point” living in her current home, a 1,000 sq. ft. condo with a 200 sq. ft balcony, and doesn’t see the use of Rick owning a second property. But Rick won’t budge on selling that second condo. He wants to keep it as an investment even if it’s not currently generating additional income for the family.
It’s clear Rick and Leslie aren’t going to agree on either a budget or their housing situation so I asked Nicola Wealth financial planner Ron Haik to weigh in.
This story is about compromise, Haik said, and so the only solution that’s going to work is one that won’t be ideal for either one of them. To start, they’ll have to implement a budget because even the wealthiest Canadians need them.
“It’s not about how much you make,” said Haik, disagreeing with Leslie. “It’s not even about how you much spend. It comes down to how much you can save. That’s your discipline.”
But most of what’s being cut will come from Rick’s side of the equation. Haik lowered the alcohol expenditures to a maximum of $360 per month, down from $460 and the eating out expenses to $280 from $337. Shopping will also be trimmed down to $900 per month.
The budget he drew up is for the couple to follow once they move to a $1.3-million home in Stoney Creek. That will mean that Rick will have to sell both of his condos, Haik said — financially, that’s the best move considering that the investment property isn’t generating income.
Haik suspects Rick will net about $600,000 from the sales that he could then combine with the $70,000 in his TFSA to fund a down payment. In order to afford higher housing expenses, which he estimates could be around $3,582 per month, and live the same lifestyle, Leslie will have to go back to work, at least for 20 hours per week.
“This is about give and take,” Haik said. “There’s only one other scenario (where they can afford a house) and that’s Rick working 60 hours a week forever. That’s not good for anybody, health wise.”
If Leslie could earn slightly more than $2,000 per month, Haik said, that would allow Rick to lower his hours to 50 per week and for their income to still reach a combined $10,627. Leslie’s salary would also be more than enough to offset child care, which Haik estimated would cost about $1,550 per month.
The fact that Haik sided with neither Rick nor Leslie appeared to work just as he said it would. Both were happy with the result.
“I was completely delusional,” Leslie admitted about her spending. Knowing that finding a job would mean allowing her to get her dream house next to her parents also changed her former hard stance. Now, she’ll consider it, she said.
“The compromise is fair,” Rick said. “I don’t see how else we can get there unless both of us are making compromises and pulling in the same direction.”
5 Tips for Building a Side Business
You’ve probably noticed that people are embracing entrepreneurship like never before. Due to the widespread availability of technological business tools, there’s never been a better time to become your own boss. With an internet connection and a smart-phone or laptop, you can work from just about anywhere on the planet.
If you’ve been dreaming of quitting your day job to start a business, you might be wondering if taking such a big leap is worth it.
While there’s nothing wrong with holding down a W-2 job and getting a steady paycheck, having income from your own business comes with many upsides. But if you’ve been dreaming of quitting your day job to start a business, you might be wondering if taking such a big leap is worth it.
The good news is that there are incremental ways to become self-employed that are stable and reduce your risk, instead of plunging abruptly into a precarious financial position. In this chapter excerpt from Money-Smart Solopreneur: A Personal Finance System for Freelancers, Entrepreneurs, and Side-Hustlers, you’ll learn practical strategies for building a solo business while keeping the security of a regular job.
Tips for building a business on the side
Becoming your own boss may seem glamorous from the outside, but it can have stressful pitfalls, such as little pay, no insurance benefits, and unpredictable clients. However, you can avoid or minimize some of the downsides by maintaining a reliable day job while you grow your solo business.
Having the security of a job and the excitement of becoming a solopreneur gives you lots of upside with much less risk. A steady paycheck may give you the confidence you need to take business risks—such as buying more advertising, equipment, or software—that will make your venture more profitable.
Having the security of a job and the excitement of becoming a solopreneur gives you lots of upside with much less risk.
Aside from maintaining a reliable income stream, being both an employee and an entrepreneur can make you a better worker. In my experience, growing a side business also builds skills and experiences that make you more effective at your regular job. You may even find your side hustle revives an appreciation for your day job. There’s a lot to like about having a salary, benefits, and other perks, after all.
Whether you decide to be both an employee and your own boss for weeks or years, it will take some juggling to manage successfully. Here are five tips to face your career fears responsibly and prepare for the future by adding entrepreneurship to your resume on the side.
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