Level Money: Free, But Not Ideal for Variable Income

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Gone are the days of the pen and paper budgets that require manual updates and re-writing of your entire spending plan each time you make a new purchase. These days there are quite a few different options for budgeting software and apps available that can help you track your spending and update your budget as your needs change throughout the month. But with so many options out there, it can be hard to find one that fits all of your needs.

One popular budgeting app option is Level Money.

What is Level Money?

LevelMoneyLevel Money is a budgeting app that launched in 2013 in San Francisco, California. It was acquired by Capital One in 2015 and became part of Capital One’s Digital Innovation Team to reinforce Capital One’s commitment to digital banking technologies. According to Level Money’s website, the app has over 800,000 downloads to date. Level Money’s motto is “Spend smarter. Do more. Live better.” But how exactly does it work?

How Does Level Money Work?

The Level Money app allows you to easily connect your bank account(s) and any credit cards to the app. It currently works with over 18,000 financial institutions, so hopefully your bank account and credit cards will be available to connect to the app.

Next you enter your income, your monthly bills, and how much you want to save each month. Level Money crunches all those numbers for you and comes up with your “Spendable” cash each day.

Another part of the app, called “Insights”, allows you to keep track of your spending in certain categories, like dining out or transportation, so you can see how these expenses change over time. You can also see your bank balance history and some projections going forward based on your spending and income habits.

The third way to view your finances in Level Money is on the tab called “Plan”. This shows a pie chart and a summarized number for your income, bills, savings goal, and total “spendable” income left over.

Security Features Offered by Level Money

One of the biggest concerns many people have about using a budgeting app is security. The Level Money app does require you to enter your financial account information to use all of its services. According to its website, Level Money uses the same 128-bit Encryption as banks and other financial institutions.

Who Should Use Level Money?

Budgeting apps, like Level Money, are a great tool for those who like to check their finances on the go. Having access to your income numbers, bills, and spendable income at any time on your smartphone could be a good deterrent to overspending your budget. With just a few taps on your phone, you can see whether or not a purchase you are about to make is within your budget or not.

It has been reported that the app is not as user friendly for those with a variable income or expenses that only come up every few months. However, a new version of the app is supposed to help combat these issues by allowing you to select how often you pay your bills.

Another potential downside of the app is for those who use primarily cash for their purchases. The Level Money app doesn’t have a system in place to keep track of transactions made outside of your linked bank accounts and credit cards.

What Does Level Money Cost?

One of the best things about Level Money is that it’s free to use. The app also doesn’t rely on advertisements, which is a nice feature. Many budgeting apps that are free to use, like Mint.com, use advertisements to help pay for the app since users don’t have to pay to use the services.

Pros and Cons of Level Money

Pros

  • 100% free to use with no advertisements
  • Simple to set up and use
  • Links to multiple bank accounts and credit cards
  • Provides insight into how much money you have left to spend per day and per month

Cons

  • Doesn’t provide advice for how to use your money to improve your finances, other than encouraging you to meet the savings goal you set up within the app.
  • May not be the best fit for those with a variable income (such as freelancers).
  • No easy way to account for cash purchases, which can be a big downside for those who like to budget with cash.

How Does Level Money Stack Up?

As mentioned, Level Money is far from the only budgeting app available. Every Dollar and Mint.com also offer budgeting apps to help your personal finances.

Every Dollar

EveryDollarEvery Dollar is the budgeting app designed by Dave Ramsey’s team to help people with their zero sum budgeting strategy. It’s easy to set up and use, but in order to get a complete picture of your finances by linking your bank accounts and credit cards, you have to pay for the Every Dollar Plus version of the app for $99 a year. It also doesn’t have charts and graphs that many people find helpful in analyzing their spending.

Mint.com

MintMint.com is very similar to Level Money in that it’s 100% free to use, even if you link you bank accounts and credit cards. However, there are ads from financial institutions and products that may look like helpful advice. You need to be aware that these products and services may not be the right fit for you. Mint.com does profit from these advertisements and recommendations.

Should You Use Level Money?

Level Money is a good way to track your budget, expenses, and available cash on the go. It seems to be particularly handy for those who are always wondering how much they have available for spending on any given day of the month as the app provides that information with just a glance. Plus if you start using Level Money and decide it’s not for you, you can always cancel without losing any money as it’s 100% free to use the app.

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The Case Against Using Budgeting Apps

Man Paying Bills With Laptop

Apps exist to streamline tasks for us, to make them easier or more efficient. I myself use dozens of apps for precisely these reasons. I have a mapping app that makes it easier for me to find my way around, a podcast app that keeps all my podcasts conveniently in one place, and a calendar app that organizes my schedule. With apps like these, you just punch in your info, make some selections, and everything is automatically organized and streamlined for you.

However, there’s one important area of my life where I consciously choose not to use an app, even though there are quite a few of them available to choose from, and that area is budgeting.

Instead of using an app for budgeting, I use a homemade Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet has columns where I enter every single one of my purchases manually and assign it a category. The spreadsheet then tabulates the amount of money I spent in each category over the course of a month so I can see if I came in under budget or not. It also has other columns where I manually enter the amounts of my paychecks from my full-time job, as well as any additional money I made on the side, and there is another set of columns dedicated to keeping track of loan repayments.

At first glance, my spreadsheet may not appear streamlined at all; in fact, it might even look a little clunky. It has a large number of rows and columns, a separate sheet for each month, and notes to myself scattered throughout. It also requires constant upkeep: I need to set a few minutes aside each day to manually enter new purchases, payments, and earnings.

So why bother with it when there are so many apps available?

For me, there are two reasons. The first is personalization. Budgeting is nothing if not personal. No one else can decide what your financial goals are, what you want to keep track of, or how you want to categorize your purchases. And the more personal a project is, the less helpful a one-size-fits-all app is going to be. True, taking an existing app and changing the settings to suit my needs would give me some amount of control over what my budget looked like. But building my budgeting system from the ground up gives me much more.

The second reason has to do with awareness and accountability. Entering new information manually each evening does take a small amount of time out of my day, but the result is that I’m extremely aware of my spending habits. If I spend $49.95 on a new sweater during the day, then I will see exactly what that purchase does to my budget when I enter it into the spreadsheet later. Sometimes just the knowledge that I will have to enter a potential purchase in the spreadsheet later on stops me from making that purchase in the first place.

If you’re interested in creating your own personalized spreadsheet for budgeting, here are some tips to get you started:

  • Start simple. Begin by making a list of the categories you think you spend money on each month: rent/mortgage, groceries, entertainment, etc.
  • Experiment. Track your spending carefully for a month using these categories, and then reevaluate. You may find that you made purchases that don’t fit into any category, or you may find that some categories are too broad or too narrow for your needs. Be flexible in adjusting your categories for the following month.
  • Personalize. Make your spreadsheet align with your goals and your lifestyle. Do you want to be able to track money spent on cat food separately from money spent on cat toys? Then make a dedicated category for each. Everyone’s financial decisions and priorities are unique, so make your budgeting system work for you.
  • Learn some Excel formulas. Creating a spreadsheet that automatically totals the amounts in various spending categories will save you a lot of time. There are a plethora of free Excel tutorials available online.
  • Give yourself space. Limit yourself to one month per sheet, and make an additional sheet where you total up your spending across an entire year.
  • Visualize. Try making pie charts or line graphs to visualize your spending habits and how they change over time.
  • Set an alert. Set yourself a calendar reminder each evening to update your spreadsheet with the day’s purchases and payments.
  • Be patient. It took me nearly a year of refining my spreadsheet to get it to where I wanted it to be. Be okay with the fact that it’s an evolving process, and remember that you’re learning a lot about yourself as you track and reflect on your financial choices.

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