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What is personal financial management?

Personal Financial Management (PFM) refers to any tool or platform that helps you budget and track your spending. PFMs grew out of budgeting software, like Quicken, that allow you to manage your finances on a desktop. New PFMs exist predominantly online or as smartphone apps (or both). A personal financial management tool makes it easier to make and maintain a budget.

Defining PFM »

How does a PFM work?

Each program is a little different, but they all basically do the same thing. They pull data about your income and expenses into a single platform. This makes tracking your spending easier so you can maintain a balanced budget.

A PFM is a faster, easier way to budget versus traditional pen and paper budgeting


Here are some basic step-by-step instructions that apply to almost any PFM:

  1. First you start by setting up the program, granting it access to all your various online accounts:
    1. Checking and savings accounts
    2. Credit cards and loans
    3. Investment accounts
    4. Bills, such as utilities
  2. For each account, you usually must provide login credentials (user name and password) so it can pull information automatically.
  3. Once you link all your accounts, a PFM will usually automatically try to categorize your transactions; you can also manually adjust and add categories to suit your goals.
  4. After you categorize everything the way you want it, you can also set monthly spending limits; these help you avoid overspending.
  5. PFMs also usually provide a bill payment calendar to remind you when payments are due.
  6. Then the system will notify you when you need to pay bills and when you’re getting close to a spending limit.
  7. In most cases, the PFM syncs each time you log in to pull new transaction information. This information is only stored for a limited amount of time, to help reduce the risk of ID theft.

How are PFMs different?

Different PFMs offer different features and benefits. Some have special features dedicated to helping you save money to achieve financial goals. Others allow you to split bills or share expenses, allowing you to budget with roommates. Some platforms also provide money-back incentives at places where you shop and spend money often.

And of course, the big difference is price. You typically have a choice between free platforms and monthly paid services. If you’ve never tried a PFM, start by using a free platform. Then, if you see that you’re using it daily and need something specific that’s only offered by a paid platform, you can upgrade as needed.

Features of a PFM
FeatureMust-have or Nice-to-have?
Tracking your spendingMust-have
Categorize expensesMust-have
Create budgets / spending targetsMust-have
Bill pay calendarMust-have
Text / email alertsMust-have
Bill shareNice-to-have
Savings goalsNice-to-have
Cash-back offersNice-to-have
Manually enter cash transactionsNice-to-have

Where do I get a PFM?

In the early days of PFMs, the only option was to use a paid, third-party service, like Mint. However, more and more, banks and credit unions offer PFM services free to their customers or members.

So, check with your financial institution first. Login to your online banking platform and see if they offer a budgeting tool integrated into that environment. This is often the best option, because:

  1. It’s free.
  2. The PFM is already integrated into your main financial accounts.
  3. You don’t increase your risk of identity theft with yet another online account that can potentially get hacked.

The next place you may gain access to a PFM is by working with a financial coach or consumer credit counselor. These types of services exist to help you achieve financial stability. So, they may offer tools that help you manage your finances, such as a budgeting tool or PFM.

If you don’t have access to a free platform through any of those sources, then find an independent third party.

5 essential PFM facts to know before you sign up

#1: This is the best solution for tracking your spending habits

The number one reason that people don’t budget is because it’s a hassle. But PFMs remove that hassle so it’s tracking your spending is really easy. Even if you manually set categories, PFMs learn as you go. So, most of the work is done automatically.

Custom email or text alerts are also useful to avoid overspending. So, for instance, if you are about to go over your food budget, it lets you know. Then you can commit to eating at home for the rest of the month to stay on track.

That’s why we recommend using a PFM, because it makes budgeting hassle-free. You need only to check an app and act accordingly.

#2: Always separate needs and wants

Automatic categories in a PFM tend to be pretty broad. We recommend that you make them more specific, particularly to separate needs and wants. For example, most PFMs put “food” all in the same category. However, this may not give you the spending control you need. Food is a necessity, but dining out is a luxury. So, if you separate “groceries” from “dining out” you split your food budget into two relevant categories.

The more you customize the categories in a PFM to fit your needs and budget, the better it will work for you. Clearly dividing needs versus wants is the primary way to do that.

#3: You can use a PFM to help build your emergency fund

Experts recommend that a household should set aside 1-3 months-worth of budgeted expenses; this is your emergency fund. Basically, it’s enough money that you could lose your job for up to three months and still cover everything you need to cover with savings. That way, you don’t have to rely on credit and go into debt. In a recession or weak economy, you should extend this to 6 months to one year.

A personal financial management tool can help you build an emergency fund

Setting aside that much money, however, is not always easy. But with a PFM, you can set up savings contributions as a recurring “expense.” This basically makes saving money an expense that you pay to yourself. Setting targets in your PFM reminds you to save and keeps you on track.

#4: Don’t forget to track cash transactions

A good PFM also allows you to manually enter cash transactions. This provides even greater control over your finances. For instance, let’s say that you take out $40 at an ATM. The PFM would only categorize that withdrawal, not what you did with the cash. But some platforms allow you to tell it what the money was used to purchase. So, you note that some was used to pay the babysitter, plus money for valet parking, plus bending machine purchases at work.

Again, the more data you put into a PFM, the more it can help in tracking your spending habits as accurately as possible. That way, you know just how much that afternoon soda at work costs you each year.

#5: PFMs typically offer bank-level security, but there’s still risk

People’s biggest concern with PFMs is the security risk and the potential for identity theft. The good news is that almost any accredited PFM offers bank-level security protections. They encrypt information and usually don’t hold information more than overnight or for a few days after each login session. This helps minimize the risk of getting hacked.

However, any online account gives cyberthieves another way to access your personal information and account data. If recent data breaches have taught us anything, it’s that any system can get hacked. So, adding another online account that pulls all of your financial information could increase your risk for ID theft and credit fraud.

This is one reason that recommends going through your financial institution first. This way, you don’t create a new account and new opportunity to get hacked. It’s all just integrated into the online banking system that you already use.

PFM security tips

#1: Look for SSL encryption

For any PFM that you plan to use, look for the security information page. Make sure that it says the information is sent over a secure SSL encryption; for instance a secure 256-bit SSL encryption. Basically, whether you understand what that is or not, look for it and make sure it’s there. This makes it harder for someone to intercept information passed back and forth during your online sessions.

#2: Always look for trust logos

This starts with Norton Antivirus and VeriSign. Basically, you want to see the same trust logos that you see on any financial provider or e-commerce website. These logos mean that the platform is protected by all the programs that you want in place for online transactions. The same way you shouldn’t shop on websites that don’t prominently display these logos, you also don’t want to budget on a platform that doesn’t have them either.

#3: It should offer multi-factor authentication

Multi-factor authentication is when your online accounts ask an additional question to confirm that you are you. It could be a security question or series of questions that only you know. Sometimes you enter a pre-selected word or image that you chose. Asking for this information provides an additional layer of security on your online accounts.

Good PFMs take multi-factor authentication into account. They basically ask for the answers to these security questions, so they can sync with multi-factor accounts. This is necessary for your PFM to function at peak performance; otherwise, it can’t pull all your account information, so you don’t get a complete financial picture.

#4: Check to see how long they save your information

As we’ve mentioned a few times, a PFM should not store your financial data forever. It should only store the basic login information for itself and your PFM account. However, transactional data from your bank account should get dumped after a certain amount of time.

This helps you minimize the risk identity theft if you use a third-party PFM. The system only accesses your accounts and transactional data when it syncs up after you log in. So, if you use an independent third-party platform, check to see how they store your information and when they dump it.

#5: Set up touch ID or facial recognition for the app

Like most financial apps, PFMs generally require a 4-digit code to open the app, in addition to your regular login credentials. For better security, set up Touch ID or facial recognition to open the app. These features make your account harder to hack and give you protection if your phone is stolen by someone who may be able to guess your access code.

#6: Don’t leave an old PFM open

This is recommended for any online account that you open. However, for PFMs that link up to sensitive financial data, it’s even more critical. Never leave a PFM open if you stop using it. Do your due diligence and log in one last time to close the account. If you aren’t sure how to close the account, call their customer service department or check their website FAQ.

PFM vs Budgeting Software?

In days past, these two types of programs were distinctly different. Budgeting software was a closed system entirely contained on your home desktop. By contrast, a PFM was an online platform you could access from anywhere with an internet connection.

However, as technology has evolved, the lines between the two have really begun to blur. You can find smartphone apps for Quicken and QuickBooks, as well as for Mint. Even other financial service providers, like the statistics experts at NerdWallet now offer their own PFMs.

That being said, if you want a closed budgeting tool that doesn’t exist online at all, software is still the way to go. Just make sure to check and adjust the security settings to keep it private. And if even a closed system makes you nervous about ID theft, you can always go old-school.

You can basically make your own PFM by creating a budget with a spreadsheet. This is essentially what a PFM does for you. However, just be aware that old-school budgeting takes more effort because you usually must manually enter information each month. It won’t automatically track anything. This makes budgeting more work-intensive, which may mean you are less likely to maintain it.