We can all use a little help managing money from time to time. But, is it possible to get quality personal advice for free?
That’s exactly what Stratus tries to do. Stratus is a free budgeting tool that helps you track your spending, make spending plans and work toward savings goals. Plus, it offers a few tips along the way.
In this Stratus review, you can learn if it’s the best platform to manage your money. Like you, I’m always on the hunt for free apps that make managing money easy. So, I’ll share my thoughts to help you decide if it’s a good option for you.
Stratus is a free budgeting tool. If you need help making a spending plan, finding money to get out of debt, or saving for long-term goals, you can benefit from Stratus. In early 2019, Stratus will roll out more tools to help you invest and save money.
Why Budget Money?
Let’s tackle the most important reason why you should manage your money responsibly. Responsible money management means you don’t have to worry about money.
Many of us struggle to make ends meet at one point or another. Sometimes, there’s a quick fix like reducing your non-essential spending. In other cases, you have to rethink the entire way you view money. For instance, you need to learn how to avoid debt and save for large purchases.
But without the help of a friend or a money tool, you might not know where to start. This is where Stratus comes in.
Before you can start saving for tomorrow, you must fix your current spending. Once you address the short-term issues, you can plan for goals. A budget tool like Stratus helps you plan for short-term and long-term goals.
What is Stratus?
Stratus is a free platform that helps you track your spending and make savings goals. Once you know where you’re spending, you can make appropriate cutbacks. This helps you to not only live within your means, but also grow your savings.
If you have ever used the Mint budgeting app, Stratus is similar. Both have a user-friendly platform. But unlike Mint, Stratus allows you to also create personal savings goals.
It only takes a few minutes to join Stratus and connect your banking, credit card and other accounts. Like other online money platforms, Stratus doesn’t store your bank login information. And, it protects your information with the same technology as the big banks.
Who Can Use Stratus?
Stratus is for anyone who needs help managing money. But it’s also a good tool if you just want to track all your bank accounts and spending cards in one place.
You can benefit from Stratus if you:
- Don’t know how much you earn or spend each month
- Want to know what your common monthly expenses are
- Need help making a spending plan or savings goals
- Want to monitor all your accounts in one place
Whether you’re a recent college grad or a parent of teens, you can benefit from Stratus. You will get the most from Stratus if you need help getting out of debt. But, even if you just need an extra set of eyes on your money, Stratus fits the bill, too.
Is Stratus Free?
Yes. It’s free to join and use Stratus.
In the future, Stratus plans on rolling out some premium features. But you won’t have to sign up for these services to use the core Stratus platform.
How Stratus Helps You Manage Your Money
There are a few ways Stratus helps you manage your money. First, you must track your current spending. Then, you can make spending plans and savings goals.
Track Your Spending
The first thing you need to do is link your bank accounts, loans and payment cards to your Stratus account. You can then see how you spend every dollar, whether it’s for a $3 coffee or a $1,000 rent payment. Stratus records every transaction from your linked accounts.
Of course, without Stratus, you could track your spending on your own. You’d need to record each expense on paper or in a spreadsheet. But this can take more time and increase the likelihood that you’ll overlook a transaction.
Connect All Your Bank Accounts, Loan Accounts, and Debit Cards
Where Stratus shines is the sheer number of accounts you can link to. For example, it links to nearly any bank or credit union. You can also connect to these accounts:
- Student loans
- Prepaid debit cards (i.e. Green Dot)
- Credit cards
- Store charge cards
Unless you pay for a lot of purchases with cash, there’s a good chance Stratus captures most of your spending. It records your account deposits, too.
Unfortunately, you can’t manually log cash transactions in Stratus. So any purchase you make with cash won’t get counted. If you want to use Stratus to track your spending, you’ll need to use one of the payment methods listed above.
I bank with a small local credit union. One drawback I’ve had with some free apps is that I can’t link my bank account for security reasons.
I didn’t have any of these issues with Stratus. With my credit union, I have to answer a security question each day I use Stratus. But it works. This is where other apps fall down.
Stratus co-founder Melissa Marin states the average user connects seven accounts. This number includes bank accounts, loans and debit or credit cards.
Categorize Each Transaction
For each linked account, Stratus pulls all transactions from the last 30 days and puts them into categories. It does this correctly in most cases, though you still need to manually categorize certain transactions such as ATM withdrawals.
This task can take up to 15 minutes. Once that’s done, you can get an accurate idea of how you spend your money.
Some of the categories include your basic monthly expenses like rent and credit card payments. But, you can also select these detailed categories:
- Bank fees
- Credit card interest
- Life insurance
- Side hustle expenses
There’s a category for almost every expense. One category I wish they add is “Investing.” Once Stratus rolls out its retirement simulator, this category will be an option. For now, I categorize my investments as “Asset Allocation.”
Stratus then divides your spending into three different expense types:
- Long-Term Goals
To find out which transactions make up each expense type, you can go to the “My Money Story” section. For instance, “Must-Haves” include groceries, insurance, rent and utilities. “Nice-to-Have” expenses include internet, fashion and your monthly phone bill.
The My Money Story section also allows you to quickly see if you spend more than you earn.
Make a Spending Plan
After sifting through your most recent transactions, it’s time to make a spending plan.
Stratus uses last month’s spending history to make your monthly plan. Of course, some months will have different expenses than others. You’ll need to modify the spending plan accordingly.
It’s fairly easy to adjust your spending targets. And you can add more categories to include expenses you didn’t have last month.
Track Your Progress in “My Plan”
Once you commit to a spending plan, you can track your progress in “My Plan.” This is where you will probably spend most of your time in Stratus.
You have three different options to track your spending plan progress:
- Expense Tracker
- Money Remaining
- Income Allocation
Make sure you categorize your transactions on a regular basis. This way, Stratus can track your spending plan and savings goal progress in real time.
If you overspend, Stratus lets you know and helps you make adjustments for the month.
Remember, the first month or two are the most difficult for any new spending plan. These adjustments might frustrate you. But, once you get into a routine, you will spend less time tracking and making adjustments.
Make Money Goals
Now that you have a spending plan, you can make short-term and long-term money goals. There are six ways Stratus can help you make goals:
- Avoid New Debt
- Prepare for Emergencies
- Pay Down Debt
- Plan for Retirement
- Afford Life Expenses
- Life Hacks
You might be able to skip some of these goals. For instance, you may already have an emergency fund. (A good rule of thumb is to have six to 12 months’ worth of your expenses saved up to cover you if you lose your job.)
Tip: Stash your extra cash in a CIT Bank Money Market Account. Your entire deposit earns 14 times the national average interest rate. That means more money in your pocket!
Since Stratus is relatively new, it’s still rolling out some of the different money goals. Take the “Plan for Retirement” and “Life Hacks” goals for instance. These steps will be ready in the first quarter of 2019.
You can create several money goals. If you still have high-interest debt to repay, you can focus your extra income on this goal first. Then, you might decide to choose one of these savings goals:
- Higher Education
- Vacation or Weekend Getaway
- Apartment or House
When you choose your goal, Stratus shows your current monthly money plan. Based on your transactions for the past 30 days, Stratus prefills your projected expenses for this month. You can quickly see if you need to reduce spending. If you have extra income, Stratus shows you how much you can set aside for the month.
What We Like About Stratus
- No obnoxious ads or sponsor links that you must avoid to enjoy the free app
- You can easily track bank account and payment cards in one place
- You can make savings goals and adjust your monthly spending plan to achieve your goals
- Stratus provides extra tips for ways to save money
- It’s free!
Stratus is one of the better free tools for budgeting. The learning curve is small and you can quickly see where most of your money goes each month.
Also, you can send an email directly to the Stratus team. They are real people and they respond to any questions you have.
Where Stratus Can Improve
As of this review (November 2018), Stratus is still in beta mode. The full platform releases in early 2019. Until then, there are a few things Stratus can’t do:
- Classify all transactions. I had to manually categorize our water bill, electronic bill payments, payments by check, and some credit card purchases.
- Let you manually enter cash transactions
But for now, Stratus is more than sufficient to help you gain basic control of your money.
Alternatives to Stratus
Stratus is a legitimate platform that can help you manage money better. But it’s not the only app that can help you gain control of your finances. This quick comparison helps you decide if Stratus is your best option.
Stratus vs. Mint
At the moment, Stratus versus Mint is the best “apples to apples” comparison. Both platforms are free, and both help you budget. Since Mint was one of the first online budget tools, it has more features, such as bill pay and free credit scores.
With Mint, you can create a budget and savings goals. But the process can be quicker and more in-depth with Stratus. With Stratus, you can quickly compare the difference between your income and expenses.
Mint also has a basic investment tracker tool. But at this time, it doesn’t have a retirement simulator. Stratus doesn’t either, but it has promised to add one in the first quarter of 2019.
Also, one reason some people avoid Mint is its many product offers. Mint is free to use, but they get a kickback if you apply for a product they recommend. These offers can be annoying, as you have to click around them to use Mint’s tools.
In contrast, Marin says Stratus won’t be partnering with financial services companies or credit card issuers to offer deals that it would get a cut of. “Incentives are clearly misaligned [there], and we’re building a company that protects and looks out for consumers in every way,” she says.
Stratus vs. You Need A Budget
Arguably, the best premium budgeting tool is You Need A Budget. It’s free for a month, then costs $6.99 a month.
Although most free apps are great at helping you create a budget, sometimes you need more help. If Stratus is not going to be enough for you, then give YNAB a try.
Its budget walkthrough process is more extensive and covers every possible expense. Because YNAB is more detailed, you will spend more time with it at first. But you might see faster improvements. And, it can be the better option if you have a more complex financial situation.
Stratus vs. Personal Capital
Another free money tracking app is Personal Capital. This may be the better option if you want to track your investments more than your spending.
Personal Capital’s spend tracking tools are relatively basic. They help you monitor your bank accounts, credit cards and loan activity for free. But, you won’t be able to create a budget.
Where Personal Capital excels is in tracking your net worth and investment performance. You can link to multiple online brokerage accounts. Also, Personal Capital has a fee analyzer. This tool helps you determine if the funds you invest in have above-average fund fees.
Stratus will have a retirement planner in early 2019. You’ll be able to set “plan for retirement” as a financial goal just like the other goals currently offered by Stratus.
Marin says that will help you understand how your spending today impacts your ability to retire down the road. “You’ll have 100% clarity on the trade-offs you’re making today for long-term goals,” she says. “You’ll finally know how to best prioritize every dollar based on the life you wish to live — and without the need to be a financial analyst or a spreadsheet guru.”
She adds that Stratus’ retirement simulator will suggest a passive investing approach. The most common form of passive investing involves putting your money into low-cost index funds, which mirror the activity of a stock index. Studies have shown that over time, passively managed funds perform at least as well as actively managed funds.
With those promises in mind, if you want a budgeting and investing tool, Stratus may be the better option. Personal Capital may be better if you primarily want an investment tracker.
Maybe you know nothing about money. Or, you know how to handle money but you want a free tool to help. In either case, Stratus does a good job of helping you improve your finances. Like any money tool, you must use it on a regular basis to have the best results.
Why do you want to use Stratus? What’s your experience with other budgeting tools? Let us know on our social media accounts!