By Kristin Wong
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: Our Favorite Tools to Stay on Top of Your Financial Life
Here are some of the best apps and services to help keep your money on track, whether you’ve never created a budget or you’re a seasoned investor. Getting your finances in order isn’t a one-time task — it’s an ongoing process. Whether it’s budgeting, planning your debt payoff, or monitoring your credit, your financial life needs regular, reliable attention. The right set of tools can help. We’ve rounded up some of the best money apps and services to help you get on track and stay there, whether you’ve never created a budget or you’re a seasoned investor. Unless otherwise noted, all of these apps are free. Keep in mind, most of these tools require you to provide and link your bank or credit information. While they use strict security measures to protect your data, you should always read the terms and conditions on any app before you use it so that you know what you’re getting into.
Welcome to Personal Finance Week at Smarter Living! Catch up on our previous stories in this series: We’re All Afraid to Talk About Money. Here’s How to Break the Taboo. • What to Do When You’re Bad at Money
Budgeting and keeping track of bills
Mint: Mint is one of the most popular online budgeting tools, and for good reason. Their web app makes it easy to set budgets for your spending, track how much money you have coming in every month, and stay on top of your expenses. Once you link your spending accounts to the service, your purchases are automatically categorized as restaurants, groceries, bills — you can even set your own categories and rules for purchases.
Who this is for: Anyone who wants to track their financial life — including bills, credit score and budgets — in one place.
You Need a Budget: You Need a Budget is another popular option among beginner budgeters and personal finance experts alike. This tool isn’t free. YNAB will cost you $6.99 a month, but for that fee, you’ll get access to financial literacy workshops and a community where you can meet and chat with other users about your financial progress. Like Mint, you can use YNAB via its online web app or download the app to your phone.
YNAB is also the favorite budgeting tool of Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products. (YNAB currently offering three months free to Wirecutter readers.) Who this is for: Overspenders who need a little extra help keeping track of their money. More in-depth and hands-on than Mint, YNAB’s goal is to get you to track every penny and stay on top of your finances regularly. You tag and categorize every dollar of your income and allocate how you’ll spend it each month.
Paying off debt
Mint Goals: Even if you had already heard about Mint, you might not have heard of Mint’s Goals feature, which helps you create a financial goal and then tracks your progress toward that goal.
Who this is for: This tool is especially useful for paying off multiple credit card debts. Mint will give you a plan to pay each debt off, then track your progress for you. SoFi: SoFi is a financial services company popular among borrowers who refinance their student loans. Refinancing, or rolling your loans into a new loan with a lower interest rate, isn’t always the ideal financial move (you could potentially lose federal loan benefits and relief options), but SoFi seems to stay true to their commitment to help users get out of debt, offering money workshops and tools to help you along the way. (Disclosure: I did a Q. and A. with SoFi while promoting my book, “Get Money.”)
Who this is for: Borrowers with abnormally high interest rates. SoFi annual percentage rates are relatively low, with variable rates ranging from about 2.5 percent to 7.5 percent for automatic payments.
Unbury.me: Unbury.me lets you keep track of your debts without linking them to any of your online accounts or even creating a login. You simply type your loan(s) by hand into their calculator, and unbury.me will organize them and provide you with a payoff plan.
Who this is for: Anyone who’s looking for a simple solution for managing debt, with a basic, no-frills payoff plan.
Qapital + IFTTT: Qapital is a mobile app that makes saving money fun (well, as fun as saving can be). Once you link your bank accounts and credit cards to the app, you can transfer money into your Qapital account automatically using any of their rules.
For example, its “Guilty Pleasure” rule automatically saves a set amount in your Qapital account any time you spend at a specified store. Its “Freelancer Rule” saves a percentage of any deposit over $100 into your account.
Who this is for: Those who want to gamify their finances. You can link Qapital to an online tool called If This, Then That. IFTTT connects the apps and features you use on your phone or computer so you can use them together. For example, there’s an IFTTT recipe that saves in your Qapital account if your Fitbit step goals aren’t met. Another recipe will automatically pay yourself every time you go to the gym. Yet another recipe will save every time you complete a task on your to-do list. You can find even more recipes here.
Tip Yourself: While it has fewer frills than Qapital, Tip Yourself is another good app for saving pocket cash every now and then. The app encourages you to “tip yourself” every time you go to the gym, skip an impulse buy or stick to your budget, but it’s up to you to decide when and how much to pay yourself. It’s not automatic, but the app does allow you to set certain goals for your saving. As you approach your goal, you’ll see your virtual tip jar fill up.
Who this is for: Anyone who wants a simple, hands-on way to save some extra cash.
Splitwise: This phone app makes it easy to split everything from your dinner bill to rent. It will also calculate everyone’s share and keep track of any I.O.U.s.
Who this is for: It’s best for renters with multiple roommates, but works well for any kind of transactions that need splitting.
Venmo: Venmo is another popular app that works with PayPal to make it easy for users to exchange or request cash. You can use the tool’s memo section to include quick notes, too.
Who this is for: Friends who need an easy way to split the dinner bill or other expenses.
Unbill: Unbill connects to online bill providers so you can make automatic monthly payments and split them among a group of roommates or friends.
Who this is for: Friends, roommates or families who share monthly bills.
Monitoring your credit
If you find it hard to trust a free credit monitoring service, your skepticism isn’t unfounded. Over the years, a handful of “free” credit monitoring services have been in trouble for misleading customers into a monthly service. Still, there are plenty of trustworthy options available, and below are a few of the best. As a general rule, a free service should never ask you for your credit card information to check your credit. (For a primer on building credit, check out this Wirecutter guide.)
Credit Karma: Credit scores and reports can be hard to decipher, and Credit Karma gives you a free look at both, breaking down the basics. The tool details different factors that affect your score, like the average age of all your credit accounts and how much of your credit you use, something formally called credit utilization. Credit Karma monitors your credit, too, so you can get notifications if anyone opens a fraudulent account in your name — a feature that’s especially helpful in light of last year’s Equifax breach.
Who this is for: Consumers who want a basic, easy-to-read breakdown of their credit score and history. One consumer complaint about Credit Karma and similar services is that the score is different from what customers may see on other credit monitoring sites. There’s an easy explanation for this: You don’t just have one credit score! Consumers have many credit scores.
Mint: If you’re already using Mint, you might as well get access to their free credit score feature. Like Credit Karma and another service called WalletHub, Mint breaks down credit factors and reveals the potentially negative items on your report. You can explore quite a bit of detail with each factor, too. For example, Mint tells you when you opened specific accounts and how you’ve used them over time. Your credit score is updated monthly.
Who this is for: Existing Mint users who want an easy way to monitor their credit.
AnnualCreditReport.com: Finally, the website AnnualCreditReport.com is the only credit report source that’s authorized by federal law. If you want a copy of your actual credit report, rather than just a breakdown from a third party, this is the website to visit.
You’re legally entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) every year. You could check each of these reports all at once on AnnualCreditReport.com, or space them out throughout the year.
When you request your report, the site will ask a series of questions to verify your identity, including your Social Security number. The site assures visitors that they use “the highest level of SSL Certificate encryption” to protect your data.
Who this is for: Everyone! But specifically, consumers who want to look at an actual copy of their credit report. Keep in mind, AnnualCreditReport.com does not offer a credit score, as your report and score are two different things. When lenders check your credit, your report carries far more weight than your score. Your score is simply an indicator that sums up what’s on your report.
Managing your investments
Investing is the logical next step after you have saved at least six months of living expenses in cash — more if your cost of living is especially high — you’ve maxed out your 401(k) contributions ($18,500 for people under 50 as of this year) and you’ve investigated other investing options, like IRAs.
Personal Capital: When it comes to managing your investments, Personal Capital is the tool to beat. The website, which is also available as an app on your phone, offers a deep dive into your portfolio, telling you which industries you’re invested in, which industries you should invest in more and how your investments have performed over time compared with the S & P 500, which is the “market-capitalization-weighted index of the 500 largest U.S. publicly traded companies by market value.”
Who this is for: Personal investors who want to dig deeper and understand their portfolio. You’ll fill out a basic profile that tells Personal Capital how your investments should look, depending on when you want to retire and how well you tolerate risk. Once you add your investment accounts, Personal Capital gives you insight on everything from your investment fees to your estimated future Social Security benefits. It’s everything you need to know about your investments in one spot.
Acorns: Acorns will help invest your money so you can get a better return. Acorns lets you invest with your spare change, simplifying something that’s otherwise fairly intimidating. You can start investing with just a few bucks, and Acorns will do the work for you.
Keep in mind: The standard version of Acorns is not a retirement account, however, and thus doesn’t come with the same tax benefits most retirement accounts include. As their website notes, “you might need to pay taxes on realized capital gains, dividends received and other transactions occurring in your Acorns account.” Recently, however, the company launched Acorns Later, which is indeed an Individual Retirement Account.
Who this is for: Savers who want to take their savings to the next level. While you’re lucky to get 1 percent interest with most traditional savings accounts, investing in the broad stock market will theoretically (and historically) yield better results.