The Best Apps for Each Step in Your Financial Journey
As of next month it will have been a full decade since Apple first launched their famed App Store. In that time, mobile applications have changed several aspects of our lives. From the Instagrams and Twitters of the world affecting the way we share our lives to streaming services that have moved many of us from big screens to small ones. While these evolutions each have their own pros and cons, one area of our daily lives that’s been positively impacted in recent years is personal finance.
Sure the app explosion has brought with it a million different ways to splurge and spend but it’s also introduced a number of services that can actually improve your finances. You’ve likely seen several lists of such apps that can do everything from help you build a budget to earn you cash back on each purchase you make. However it occurs to me that not all of these apps are right for every person. In fact, many of these applications are best used at particular points in your financial journey.
With that in mind, I wanted to highlight 10 finance-related apps along with when they would be most beneficial — ranging from the point when you first decide to get your finances in order to the point when you’re ready to start putting your money to work for you. So grab your smartphone and get ready to embark on your financial journey with the help of these mobile apps:
Step 1: Building a Budget and Monitoring Your Money
At this point most of us know that, in order to keep our finances in good shape, we need to have a budget in place. And yet, how many of us can honestly say we have a functional budget we adhere to? The truth is that setting up a budget — or at least gaining an understanding of where your money is going — is key to successfully managing your finances.
While this first step of the financial journey may be the most painful, there are a couple of apps that can help get you through it and continue to keep you motivated during and after the worst of it.
What it is: Mint is not only the most popular budgeting app on the market but is also one of the most powerful. By linking your various banking, credit card, and retirement accounts, Mint will give you at-a-glance access to your figures such as your net worth, as well as compile all of your transactions in one place. From there, you can create different spending categories (both suggested and custom) and set spending limits for each. The app will then automatically place your transactions in the proper category and let you know how you’re doing with your budget.
How it’ll help your finances: Perhaps the hardest part of maintaining a budget is actually taking the time to go through your purchases on a regular basis and fill out whatever spreadsheet you have to see where you stand. Mint removes that obstacle by doing a lot of the heavy lifting for you. The app is also filled with plenty of visual tools that help give you a better understanding of your spending, your budget, and where changes can be made. To that point, since budgets are often evolving, Mint also makes it simple to make adjustments and nail down a budget that works for you.
Beyond those basic features, Mint’s app also includes some handy tools to keep you on the right financial track. For example, you’ll be able to set bill due date reminders to ensure you’re never late with a payment. Speaking of alerts, the app will also let you know when you break your budget or you have irregular activity on your account.
What else you should know: First, Mint is completely free to sign-up for and use. Additionally, while the app does contain a number of great features, the desktop site offers even more. In fact, for new users, I’d recommend getting started on your desktop computer and then using the mobile app once you have all of your accounts connected, spending limits set, and alert preferences locked in.
The only other note is that, while Mint does a great job of organizing transactions based on merchant codes, you may need to manually categorize some purchases to ensure they’re displaying where you want them to. Thankfully this is a fairly painless process but it’s still something to be aware of nonetheless.
What it is: Like Mint, Clarity Money is another budget-minded app — but one that presents important info in a unique way. Designed to be your daily financial news feed, Clarity Money’s main app tab features a series of widgets that focus on a specific aspect of your money and budget. Following a warm welcome, the first widget you’ll encounter is a look at all of your combined account balances. Tapping any of these figures will allow you to view individual balances for all of your linked accounts. Other widgets include an overview of your monthly income, a graphic breakdown of your top spending categories, and more.
How it’ll help your finances: Personally, what I love about Clarity Money is its clean design, which makes the app inviting and enjoyable to use. Besides looking pretty, the app also has some star features that can further help you slay your spending habits. Among the most helpful widgets in my opinion is a mini-tool that lets you quickly recall how much you’ve spent at a particular retailer — perfect for identifying where you splurge the most and where cutbacks can be made. Similarly a separate widget shows you a list of subscriptions you have and can even help you cancel some services you no longer need.
Another great feature on Clarity Money is the ability to stash cash toward a specific goal. You can set up automated savings right in the app by selecting how much you want to save, how often you want to save it (you can select a date each month or day of the week for transfers to trigger), choose which account to pull from, and of course declare what your earmarking the funds for. Any money you set aside using this tool is FDIC insured and it’s easy to withdraw whenever you need to. While it’s a small feature and one you could surely set up at your regular bank, watching your savings grow and reminding yourself of your money goal can really be the push you need to keep up the good work.
What else you should know: Although Clarity Money might not have as many powerful budgeting tools as Mint, it still has a lot to offer. Because of this, I’d actually recommend utilizing both. Lastly, another one of the Clarity Money widgets offers integration with an app we’ll talk about a bit later, Acorns.
Step 2: Checking Your Credit
To be honest, this step could also be at the same level as step one. That’s because understanding your credit and working to improve your credit scores can often go hand in hand with overhauling your spending. Of course, for a very long time, obtaining your credit report was a major pain that prevented many Americans from even bothering.
That’s all changed now as we thankfully live in a world where learning what your credit score is, why it is what it is, and how you can improve are all just a few taps away.
What it is: As the leading free online credit score service, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of Credit Karma. This site and app give users access to credit score data from two of the three big credit bureaus: TransUnion and Equifax. More than just displaying these seemingly random numbers, the app will also break down the factors that go into calculating your scores and offer you some basic guidance on how to raise them.
How it’ll help your finances: Having an overall idea of what kind of shape your credit is an important step in your financial journey. Not only will you credit often dictate the rates you’re able to secure on loan and your ability to be approved for lucrative rewards credit cards but can also come up when you’re looking to rent or even applying for a job. Because of this, letting Credit Karma show you where you stand and then guide you toward a higher credit score can really make a difference in your financial life.
Something else to keep in mind is that, although most people only talk about your credit score, what’s actually more important is your credit report. Since the info contained in your credit report is what will ultimately determine your credit scores, it’s in your best interest to ensure that everything in the report is accurate. This is where Credit Karma’s Direct Dispute tool can come to the rescue. You can view your credit report details in the app and, should you find any error, tap the aptly labeled “Dispute the Error” button to start the process of getting the info changed. Removing inaccurate negative remarks from your credit report can have a major effect on your scores and, in turn, your future finances.
What else you should know: The biggest thing to note about Credit Karma is that using their service to check your credit will not affect your scores (it’s a long story as to why but just trust me). The second biggest thing is that the credit scores it offers may not be exactly what creditors will see. That’s because the site utilizes the VantageScore 3.0 model as opposed to one of the FICO models. However it should be noted that, with so many scoring models available, it can be extremely difficult to predict exactly which of your many credit scores any given creditor will obtain anyway. Ultimately there’s still tremendous value in the scores Credit Karma offers, even if they’re more of a ballpark figure.
Another thing to mention is that, similar to Mint, I find it’s best to get started with Credit Karma on their desktop site before migrating to the mobile app. Additionally, if you currently have a freeze on your credit it, you’ll need to request a temporary lift in order to sign-up for the site. Once you’re all set on the site, you can refreeze your credit and still view your scores without issue.
What it is: WalletHub is another popular free credit monitoring site akin to Credit Karma. Like with our comparison of Mint and Clarity Money, the main differences between WalletHub and similar apps really comes down to preference and style. In my experience, I’ve found WalletHub’s app to be a bit easier to navigate and the design to be a bit sleeker. That said, I do personally use both Credit Karma and WalletHub on a regular basis.
How it’ll help your finances: Despite the similarities to Credit Karma, WalletHub also includes some original and helpful features. One of the main factors that I’ve been focusing on when it comes to my credit is my utilization rate. That’s why I appreciate the graph that WalletHub offers in its Analysis tab, showing my credit utilization percentage over time. Similar visual aids can also be obtained for your age of credit, account diversity, and your overall credit scores.
Another nice feature of WalletHub is the option to switch between viewing a full credit report (including the ability to dispute errors) and what they call a Credit Timeline. This view will display notable activity in your credit such as new account, inquiries, and freezes that can be especially helpful when combating identity fraud and similar issues. To that point, WalletHub also offers 24/7 monitoring alerts via both push notification and SMS that you can opt into.
What else you should know: Sadly, WalletHub only offers your VantageScore 3.0 credit score from one bureau (TransUnion) as opposed to the two that Credit Karma boasts. I should also mention that, since neither tool includes Experian, you’ll also want to obtain your credit report from that bureau and review for errors as well. You can actually do this for free once a year by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com.
Step 3: Saving on Essentials and Other Spending
Now that you have your budget in place and your credit in order, it’s time to go shopping! No, I’m not suggesting some sort of spree where you derail all the hard work you’ve already put in — I’m merely noting that, no matter how frugal you’ve become, there will be things you need to spend your money on. But, as it turns out, there may be ways to save on even the most essential of purchases.
From avoiding the trap of credit cards to saving on gas, groceries, and God knows what else, these apps can help you cut costs when you shop.
What it is: The idea behind Debx is simple: turn your credit cards into debit cards. To do this, Debx connects your checking account to your credit accounts in order to swiftly pay off purchases you make. As a result, you get the benefits that credit cards offer with the peace of mind (and lack of interest paid) that comes with debit cards.
How it’ll help your finances: As your credit scores rise and you’ve proven yourself creditworthy, you may begin to qualify for various rewards credit cards. Whether they offer cash back on your spending, airline miles for your travels, or other perks, using these rewards responsibly can be quite lucrative — “responsibly” being the key word. Carrying a balance on your credit card means paying interest on your purchases and making late payments can quickly damage the credit scores you’ve worked to raise. Debx can help you guard against both of these problems and keep your spending in check.
What else you should know: A confession: Debx is the only app on this list I have yet to actually try out for myserlf. However it is my understanding that you can customize the app to create exceptions for certain purchases and ensure that you’re not overdrafting your checking account in the name of keeping your credit card balance low. Despite my lack of personal experience, I think the idea of Debx is a great one and believe that those who worry about getting carried away with their credit cards could really benefit from this simple solution.
What it is: Have you ever pulled over to fill your gas tank only to find a station with much better prices a little further down the road? GasBuddy helps prevent these frustrating situations by giving you a crowdsourced overview of gas prices in your area. This is especially helpful on road trips as it will show you how far you are from the next station and present you a range of prices.
In addition to the regular GasBuddy features, the company has also introduced their Pay with GasBuddy card. When you sign up and link your checking account, GasBuddy will send you a special pay card you can use at numerous pumps across the country. You can select to either save 10¢ per gallon on your first fill up and 5¢ per gallon after that or elect to earn Sears Shop Your Way points amounting to 30¢ per gallon in your first 60 days and 15¢ per gallon thereafter. Whichever you choose, purchases made with your Pay with GasBuddy card will be deducted directly from your linked checking account.
How it’ll help your finances: If you drive (and unless you have a purely electric car), gasoline is one commodity you’ll need to purchase on a regular basis. As a result, any savings you can make in this category should be counted as a win. Additionally, if you don’t have a rewards credit card that offers cash back on gas purchases, the Pay with GasBuddy card might be able to help you further maximize your savings at the pump.
What else you should know: Since GasBuddy is most useful when on the road, you’ll of course want to be sure not to let this app distract you while driving. Additionally, with many of the prices in the app coming from users, there’s a slight chance they may be wrong (although this has never happened to me personally). On that note, you can also earn points by reporting or verifying prices. These points can then be redeemed for entries into GasBuddy’s drawing to win a $100 gas card.
Walmart Savings Catcher
What it is: As you probably know, Walmart’s biggest selling point is its low prices. Well, the company’s Savings Catcher — found within their regular Walmart app — doubles down on their price guarantee by searching competitor ads for lower prices and giving you the difference in the form of a digital gift card if it does find a better price. To activate Saving Catcher, you can either scan the barcode on your receipt and submit using the app or utilize Walmart Pay to automatically receive a digital receipt for submission.
How it’ll help your finances: Love them or hate them, there’s no denying that Walmart’s low prices and vast selection make them a convenient stop when stocking up on essentials. Even though their grocery prices are typically comparable to or lower than most other stores, there are still times when one of their competitors will have a killer sale. While you could split your shopping list to take advantage of the best deals in each store, the Savings Catcher has your back and can save you a trip. Personally, I’ve received multiple reimbursements from the app — most of the time from sales I didn’t even know were happening.
What else you should know: Although it’s pretty great overall, there are some limitations to Walmart Savings Catcher. For one, since many of the store’s best buys are on generic or private label items, the app won’t be able to compare prices on these selections. This also works both ways as Savings Catcher won’t apply to discount grocery shops like Aldi, which may actually have better deals on similar (but not identical) items. Additionally, the tool only searches advertised prices.
What it is: Dosh is an app that features special offers from various brick-and-mortar and online retailers that can earn you cash back. Currently, by signing up for Dosh and linking your first credit or debit card, you’ll earn $5 in cash back credit. You can also earn an additional $1 for subsequent cards you link. From there, you can explore stores and restaurants in your area, with a typical offer bringing between 3% and 10% in cash back. To take advantage of these deals, all you need to do is pay using one of your linked cards and, within minutes (from my experience) you’ll be alerted that your cash back has been added to your total.
While in-store purchases are my favorite method of earning Dosh cash back, the app also features online offers. To nab these deals, you need to visit each site by tapping the offer in the Dosh app. Lastly, Dosh also has a travel section where you can rack up cash back by booking hotel rooms through their tool.
How it’ll help your finances: Not to oversell it but using Dosh is like getting free money. In addition to the numerous cashback offers, savvy users can also boost their earnings by referring their friends and family to the app as well. Although Dosh is constantly changing their referral offers, in the past they’ve awarded up to $15 for each person who uses your special link to sign-up, add a card, and redeem their first offer.
Something else I should mention about Dosh is that the cash back rewards they offer come in addition to any rewards you would normally receive from your credit card. As a result, my savings record is 14% back from my dinner at Chili’s (10% from Dosh and 4% from my Uber Visa). With the app expanding in recent months, hopefully there will be even more opportunities to save using Dosh down the road.
What else you should know: One downside of Dosh is that you will need to save up a minimum of $25 in cash back before you’ll be able to transfer the money to your bank account or PayPal. It’s also important to note that, while some of the retailers on Dosh may specialize in essentials, others traffic squarely on the splurge side of things. Because of this, you’ll want to ensure that using Dosh doesn’t serve as an excuse to overspend.
Step 4: Investing and Putting Your Money to Work
So you think you’ve mastered money, huh? Then it’s time to prove it and start putting your money to work for you. In other words, let’s learn to invest.
I don’t know about you but the thought of investing both excited and terrified me at the same time. Adding to my concern was the misguiding belief that I needed to save up thousands of dollars in accessible funds before I could open an account and start buying stocks. That may have been the case years ago but no longer.
For those like me who want to start investing — and take on all the risks that come with it — there are two apps in particular that could possibly serve as your springboard.
What it is: For those wanting to dip their toes into the world of investing, Acorns could serve as the perfect solution. First, the main way to use Acorns is to utilize their Round-Ups to build your investment funds. To use Round-Ups, you’ll want to link your credit and debit card to the app. Then Acorns will total up the digital spare change (rounding up each purchase to the nearest dollar — hence the name). When you hit more than $5, the money will come out of your selected bank account and will be invested for you.
In addition to the Round-Ups feature, you can also elect to make a one-time funds transfer or set up recurring transfers to keep your investment account growing. Acorns has also been growing what they call their Found Money section where, similar to Dosh, you can take advantage of offers from a number of online retailers. Completing these qualifying purchases will earn you cash back that will be added to your investment account.
How it’ll help your finances: Acorns is quite possibly the easiest way to start investing without feeling overwhelmed. The app allows you to choose from five different investment levels — ranging from conservative to aggressive — that each feature a diversified mix of stocks and bonds. Whether you opt into the Round-Ups feature, regularly add money manually, or set up a recurring transfer, Acorns could help you get a feel for investing and help set you on your way to bigger things.
What else you should know: Acorns has the unfortunate distinction of being the only app on this list this is not completely free to use. To start investing with the app, you’ll be assessed a $1 per month fee. These fees used to be deducted from your investment account but they’ve since revised their policy and now take the $1 a month from your linked checking account.
Since Acorns is an investing app, it’s also important to mention that there is a very real chance that you will lose money on the platform. Moreover you should never invest any money you can’t afford to lose.
What it is: If Acorns is investing 101, Robinhood is the 201. This app allows users to buy and sell real stocks without any commissions or other fees. As a result, Robinhood is a strong option for those looking to get a bit more hands-on with their investments and really obtain the stock market experience without all of the fees.
In recent months Robinhood has also expanded to offer a number of new features. Among these features is the ability to trade options. However that addition is likely overshadowed by the launch of Robinhood Crypto. As the name implies, this feature enables users to trade Bitcoin and Ethereum, with the promise of more coins to join in the future. Both of these features are currently in beta and may not be available to all users just yet, but the regular Robinhood account will still allow you to buy and sell stocks and ETFs.
How it’ll help your finances: Investing is an important aspect of personal finance that can be really intimidating for some. Although Robinhood is certainly more involved than Acorns, it also gives users far more power when it comes to building their portfolio. This includes the ability to purchase specific stocks, whereas Acorns employs algorithms to select your investments.
The bottom line is, if you want to be more active in investing but aren’t quite ready to play in the big leagues, Robinhood can be a great gateway.
What else you should know: When compared to Acorns, which lets users invest as little as $5, investing using Robinhood may be more expensive depending on the stocks you plan to purchase. For example, my first stock purchase was a share of The Walt Disney Company that cost me over $100. Thus, if you don’t have a lot of cash to invest, it may be difficult to build a properly balanced portfolio off the bat.
This leads me to the same warning I issued earlier, which is that you should never invest any money you can’t afford to lose. Furthermore, while cryptocurrencies may be the talk of the town at the moment, it’s important to realize that Bitcoin and others are still extremely volatile and could put those looking to hit it rich in a world of hurt if things turn (just look at Bitcoin’s 2017 high compared to now to learn that lesson). Similarly, trading — or, more specifically, selling options — can be very risky. So even though the app does offer some guidance on the matter, make sure you fully understand these products before diving in.
Given the sheer number of finance apps that have hit the market over the past few years, it can be easy to fall down a rabbit hole of recommendations. However, instead of filling your phone with every application you find, perhaps a better approach is to introduce apps to your ecosystem as you progress in your financial journey. Starting with budgeting apps and credit monitoring services, moving onto savings apps that can help you earn on your spending, and finally finding your way through the sometimes scary world of investing, hopefully these 10 mobile apps can help make your path to financial prosperity that much easier.