Aim to figure out how an app fits into your life, not the other way around, says CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional Karen Carr Brady.
Got money woes? There’s probably an app for that.
Whether you’re worried about your (non-existent) emergency fund, spend more than you earn, or are simply drowning in debt, there’s an app developer out there aiming to solve your problem. But despite the explosion of personal finance apps, many of us still struggle to get it right when it comes to our money.
It may not be a surprise that most people are unhappy with their apps and the financial institutions behind them. Some are stressed out by Mint and its constant stream of alerts. One more Venmo request from a friend may push you over the edge. And all those apps we’ve downloaded, used once, and forgot about clog up our smartphone storage space, too.
Can technology save us from ourselves, or are we expecting too much from our apps? While managing our finances is getting easier, a crash course in personal finance apps is a good refresher: Why do we need them? What should we watch out for? How can we make our apps work harder for us?
How Apps Can Help
We use personal finance apps to monitor our behavior and make managing our finances easier. The beauty of apps like Mint, Level Money, and Lemon is that you can link all of your bank, credit card, investment, and other financial accounts to view current balances in one place.
It’s simple to open your apps, confirm that your checking account has enough cash to cover expenses, and/or ensure your credit card balance isn’t getting too high. They also offer budgeting features so you can keep things in check.
Personal finance apps also help you get something done: You can pay a friend with Venmo, up your savings with Qapital, or kickstart an investment account with Acorns. Rather than dealing with cash or having to walk into a bank branch, apps allow you to push a button and easily take action.
The Downside of Apps
Despite all the good apps can do, they come with some potential problems if you’re not careful. In-app purchases, one-click checkout, and free trial offers that convert automatically to recurring subscription fees are just a few ways apps actually encourage spending—and one of the biggest threats to a budget is mindless spending. Unfortunately, many apps are perfectly designed to encourage this habit, rather than giving us extra time to think through a potential purchase.
There’s also the danger of a “Keeping Up with the Joneses” mentality. Comparison comes so easily in the Instagram age, and even Venmo allows you to see all your friends’ transactions. It can be difficult to watch others pay each other back and forth for glasses of rosé and summer beachhouse rentals, all with gleeful emojis, and not think, I want to do that, too.
Furthermore, apps don’t always present the most realistic view of planning for your future. Small steps really do matter, but only if you continue to build on them. For instance, apps like Qapital and Acorns focus on getting users started with saving and investing through small deposits or rounding up purchases. While this is a great habit to start, it’s also important to understand that saving 50 cents per day probably won’t be enough to help you reach bigger financial goals like buying a home or retiring.
Make Apps Work For You
Just because personal finance apps aren’t the perfect panacea for every money problem doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a place in your financial plan (and smartphone). Aim to figure out how an app fits into your life, not the other way around. Don’t be afraid to get creative and bundle apps together to get the most out of them.
For instance, I use Level Money for my day-to-day budgeting. It’s easy to open it up, see how much I have left to spend for the day, week, or month, and use this info to make better spending decisions while I’m on the go. I’m also a Mint lover when I’m looking for a bit more data. I review my transactions from each of my accounts to see how I did that month. Did I go overboard in one area? Any fraudulent charges or subscription fees I forgot about? This may seem like a lot of work for some, but it works for me. Try to find your own system that serves your needs.
Do Your Research
If you’re looking to make technology work for you, start by finding the right suite of apps. Even though it may seem like you keep hearing about the same five apps over and over again, there are so many more out there! When it comes to budgeting, there are apps for those who prefer to spend cash, want to track their spending on a calendar, are looking for a digital envelope system, and much more. Take some time to research what’s available and read the reviews.
And don’t stop there: Try to understand better how the developers intended you to use their app. Make good use of tutorials, frequently asked questions, and forums. Even if you end up personalizing the way you use an app for your own situation, it helps to understand the original intent —and you may learn a thing or two about best practices that could be useful.
After you’ve done all this research, don’t forget to give your app a chance! It may be tempting to download an app, use it for a day, and draw the conclusion that it’s just not going to work for you. Take time to set it up and learn its ins and outs before you write it off (or delete it).
A Few More Tips
Start with free apps, but understand how they make money. Many of them feature paid advertisements that look a lot like personalized recommendations. While the app may have used some of your information to offer you a smarter credit card that could save you money, recognize this as targeted advertising, not financial advice. If you’re interested in any of the products offered, perform your own due diligence to make sure it’s right for your situation.
Apps aren’t all about monitoring your spending and sending cash to friends—they also may come with a healthy dose of financial education. Take advantage of what they offer. Many have blogs with great personal finance content or in-app education (like Credit Karma, that can better help you understand your credit score).
If you’re leveraging the newest technology, but still struggling with money management, consider bringing in a professional. CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professionals can even work with you to integrate apps into your financial plan and day-to-day money decisions. You can benefit from both the digital world and a human perspective.
And don’t forget: You can always skip apps altogether. Nothing stops mindless spending in its tracks like an all-cash diet. Go old school and track your spending with a pen and paper. You can always go back to using an app once you have your financial situation under control.
The Bottom Line
While no one app will solve all our financial problems, new technology offers a tremendous amount of opportunity to improve our financial situations little by little. And if nothing else, because of apps, I can’t remember the last time I had to visit my local bank branch. For that, I’m pretty thankful.
Karen Carr Brady is the founder of Simplie, a financial planning company that offers virtual appointments with CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professionals. Karen is a former member of the Society of Grownups planning team and is now based in New York City. When she’s not writing about personal finance or meeting with clients, you can find her roaming around NYC looking for the best place to eat.
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While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, schedule time with a financial planner.