I’ve always been skeptical of paying for mobile phone apps. There are so many great free programs out there – including dozens devoted to helping you master your finances – it feels like a waste to spend any money on them.
I would never have spent $35 on the financial software Quicken either if it hadn’t been for my husband, who’s been using it on and off for years. Mint has always seemed to me to be (almost) just as good.
But as I recently started diving deeper into free personal finance apps to clean up my finances, I came across a number of fee-based apps that have earned a devoted following from users who swear by them. It made me wonder if I should try them, too.
The ultra-popular You Need a Budget, for example, has earned rave reviews from personal finance bloggers and personal finance-challenged users alike and has repeatedly been referred to as a financial “lifesaver,” even though it costs more than $80 a year.
The Wiser Miser, for example, recently called it a “magical life-changing money management tool,” while Money Bo$$ noted, “You Need a Budget isn’t just a piece of software. It’s a financial philosophy.”
Meanwhile, the investing app Acorns is so ubiquitous, it seems to get included in just about every roundup of “best personal finance apps.” The “small change” investing tool costs $12 a year; but users say it could save you hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars as it moves spare change into an account and automatically invests it.
According to Tech Crunch, millions of people have invested their money with Acorns. “Acorns is quickly turning into an oak tree in the financial services space,” wrote Jonathan Shieber.
Intrigued, I started looking deeper into the world of fee-based apps, hoping to find a money-saver worth investing in. Here are some of the best I’ve come across:
You Need a Budget ($6.99 a month):
Mindfulness for budgeters
YNAB (as it’s often referred to by users) lets you try it out for free for 34 days, so I signed up to see if I would like it.
YNAB’s interface is not only lovely to look at and simple to use, it also features an extensive collection of tips that are written in a casual youthful style that’s refreshing. I’m used to reading dry financial primers that make your eyes glaze over.
It’s not for the casual user, though, as YNAB requires you to rethink how you’ve been spending money and proactively shift your style so it’s in line with YNAB’s method.
For example, it asks you to “give every dollar a job” by actively considering beforehand how you’ll use it. “The secret is just to be intentional,” says YNAB.
It also asks you to “age your money” by spending what you earned at least a month ago, rather than what you earned this week. That way, “you can live far, far away from the financial edge. And it will feel great.”
Tiller ($5 a month): A customizable financial spreadsheet – without the work
If you don’t want to reconfigure your whole approach to budgeting, but do want an easier way to monitor your spending, Tiller is another good option.
Tiller automatically syncs your spending data into a Google Drive spreadsheet that can be remotely accessed by multiple people. So, for example, if you and your partner are sharing budgeting duties, you don’t need to log onto just one partner’s computer to access your information.
That’s a really nice perk for families. My biggest complaint about Quicken is that I have to log onto my husband’s computer to check our spending or manually input some information.
If you don’t want to spend a lot of time tailoring your budget, Tiller provides a number of spreadsheet templates for monitoring your budget. It also allows you to craft your own so you can customize how you monitor your expenses.
In addition, it has a number of other customizable features – such as the ability to craft multiple spreadsheets – that make it a handy tool for monitoring your financial life and brainstorming your way forward.
PocketGuard Plus ($3.99 a month or $34.99 a year): Monitor cash transactions
The popular free app PocketGuard also lets you sync your bank account information and easily monitor your spending. But what makes this app special is that it lets you know in real-time “how much money you have left in your pocket” (AKA your predetermined budget) so you don’t accidentally overspend.
The free version monitors only your electronic and card transactions, though. So, if you’re a heavy cash user, you may have trouble getting a clear picture of your true spending.
PocketGuard Plus helps solve that problem by letting you input your cash transactions manually, monitor your cash balance and note which “bills” you’re supposed to pay for in cash.
For example, if you pay rent to your roommate, rather than directly to a landlord, like I did when I first got out of college, you can note that “cash bill” in PocketGuard.
Also, PocketGuard Plus lets you add more “pockets” – which are basically predetermined budgets for certain categories – to your app interface so you can design a more comprehensive budget.
Acorns ($1 a month for accounts under $5,000):
Invest your spare change
Acorns is the kind of low-risk investment tool I wish I had taken advantage of earlier. Once linked to your credit card account, it rounds up each transaction to the nearest dollar and then transfers that “spare change” to an automatic investment account.
The tool is similar to a Bank of America program I used to subscribe to shortly after college that transferred the spare change from my debit card transactions to a Bank of America savings account. I used the Bank of America tool for years and was often surprised by the amount of money I’d managed to squirrel away.
Digit ($2.99 a month):
Grow your savings effortlessly
Digit works similarly to Acorns; but rather than invest your money, it transfers it to a Digit savings account and periodically awards small savings bonuses.
Unlike traditional savings tools that move the same amount of money over each month, Digit analyzes your lifestyle and how much cash you have available and automatically tailors your savings based on how much it thinks you can afford.
Debt Manager ($.99):
Monitor your debts and pay them off quickly
I’m currently debt-free, but I’ve bookmarked Debt Manager in case I need help managing a whole bunch of different balances.
Debt Manager helps you visualize your debts all in one place and monitor your progress as you steadily trim your balances.
The app also helps you to strategize your debt payments, giving you a choice between the snowball method or avalanche method – or other popular repayment methods – and calculates how much interest you’ll save if you stay on track.
In addition, you can use Debt Manager to test different scenarios and determine whether you should revise your strategy or stick with it.
Debt Manager is a great way to keep tabs on your progress and figure out whether your current game plan is working. The colorful charts can also be motivating – particularly if you need a visual reminder of just how far you’ve come.
Feel free to test out apps before you commit
You don’t need to invest a lot of money to try out these personal finance apps. Many apps, such as You Need a Budget, Tiller and Digit, let you take them for a test drive for free.
Just be sure to cancel before the charges start if an app asks you to provide your credit card details when you sign up. Otherwise, the same app that was intended to help you with managing your finances may end up denting them instead.
See related: Couples sharing finances? There are apps for that, 5 apps that pay you to get active