In the years after I graduated college, my primary tool for managing money was prayer. Pray that the $20 in my wallet would cover lunch through the week. Pray my friend waited a few days to cash the check I wrote him. Pray the dentist doesn’t find any cavities. My first newspaper job paid me $28,500, and while I never felt poor, an unexpected $500 expense would have more or less wiped me out.
I never learned to balance a checkbook — in my mind, the only relevant question was whether there was still money in my checking account — but I did employ a single piece of software: Microsoft Money, which was finally killed off in 2010. I remember being mesmerized by its chart of my anticipated cash flow, which showed my account rising and falling along with paychecks and bills. It was a basic tool, but it did its job: as best as I can recall, I only overdrafted my account once.
You can get by with a single app for music, maps, notes, and calendars, but when it comes to managing your money, no one app will do
If you’re just learning to get your finances in order, or you’re ready to start giving them some more thought, you have a wealth of app options. You can get by with a single app for music, maps, notes, and calendars, but when it comes to managing your money, no one app will do. Your bank’s app will tell you how much money is in your account, but when it comes to getting a picture of your overall finances, or saving for a major purchase, or splitting the tab at a restaurant, you’re pretty much on your own.
The good news is that there are tools in your local app store to handle just about all of your everyday finance needs. The bad news is that there are hundreds to choose from. If you’re happy with your current setup, there’s no pressing need to change it. But if you’ve never examined your spending by category, or saved more than $100, there have never been easier ways to get started.
Here are our picks for the essential finance apps for planning your budget, tracking your spending, monitoring your credit, and paying your friends back. We also looked at apps that help to automate investing, but I’m not comfortable recommending one. Most people are better off maximizing their investments in a tax-advantaged retirement account, such as a 401(k) or an IRA. Until you’ve done that, you probably don’t need an investment app.
Plan your budget and track your spending
iOS: Clarity Money
Android and iOS: Clarity Money and Mint
The first step toward getting your finances in order is getting some insight into your spending habits. You need to understand what you can afford to spend funds on, and then monitor your spending in real time. Your bank’s app will likely give you some basic insight into your checking account, but you have better options for getting a more holistic view.
If anything, you have too many options here — there are dozens of good-enough budgeting apps out there, but the best budgeting app will always be whatever works best for you. I’m going to suggest you consider two: Mint, a feature-packed personal-finance stalwart owned by Intuit; and Clarity Money, a beautifully designed up-and-comer that is now available on iOS and Android.
Mint is easy to recommend for three reasons: one, it’s a trusted, venerable app in a space where lots of players come and go. Two, it has continually invested in new features since being acquired by Intuit in 2009, and it now offers tools for paying your bills, checking your credit score, and making progress toward your savings goals. And three, it’s ubiquitous — you can get it on Android, iOS, and the web.
Mint’s promotions can feel overly aggressive; its mobile app has an entire tab devoted to these “offers”
Plug in credentials for your financial institutions and Mint will create a solid overview of your finances: recent transactions, upcoming bills, a breakdown of your monthly spending, and more. It’s all interspersed with ads for credit cards, life insurance, and other financial tools, which is how Mint makes money. Mint’s promotions can feel overly aggressive; its mobile app has an entire tab devoted to these “offers,” when most people I know won’t open a single new credit card all year.
Where Mint falls down is in its mobile design — which is a shame, since its original website won critical acclaim when it debuted in 2006. Mint’s tabs are redundant and confusing. (What is the difference between “updates” and “overview”?). It can feel as if the various financial widgets have been sprinkled throughout the app at random. You’ll get the hang of Mint eventually, and few apps can boast more or better free tools. It’s just a bit messy.
That’s why I’ve come to prefer Clarity Money, a venture-backed startup with an iOS app that launched in January. Clarity neatly organizes itself into four tabs: a home feed, an accounts page, a search tool, and your profile. The home feed is a marvel of charts, illustrations, and spending trackers, and each one is designed with genuine flair. (The top of the feed offers a charming daily quote about finances along with the local weather.) From the moment you open the app, you’ll see your current cash on hand and credit debt. As you scroll down, you’ll see your recent transactions and the amount of cash you have left to spend this month.
The spending tracker has a particularly clever design. Clarity will show you how much you spent on several categories by week, month, or year: Uber, Lyft, Starbucks, and Amazon are among the big expenses that Clarity can show you at a glance. I’m also taken with its colorful categorized spending charts: tap a section of the chart to examine the spending category and the chart will transform with new illustrations related to the category.
Clarity offers four other useful tools inside its home feed: a tool that monitors your subscriptions and offers to cancel them on your behalf; a tool to check your credit score; a tool to transfer money between accounts; and a tool to create an automated savings account based on rules that you set up. (“Save $5 every Monday for a rainy day,” for example.) The app is studded with useful cards telling you whether you’re using your credit responsibly or spending more than you should.
Clarity can’t do everything Mint can do — not yet, anyway. Mint is a better option for those who like to create budgets manually, or who want a little more hand-holding as they navigate through the month. (Immediately upon creating my Mint account, it began scolding me for being wildly over budget on several categories, even though I had never established a budget or told the app any of my goals.) But Clarity is calmer and friendlier — and now that it’s available on Android, it might become my default recommendation for most people.
Alternative: PocketGuard, Spendee, Wally, Level, and Prosper Daily all have nice designs and accomplish many of the same basic functions that Mint and Clarity do.
Check your credit score
Once you’ve got a handle on your spending, you’ll want to consider working toward making a major purchase: a car or a house, for example. A good credit score is essential for getting either, and also comes in handy when renting an apartment or even applying for jobs. Yet for too long, finding out your own score involved mailing separate requests to the major credit bureaus — and at your own expense. When they moved to the web, the bureaus began offering full credit reports for $1. They did this while noting, in much smaller print, that with your purchase you were simultaneously enrolling in expensive credit-monitoring services.
That’s why Credit Karma, which was founded in 2007, has been such a godsend. The company lets you check your credit score for free, making its money by suggesting credit cards that might be better for you based on your spending patterns. But you’re free to ignore those offers. In the meantime, you can check your credit whenever you like. If you’re struggling, the app will offer ideas on how you can improve your score. As of this year, it will also offer to check government databases to see if you are owed cash, and even file your taxes. Few apps in this world are too good to be true, but Credit Karma consistently feels like one of them.
Alternative: Both Mint and Clarium allow you to monitor your credit score for free inside their apps.
Save money quickly and intelligently
Making a major purchase also requires saving money — something that Americans are generally terrible at. The majority say an unanticipated $500 expense would put them into debt. And banks have been essentially useless in helping them put any money away for a rainy day.
That’s why Digit’s arrival in 2015 was so welcome. Once you sign up, Digit creates a new savings account and manages it for you, socking away a few dollars at a time from your checking account. It learns when your bills are due and withdraws money only when it believes you wouldn’t miss the cash. The average user saves about 5 percent of their salary over the course of a year, not accounting for the savings that they later withdraw from their Digit account.
I used Digit to build a healthy emergency fund for myself, and I have recommended it enthusiastically ever since. Then this year the company instituted a $3 monthly fee, which it announced rather clumsily, and some Digit users began seeking a better alternative. I understand why: if you have no savings at all, paying $3 a month for the privilege of not spending money can feel counterproductive. Because of the fee, Digit is least useful to the customers who arguably need it the most.
For your $3 a month, you’ll likely build a bigger savings account than you thought you were capable of
But even with the fee, I still think Digit is the best automated savings tool available today. For your $3 a month, you’ll likely build a bigger savings account than you thought you were capable of — and reap the peace of mind that comes with it. The handful of free alternatives to Digit have unproven business models, making me wary of their long-term prospects. Digit has also started to introduce new money-management features that make it more valuable. You can tell it to sock away the money you’ll need to pay your monthly rent, for example, and it will inject the money back into your account just before the rent is due.
For me, there’s no arguing with the results — Digit has saved me serious cash. If it saves you at least $3,600, the 1 percent interest rate will cover the cost of its monthly fees. You’ll have more in savings than the majority of your fellow Americans — and feel far more capable of handling whatever life throws at you.
Alternative: Qapital is a free alternative that saves money based on rules you set up — rounding to the nearest dollar whenever you take a Lyft and transferring the change to savings, for example. Clarity offers a similar automated savings tool. Downside to both: they put the onus on you to determine how much you should save, and their business models are unproven.
Pay your friends back
The last tool you need on your phone is something to help you split bills with friends, loved ones, and roommates — and easily pay the rando you just bought a couch from off Craigslist. Venmo is likely the best known app on this list, and the one most likely to already be on your phone. But the relatively simple peer-to-peer payments app, which is now a subsidiary of PayPal, is still far from ubiquitous. And that’s a shame, because there are few faster ways to transfer money. Just tap the new payments button, type in a friend’s username, and type in the amount of money you want to send or request. It’s all free to both sender and recipient.
Venmo took off among young people, thanks to a novel, counterintuitive gimmick: every payment has to be accompanied by an emoji, which then appears publicly in a feed by default. (The amount of the payment is never shared.) The format is ripe for joking around — sex- and drug-related emoji abound. But it also brings some levity, and humanity, to a genre of app that had never previously seen either. Venmo can be very silly if you’re browsing the feed of your friends’ payments, but it’s also a rock-solid way to move money around — and it has more than earned a place on your phone.
If you regularly split bills with friends or roommates, you should check out Splitwise, which offers more powerful tools for tracking who has paid you back and still owes you. The app lets you settle up using Venmo or PayPal, or you can record a cash payment.
Alternative: Square Cash is even simpler than Venmo, but lacks both the novel social feed and the size of Venmo’s network.
Update, 11/9: This article has been updated to reflect that Clarity is now available on Android.