By Kari Paul, MarketWatch
A plethora of digital money-tracking services have emerged in recent years to overtake the humble paper-and-pencil logs of the past, from budgeting apps like Mint and HelloWallet to expense apps like SplitWise. Today, such services are entering a new frontier: automation.
For many consumers — especially millennials — starting a savings plan from scratch can feel overwhelming — but with these new automated tools, you can start saving without thinking about it. Consumers now have a wealth of options to choose from to take small steps toward financial freedom. Here are six.
This app automates user saving across different accounts, analyzing spending to find where users can cut costs. Trim cancels subscriptions and negotiates utility bills by finding recurring charges. It works by connecting to a user’s bank account and can be managed through texts. It makes money by taking a percentage of what it saves users through bill negotiations and is also compensated by third-party partners like credit card issuers for referring them customers.
Digit is a kind of digital change jar for money saving. The free app connects with a user’s checking account and analyzes spending habits, taking out a small amount of money (usually between $5 and $50) every few days when its algorithms determine it can be spared. The money is then moved to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.-insured Digit savings account, and can be transferred at any time to a checking account within one business day.
The app differs from popular saving and budgeting services like Mint in that it doesn’t run on a home page with an overview of spending habits, instead relying on an SMS-based chatbot that users can text directly for information, including recent activity like checking balance, recent transactions, and how much money has been saved. There is a Digit dashboard with an overview of account activity, but the majority of activity through Digit occurs by text or in its in-app messaging service. The app makes saving money seamless, but works best for users with a steady income.
Previously, as a freelancer, the service proved frustrating for me — I often spent little money while I scraped by until the next paycheck, only to find Digit’s algorithms determined that I had cash to spare and withdrew more from my account. There is a feature that allows users to pause saving for a set amount of time when money is tight, but I felt that took away from the top advertised benefit of the app, which is saving without thinking.
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Similar to Digit, Qapital puts small chunks of change into a savings account for users, but unlike Digit, it lets you set the rules. Just sync the app with your bank account and credit cards and input a goal to save up to, like a vacation or paying off debt. Customize the plan by deciding what actions and daily habits trigger a deposit. (When Qapital sets your savings aside, it takes it from you bank account, and not your credit card.)
Users can round up extra change ($0.30 from that $2.70 coffee you bought this morning, for example), set a fixed daily or weekly amount to save, or connect the app with Apple Health to reward themselves for fitness goals. Set a weekly budget for something like Starbucks /zigman2/quotes/207508890/composite SBUX +0.64% or Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN +1.94% purchases and let the app deposit the difference into savings if you spend less than anticipated.
Qapital aims to make saving more fun. It could deposit money in your savings account whenever you do something with your phone like upload an Instagram photo or every time the international space station orbits over the U.S., or you can add money to the savings account each time you save a track to Spotify playlists. With a “freelancer rule” that saves 30% of every deposit for tax day, this app is the clear money-saving choice for anyone who doesn't have a steady paycheck. Qapital is free to download and use, and makes money through interest on savings it holds for users like a typical bank. The app rewards users for activities they already do, and makes saving fun in the process.
Take your savings one step further by actually investing it. Acorns is an option for users who want to try their hand at investing in stocks and bonds but are hesitant to do so. It connects to any debit or credit card and rounds up change from each purchase to the dollar, investing it in one of five diversified portfolios developed in part by Nobel Prize-winning economist Harry Markowitz.
Users start by saving an average of $33 to $35 a month, or more than $400 a year in spare change, said Jennifer Barrett, the chief education officer at Acorns. “For someone really nervous about starting to invest this is a way to go in with minimal effort and minimal risk,” she said.
Acorns also recently introduced a “Found Money” feature, through which companies it partners with — like HotelTonight and Blue Apron — reward users for shopping there with small contributions of around $10. The app is free to download but charges users $1 once a month after they begin investing. Users who accrue more than $5,000 in an account will pay 0.25% a year instead of $1 a month. Still, $1 a month can add up for consumers, particularly if the account is small to begin with. So if you truly are just investing spare change, Acorns may not be right for you.
Penny is a “smart” savings bot that chats with you via text about your monthly spending habits — kind of like if your mom had access to your bank account. Last week Penny texted me to say, “You went to the movies four times last month and spent an average of $30 on each visit.”
The “chatbot,” programmed to mimic text conversation, offers an interactive alternative to more static overviews in apps like Mint and Qapital. Within the app’s chat feature, Penny breaks down account activity by category over different time periods to show spending habits, including average daily spending and recurring purchases like bills and subscriptions.
She gets “smarter” the more you use the app, and can tell you facts like whether you spent more at Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee this month, how much on average you spend on lunch, and what bills you could cut out to save money. Penny keeps up on the news, too — after the recent Wells Fargo scandal, she prompted me to check my accounts since I bank with the company.
Unlike Qapital or Acorns, Penny doesn't touch any payments but simply explains existing activity to the user. The app is free for now and raised $1.2 million in funding this year, but says on its website it will eventually have to charge users so it can make a profit. She is a cute personal finance assistant that helps users get an overview of their spending habits, but many consumers may prefer to opt for a more comprehensive budgeting service, even if it doesn't talk back.
Most personal finance services work as a layer on top of existing bank accounts to help users save, but Simple wants to replace the bank completely. The FDIC-insured service has advertised itself as kind of an anti-bank, with its web-based model allowing it to operate without charging users any fees. It requires no minimum balance to open an account and allows users to access a network of partner ATMs with no fees. It doesn’t charge fees on checking or savings accounts and says it makes money from service fees that merchants pay when you swipe your Simple-issued debit card.
The “Goals” feature lets users set an amount and a date they want to save money by, and the app will automatically take it out of the account and transfer it into a holding account until you reach your goal at no charge. The app shows total balance subtracting recurring costs and regular goals withdrawals to prevent overspending. Changing to Simple is a bigger commitment than the other services, but its interface is intuitive and easy to navigate.