Apps to help you save money

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Here's a roundup of some of my favorite money-saving apps for iOS:

SmartyPig. My favorite money saving app is SmartyPig. It's designed to let create virtual "piggy banks" for specific savings goals. I have piggy banks for my yearly car insurance bill, for Christmas present money, for my kids' college funds, and for a new computer every three years.

SmartyPig is linked to your checking account, and every month, a specified amount of money is transferred from your bank account to your piggies. As the pigs get closer to their goal, you can see them getting full. When the goal is reached, you can have the cash transferred to your bank account, or redeem it for a retailer gift card such as Amazon and get a bonus. I seem to have the incurable habit of spending all the readily available money in my checking account, so SmartyPig helps me meet my savings goals.

Debt Free. Last year, I foolishly used credit cards to pay for things I’d ordinarily have used cash to purchase: vacation, back-to-school supplies, school books, clothes for my kids, and business travel. It added up fast. As a result, I am now carrying balances on three different credit cards. The total amount I owe is large enough that I can’t pay it off immediately, so I needed to come up with a plan to get out of debt.

I figured there’d be an app for that, so I looked around the iTunes app store and found something called Debt Free. It’s a well constructed app that helps you use the “Snowball method” to pay down your debt (including credit cards, car loans, lines of credit or any other kind of loan).

If you’re not familiar with the Snowball method, here’s how it works:

1. Make a list of all of your outstanding loan balances, sorted from the lowest balance to the highest balance.

2. Write down the minimum payment for each loan.

3. Figure out how much extra you can afford to pay every month. This is your “snowball.”

4. Pay the minimum payment on each loan, and apply the snowball to the loan with the lowest balance.

5. When the lowest balance loan gets paid off, start applying the extra payment to the next lowest loan on your list.

6. Repeat steps 1-5 until you are free of debt.

Debt Free automates the above process. You simply enter information about each card (remaining balance, interest rate, due date and minimum payment) and how much of a snowball you can afford. It crunches the numbers, generates a payment schedule and tells you when you will be debt-free. It will also notify you when a bill is due (even if the app is not running), and send you a detailed report by email.

Mint. I’ve been a user of Mint, a personal finance website, for several years, and it has become an essential tool for keeping track of my expenses and organizing information that my accountant needs to prepare my income taxes. The great thing about Mint is the way it pulls data from my checking account, savings accounts, stock brokerages, and credit cards and creates attractive and easy to understand reports and graphs. It’s so much easier to use than Quicken, which I struggled with for over 15 years. As soon as I started using Mint, I zapped Quicken from my hard drive, vowing never to use it again. (I got nervous when I learned that Intuit, the company that publishes Quicken, purchased Mint, but so far Intuit has not mucked with the elegance of Mint.)

Shortly after the iPhone was introduced, Mint created an app for it. And like the Web version, the iPhone app was very useful at providing a snapshot of my income, expenses, and financial status. I didn’t think Mint could get much better, but in October the company created an iPad version (which is free, like all versions of Mint) and it is the best way yet to take stock of your personal finances.
When you launch the iPad app you are presented with a screen that displays the following:

1. A pie chart that shows your spending by category;

2. Alerts about upcoming bills and other important information;

3. A progress bar that shows how much under or over budget you are for the month;

4. A list of your top spending categories for the month.

If you click on any of these items, Mint will drill down to display detailed information about it. If you need to edit a transaction, or change the spending category that Mint has incorrectly assigned to a transaction, you can do that on the iPad app, but I find it easier to make those kinds of changes on the web-based version.

If you haven’t tried out Mint yet, I highly recommend that you do. And if you have an iPad, I’m betting you’ll find the Mint app to be as useful as I do.

note: Mint is owned by Intuit, sponsors of this content series. Intuit had no input into or review of the content of this post.


  1. I like Mint but I really wish they’d offer a way to download the old Ipod Touch Gen. 2 compatible version which apparently still works if you’ve already got it, but I joined Mint too late.

    1. Both SmartyPig and Mint are web-based. The apps are just another way to use them. And there is an Android front end available for all three (SmartyPig, Mint and Debt Free).

  2. SmartyPig sounded sketchy, but apparently it’s just created a single savings account for you at a regular bank, BBVA Compass, and then it’s just an app on top of that to allow you to partition your money up into different pots.

    It seems pretty smart, and mostly it seems like something that all banks could be offering. There’s no real need for your money to be held in a different bank, your Bank of Whatever account could do this with an app like this. Essentially, we’re hopefully entering an age where online banking starts being actually smart and even app-like, instead of just being a stripped down version of what you can do at a counter.

    One question for me is whether there’s a way you can protect your savings against your own bad habits with SmartyPig. Since you can apparently stop a goal at any time and send any portion of the money back to your checking account, there’s nothing preventing you from breaking into your “college fund” piggy bank on a weekly basis. If they made it a little harder — you have to wait five days if you want to terminate a goal early, or something — people might stick to their habits better.

  3. Snowball method gives quickly visible results, but is not necessarily the best way to reduce debt.  The most efficient way is to use the extra each month to reduce whichever debt is currently charging you the highest interest rate – not necessarily the same as the smallest current balance.

    On the other hand, the snowball method does allow you to reduce your minimum monthly liability, so it gives you more breathing space if things get harder in the future.

    1.  You’re right, of course, that paying off the balances subject to highest interest rates saves you the most money, and so makes the most sense from a strictly rational point of view, it does not provide the positive feedback that paying off a debt and getting to “forget” about it does.  The snowball method is very effective at providing that much needed reinforcement that checking something off a list provides.  It’s purely due to human nature, but any strategy for debt reduction that ignores human nature is doomed to fail for the majority of people.

      Plus, hopefully the difference between your highest and lowest percentage debt isn’t that huge.  If you’ve got a 32% penalty interest rate on some big balance, by all means pay that off first.  But if the difference is, say, 7% versus 10%, you’re not going to save a ton of money by paying the 10% balance off a couple months early.

    2. From the iTunes description:❖Pay Off Strategies- Supports Multiple Payoff Strategies .✓ Lowest Balance✓ Highest Interest Rate ✓ Highest Balance ✓ Custom Order

  4. Mint would be a whole lot better if they allowed grouping categories into a single budget. Googling around apparently the request for it has been in place for years, and yet it never seems to happen.

    It’d also be nice if there was a way to subtract static monthly expenses (such as rent) from your available pool of money. Applying a budget to these costs really makes no sense as you can’t adjust how much your house costs, and yet that’s the only way you can account for the expense.
    It’s still a pretty useful site.. just not as useful as it could be. 

  5. I tried Mint for well over  a year before I got sick of it.  Their calculations for my accounts were consistently wrong (off by more than two significant figures) and their customer service refused to help on the rare occasions they bothered to respond to me at all.   Entirely worthless service.

    Mint is owned by Intuit, which makes me question how accurate TurboTax is.  If they can’t even handle grade school math, why would I expect them to handle my taxes properly?

    1. I don’t use TurboTax, but the IRS apparently approves of its use, so I guess that makes it relatively low-risk (if not accurate).

        1. There is. Audits check what you entered, not the math . . . 

          Anyway, as I said, I don’t use TurboTax and have no stake in it. Just seems like an odd rip of the product to me.

    2. What kind of calculations were wrong on Mint? What kind of calculations do they even do? Don’t they just pull the data from your accounts and report what you spent?

      Are they adding wrong?

      I’ve never seen any mistakes, and am confused as to how a program can get basic math wrong (I always roll my eyes when I see people checking the math on receipts they’ve been handed), but you’ve made me worry about whether I should double-check my Mint account.

      1.  Not sure what MrEricSir was referring to in particular, but at least when I used it, it calculated a whopping 600 something dollars going to alcohol and bars in one month. I buy maybe a six pack every 2 weeks, so this is definitely not useful information.

        1. I’m still confused because the answer to that kind of question is very easy to find on Mint.

          I noticed it thought I was spending a lot on fast food. So I actually went and looked at all my transactions. Sure enough, it was counting my purchases of subway passes as fast food (our system in boston just lists itself in transactions as “Subway,” so I could see how it got confused). I just re-classified them all as transportation and it sorted itself out.

          At the end of the day Mint is just an automated Quicken. You can see all the transactions, and how it got them. It’s not a black box.

          And no, I still really don’t think it ever adds up wrong.

      2. Are they adding wrong?

        I don’t know, Inuit products don’t show their math.  Every month, Mint insisted I’d spent over $16,000 on “other” in my budget.  Why?  Who knows — but if I really spent that much every month I’d be bankrupt pretty fast. 

        I actually went through and tried to guess how they’d come up with that number and added up all my transactions.  Even if you added up all the items Mint could see, my budget never even hit $3000 in a month.

        If you’re going to make a service like this you NEED to show the math.  Otherwise, it’s worthless.

        1. The only math in Mint is addition. And computers don’t get addition wrong. They really don’t.

          When you click on a budget, you get all the transactions it’s counting towards that budget. The totals on the left add up to the number in the budget. I don’t know what other math they could show, besides sticking little “+” symbols next to each number to show that they’re all added together.

          If the results confused you, then there’s something wrong with their UI or explanations — I’m not saying that that’s not possible, and there’s a lot about Mint I find annoying. But to just dismiss them (and TurboTax) by saying that they “get the math wrong” is just being naive about computers. If computers couldn’t add correctly, you couldn’t possibly be typing out your comment on a complex browser running on an operating system.

          1. Computers don’t get math wrong, but programmers do.  Trust me, I’m a programmer and I make tons of mistakes.

            Fact is,  they did get the math wrong in my account.  I’m as baffled as you, but the transactions on all my bank accounts each month simply did not add up to the number they claimed.  Furthermore this happened every single month, with the same error and roughly the same amount — $16,000.

            Their customer service refused to help, aside from suggesting I delete all my accounts and start over. Which I did.  And guess what?  Complete waste of time, since the problem was still there when I added my accounts back.

            When it comes down to it, why trust an accounting application that doesn’t show its work?

  6. There’s also which has a main website, mobile optimized website and an application for iOS, Android and WebOS.

    All of the mobile apps sync directly with the main website which makes it great for couples who have joint accounts so they can always check their latest balances.

    The site has reporting, account balancing, budgets, bill tracking, reminders/recurring transactions, a debt snowball tool and other helpful features.

  7. Thanks for the heads-up on Smarty Pig! I’ve been looking for something like this, because I am terrible at saving money. Today I started saving towards a new car!

  8. Does anyone here mind that all their money data gets uploaded to some 3rd party site though? I would like to have all this info at my ipad finger tips, but I don’t think I really wanting some pig website knowing I’m saving up to buy a syban and a leopard.

    1.  That’s the whole thing with those sites with me. It’s bad enough with the card companies knowing everything, but I want to limit who has access to what.
      BTW, I paid everything off a few years ago, so I am throwing most of that money into retirement now. I could spend like a drunken sailor with all the additional disposable income, but with it automatically going to retirement I don’t have it, so I don’t spend it. (driving a 10 year old car and watching a 12 year old TV)

    2.  The innocent have nothing to fear from the new technology age. (Your bank account has been flagged for inspection. Please do not leave the state. Thank you for being a valued customer.)

  9. I prefer to just use my own discipline and Quicken to accomplish all of this, but I have a question…
    Do the SmartyPig piggy banks earn interest? Because if you’re moving money from interest-bearing accounts to non-I-B ones, then you’re foolishly giving up some cash.

    And if *any* of your money is sitting in non-I-B accounts then you’re not maximizing your return. Even completely free, feature-rich checking with a small interest rate can be found online i.e. Schwab, Wells Fargo, etc.

    And snowballing is for the myopic. Pay off your highest rates first, otherwise you’re just thinking short term and paying more in the long game. It’s that sort of perspective that caused people to get in over their heads with ARMs in the last decade. There is no easy ride.

    Don’t buy it if you can’t afford it and don’t leverage it if you don’t have the discipline to pay it off on schedule.

  10. I use Ing Direct to do what Smarty Pig does. I can setup as many savings accounts as I want and setup automatic transfers. My paycheck is auto-deposited, and then immediately the amounts I want to go into each account are transferred.   Since the transfers are all instant, I can put the money back in the checking account as soon as needed (my car & house funds are for emergency repairs, so I usually need quick access to those accounts on occasion.)

  11. Yeah I haven’t found either method works for me personally.

    Sure, the snowbal method gets wins, and is motivational.

    Sure, “highest interest first” is strictly speaking the most efficient.

    Real life isn’t usually so neat however… when deciding which debts to pay off first, other realities intervene. Here’s just 3 examples:

    1. I’m poor, so the reality is I may need to go back into debt if I have a major life setback . Example: I am pretty sure the bank ain’t gonna take away my credit card limit, currently a rather good deal (for a credit card) at 11%, whereas, being a contractor and having previously negotiated a car-loan when I was working as a permie, at a relatively cruddy 12.5% interest, there’s a strong chance that if I paid that off, and then had the misfortune to wreck the car in some way that the insurance didn’t cover, I would probably not (as a contractor with no job security) qualify for another car loan at any sane rate of interest, and my total effective liquidity would be reduced by some $20K dollars.

    2. My relationships with different credit provision institutions have (sometimes vastly) different levels of importance, when it comes to maintaining a good credit record. At the end of the month, if I’m short of cash, and I owe the guy who delivers bottled gas to our house $100, and there’s a $30 penalty for not paying by the end of the month and my paycheque is coming in on the 2nd of the month and something has to give… well, I’ll wear that 30% interest penalty rather than risk my perfect mortgage payment record or car loan payment record, even though in practice I’d incur no penalty at all for being 2-3 days late on those repayments. Basically, the gas-delivery dude who gets paid in cash has zero ability to fuxxor my credit rating, and the others do.

    3. I don’t now owe any money to friends or family. In the past though, I have borrowed from family members when in dire straights, and I have usually paid them back ahead of interest bearing debt. Why? Because money isn’t the only measure of worth, and a combination of moral/emotional desire to do the right thing by the people who had helped me when in need, plus the logic that having future access to some interest-free lines of credit in extremis was an important thing to hold on to.

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