The Best Financial Apps and Tools of 2021 to Help You Save, Spend, and Invest Better

A photo to accompany a story about financial apps and tools Courtesy of Acorns

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The first financial app I ever downloaded to my iPhone was the free budgeting tool Mint. That was roughly 10 years ago — and for years, it remained one of the few money apps I’d reference. Fast forward to today, I’ve got a whole folder called “finance” on my phone with a number of handy tools to help me feel more in control of my money. 

The days of asking you “What’s in your wallet?” have been replaced with “What’s in your phone?” 

I’m not alone in my love for tech-driven financial tools. I recently teamed up with cloud computing firm Oracle to ask over 9,000 consumers and business leaders around the globe about their thoughts on the relationship between money and tech — specifically AI (artificial intelligence) and robots. What we discovered is that two in three people (67%) say they trust robots more than humans with their money. And 8 in 10 consumers think automated tools will replace personal financial advisors in the coming years. 

The pandemic and our inability to, say, walk into a bank, or even want to deal with cash (gross), has accelerated our adoption and trust of fintech to help us make financial decisions. With emotions running on high, we don’t always trust ourselves to make rational money choices. We know we need to budget, pay down debt and save … but we need help. 

But the landscape can be overwhelming. There seems to always be a new app in development that promises more ease and efficiency than the last. Without a track record, they’re hard to recommend. So, below are some of the financial apps I’ve had success with over the years and ones my readers and listeners swear by for helping them make the most of their money.

Keeping Tabs on Your Cash: Your Bank’s App

It might be stating the obvious, but if you’ve yet to download your bank or credit card issuer’s mobile app, this should be your next immediate money move. You can connect your bank to any number of third-party apps that provide budgeting and net worth tracking, but, in my experience, your bank’s app itself gives the most up-to-date account of what’s been deposited and spent. 

One of my favorite uses of my bank app is depositing checks with my phone’s camera. It has eliminated the need to ever go to an ATM for that reason, saving me time and gas. 

Pro Tip

Check your balance each morning, as you check the weather and social media. That daily check-in is a health habit that ensures you’re always on top of your cash balance.

A Super Easy Way to Save: Digit 

Digit is an app that analyzes your spending patterns and automatically moves micro amounts of your money ($5-$20) into an FDIC-insured savings account from time to time. The genius of the app is in its simplicity. It recognizes the science that confirms how we, humans, struggle to save on our own. Since launching in 2015, the app says it has saved users a total of over $1 billion.

“Everyone feels they should be saving more, regardless of your income,” founder Ethan Bloch told me on my podcast. “And yet, when you actually see the rubber meet the road, people don’t do it … because life is complex. There are lots of decisions during the day, most of which are more instantly gratifying than say putting money aside. So the human brain is just bad at this.”

Digit is great for someone who wants to build an emergency fund or save for a major purchase. It’s free for the first 30 days and then $5 a month. Since launching, it’s also branched out to offer more features including overdraft protection and helping you pay down debt or save for retirement. 

A Great Way to Microinvest: Acorns

Similar to Digit, Acorns is an app that saves small amounts of your money. But rather than place it in a low-interest savings account, the money gets invested in a diversified portfolio. For $1 per month, the Acorns Lite program rounds up your purchases to the nearest dollar and automatically invests that “spare change.” 

Acorns has additional program tiers. You can upgrade to its “Personal” program, which costs $3 per month, which offers a “personal financial wellness system,” including a checking account with an associated debit card and financial advice. For $5 a month, you can sign up the whole family and get your kids their own investment accounts, too.

For More Serious Investing, Including for Retirement: Pick Your Flavor

The onus of investing for long-term wealth, particularly for  for retirement, is increasingly on the individual.If your employer doesn’t offer a sponsored plan like a 401(k) — or if you’re ready to invest in the market in addition to your 401(k) — you may not be sure which online broker is best. 

It’s not Robinhood. But in this category, I don’t have an absolute best to suggest. My preference is to work with an automated platform (which you can access through an app) offered by one of the more established brokerage firms like Fidelity, Vanguard, and Charles Schwab. I like them because they offer access to tax-advantaged investment accounts such as IRAs and Roth IRAs, and tend to offer the widest and least expensive selection of investment funds.

Many of the newer tech-driven investment companies like Betterment, Ellevest, and Wealthfront are fine, too. Each platform has its own style and branding, but most are all the same in terms of fees and account minimums. It really just boils down to your preference. 

If you are already banking with any of the above institutions, then I would recommend exploring their investment account options first, as it would be convenient to keep everything “under one roof.”

Budgeting at Its Best: You Need a Budget (YNAB) and Mint  

For basic budgeting support and tracking spending, there are many apps and tools from which to choose, but Mint still delivers quite nicely. It’s the app that many of my podcast listeners like and because it’s been around for many years, it continues to be the one I tend to recommend. It’s also free.

If you want an app that’s more sophisticated and willing to pay more, we’ve written previously at NextAdvisor about how much we like You Need a Budget (YNAB) for its emphasis on zero-based budgeting. The overarching philosophy of YNAB is that every one of your dollars should be assigned a “job.” 

“We want to make sure you are really clear on what your money priorities are, and then make sure your money is doing those things. And you don’t answer to anyone for that … they are your priorities,” founder Jesse Mecham explained on my podcast.

YNAB is free for 34 days; after the free trial it costs $11.99 a month, or $83.99 a year.  

Tracking Net Worth: Personal Capital

I’ve recently discovered Personal Capital and the app, which provides a free snapshot of all my financial accounts and net worth, has become a multiple-times-per-day visit for me. It breaks down your total financial picture and shows pretty charts, showing your current cash balance, investments, other assets like property and cars and active debt load. 

While you’re there, I’d recommend playing around with its retirement calculators to see if you’re “on track” with that. You can upgrade to working with Personal Capital to manage your investments for a fee of 0.89% up to the first million dollars. But for now, I’m addicted to the free version.

Best for Consolidating Student Debt

While SoFi has become a go-to financial services company for a variety of banking needs, I mostly appreciate it for its original offering: helping people consolidate a variety of student loans. SoFi does what most lenders don’t: consolidate both private and federal loans together. There are minimum requirements to qualify like healthy credit and proof of employment. SoFi customers also receive career coaching, financial advice and other benefits at no additional cost.