Thousands of Americans start the year off with high expectations to change their spending and saving habits only to fall back into their status quo before the end of the first quarter. The reason, says Laura Cole, director of the Masters Investment Learning Center and a senior lecturer in finance in UT’s Haslam College of Business, is that they are trying to change too much too fast.
“Financial discipline does not materialize overnight,” Cole says. “It builds upon little victories until one day you begin greeting your packet of bills as an opportunity for monthly achievement.”
Cole advises relying on technology to ease into personal financial growth. Here are four apps she recommends to reach the next stage of financial maturity before the end of the first quarter.
Tracking Expenses on the Fly
If you are just starting to track your expenses, manually logging them into an Excel spreadsheet or personal accounting software can be daunting. Luckily, with apps like Wally you can simply take a photo of your receipts. It saves the amount and location so expenses can be entered quickly in the future.
Cole recommends it as a first step for people whose main priority is cutting down on excess spending.
“It is very easy to follow, and it provides pie charts with color-coded expense categories,” she says.
The app is free and has no ads but does not actually link to your financial accounts. For that, you need something a little more advanced.
Learning to Budget
“Mint takes things a few steps forward and helps you track your spending as well as create a budget,” Cole says.
The app centralizes all your bank accounts, loans, and credit cards as well as your monthly bills. You can sync all your accounts with Mint so your data is in one place and updates automatically each time you log in.
“Mint is great if you are just learning how to get organized financially and you need to create a budget to track your spending,” Cole says.
Many people delay investing until they accumulate the minimum portfolio balance most financial advisors require. Acorns helps you get there faster with a two-pronged strategy—it rounds up your daily purchases and invests (not just saves) your spare change so it grows more quickly.
Link your checking account and credit cards to the app, and your everyday $4.13 cappuccino becomes $5, with the $0.87 going into a portfolio of your choosing. It recommends one of five well-balanced portfolio blends based on your risk preference and manages them for you.
“You are essentially tipping yourself, or rather tipping your future self,” says Cole. “It’s an easy way of wading into investments and increasing your savings more quickly.”
If budgeting and saving aren’t your issues but investing still intimidates you, Cole recommends Stash. Stash is a broker-dealer offering more than 30 themed exchange-traded fund portfolios (a mutual fund you can trade like a stock) that you can narrow down by risk tolerance, preference, and other factors.
Stash also gives quirky names to its portfolios, like “Enjoy Yourself” (ticker symbol: PEJ), composed of companies in the entertainment and the hospitality industry, with top holdings in Hilton, Royal Caribbean Cruises, MGM Resorts, and McDonald’s.
“The app makes investing more approachable and fun,” Cole says. “It’s a good way for beginners to build their portfolio on their own without entailing so many fees that can hinder growth.”
Stash charges $1 per month for balances under $5,000 and .25 percent annually for balances of $5,000 or more, with the first three months free. It takes fees from your bank account rather than your investment portfolio, and it requires $5 to start investing.
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