America is in the midst of a savings crisis. But there are many apps that can be used on your smartphone, tablet, or computer that can help you build savings, often with little “pain” or effort on your part. As you can automate the process using these free or low cost apps listed below. You can save a few cents or dollars at a time (which adds up over time), and take other small steps using these apps.
A Federal Reserve survey published in 2018 warned that most Americans do not have $400 in savings on hand for emergency expenses, and that 25% of working adults have done no retirement saving at all. Technology can help families address their lack of savings. Many apps are also focused on teenagers as well as high school or college students.
The problem of lack of savings is partially economic. Though the economy has been considered “strong” for several years now, distribution is not even and about 78% of workers are estimated to still be living “paycheck to paycheck” or close enough to it to not be able to weather emergencies. Apps can help low to moderate income families, as well as others living check to check. Additionally, even when times are good Americans tend to save less money than people in the rest of the world’s developed economies – around 5%, versus 10% to 20% throughout Europe.
One key to reversing this is to improve financial literacy, and another is to find ways to efficiently set aside small amounts of money on a regular basis. Take advantage of the growth of investments from compound interest. The following apps are designed to do just that, and can be a huge help.
As a tall tree eventually grows from a single acorn, so too can a substantial savings account develop from a first deposit of small change. The free Acorns app is about building small amounts of savings over time. It can be great for people of all ages, including teens and parents too.
The free to use and download Acorns app applies this “tree theory” to finances, setting you up to automatically save anywhere from $1 to $3 of your monthly income. One of the key features here is the optional automatic “round up”; when you make a purchase that’s just below a full dollar amount, Acorns will automatically round it up and save the extra change for you.
Acorns would be useful but unremarkable if it was just a basic automated savings discipline app (since banks usually offer these now). Where it really shines is the range of added features. You don’t have to just throw your money into a basic savings account, you have the option of investing it in various portfolio types. You can customize the level of risk you want to take, with a “conservative” option that consists only of ultra-safe bonds for those who want to guarantee slow but steady growth. Another option for those thinking about retirement is to use the Acorns Later program, which sets you up with an IRA suited for your circumstances. After all, investing is one important aspect of financial literacy.
There is no added cost for these programs; you just have to commit to investing at least $1 per month. You’ll need to make it $2 to use the Acorns Later feature, and $3 allows you to withdraw money fee-free from just about any ATM (free from their partner network, but fees are reimbursed monthly when you use other ATMs). There are no minimum account balances, but you may need to make a one-time initial $5 deposit to start investing.
Bank of America: Keep the Change
With tens of millions of customers accessing their digital services, it’s a safe bet that some people reading this have Bank of America accounts. If you do, and if you regularly use your debit card to make purchases (and also have a savings account with them), you might want to check out their “Keep the Change” program. It is a great, free way to slowly but steadily build savings.
Once your existing Bank of America debit card is enrolled in the program, all purchases are automatically rounded up to the next dollar and the difference is automatically moved from your checking to savings account. The transfer will not be made if it would overdraw your checking account, however.
It doesn’t really offer any added benefits to build customer build their overall financial literacy skill set. It’s a convenient way to automate the process of adding money to savings, however, and can be positive for those who tend to overdo it on convenience or luxury purchases.
Chime advertises pretty heavily across all forms of media, so you’ve probably heard their “no hidden fees” pitch at some point. Chime is basically a very simple, free online-only “bank alternative” for those who have direct deposit as a paycheck option. The free app allows savings, it provides financial literacy advice including definitions of the terms, and other benefits.
The key here is that you get both a checking and savings account. This comes with a physical debit card that can be used for in-store purchases, and can be used to either get cash back from stores or withdraw from ATMs. There is a $2.50 fee for either getting cash back at a store or using an out-of-network ATM, but otherwise Chime has no fees at all.
So how does it help you save and help with financial literacy? The “Automatic Savings” feature can round up transactions to the next dollar and automatically send the difference to your savings account, as many banks now do. You can also set an automatic percentage of each incoming paycheck to be automatically transferred to savings, a feature that not all banks offer. And you can receive a free paycheck advance of two days once you meet qualifying conditions; that’s two more days of interest!
Digit will not suit everyone’s circumstances as it charges a subscription fee of $5 per month, but those who have serious trouble controlling their spending, tracking their finances and getting enough money into savings might find it to be money well spent. It is also good for those low income families who can’t meet the minimum deposit or balance amounts for a bank savings account.
Digit is basically an online savings account that pairs up with your existing bank checking accounts. It provides all sorts of tracking and automation features to help keep your money where it is supposed to be. For example, it can automatically move all money above a certain amount in checking to your Digit savings as it comes in. You can also set specific savings goals for it to track.
Digit also provides you with a form of interest that is competitive with standard savings account rates. Every time you save money for three months, you get a 1% annualized bonus matched to the amount you put away. This could be enough to wash out the monthly fee if you save enough.
Digit is FDIC insured for balances up to $250,000, and you can move money back to your checking account at any time with no penalties. Aside from the $5 monthly subscription cost, the only hitch is that your bank has to support Digit – which includes thousands of financial institutions.
Qapital is a “savings account alternative” app similar to Digit, but it offers even more features related specifically to savings goals. This additional features are great for helping to build over all financial literacy.
You can choose from a wide variety of automatic savings goals and rules: round-ups, automatically sending discount savings to checking, savings funding on luxury purchases, and tax savings systems for freelancers are just a few examples.
Qapital gives you a debit card, 0.1% interest on your savings and FDIC insurance on your account, but as with Digit there is also a monthly subscription fee. However, there are tiers here to this savings app. You can pay either $3, $6 or $12 per month; each level comes with new savings and money-tracking features. The most basic level ($3 per month) allows you access to a good deal of the settings and lets you create unlimited savings goals.
Smartypig is one more “savings account alternative” option in the mold of Digit and Qapital, but this one offers an Annual Percentage Yield (APY) interest rate of 1.75% even on the smallest deposits. This is considerably better than the average bank savings account, which usually offers you about 0.10%.
So what’s the catch with this free smartphone app? Fees? Nope, there are no fees and there is no charge to open it. The one big limitation here is that there is no debit card and thus no ATM access. To get your money out of Smartypig, you need to transfer it back to your linked checking account.
There is no minimum deposit, but savings goals have to be set at a $50 minimum. The account is through Sallie Mae and is FDIC insured.
If you’re looking to get your savings out of low-interest bank accounts and into safe and/or even higher risk investments, Stash was made for you. The app is designed specifically for new investors working with small amounts of money and is packed with financial advice to help you learn the ropes. This means that a teenager can both invest as well as learn, and many college students use Stash too. The advice can help you increase your knowledge on investing and help build overall financial proficiency.
It’s one of the “fractional shares” family of apps, which means that Stash buys whole units of stock and then sells smaller, much more affordable fractions to its users. You can choose from about 200 major stocks and a number of exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
Your Stash account comes with a free debit card, but there are a few important things to note. One is that the app doesn’t really offer savings tools and goals comparable to the other virtual savings accounts listed here; you’re expected to be on top of transferring and managing your own money. Also, money held in your Stash account does not earn any interest until it is invested in something.
There are also some fees to be aware of. You need to deposit at least $5 to get started. You then have to pay $1 per month as a subscription fee; if you want to set up a retirement account it will be $3. There are no fees for stocks, but each ETF has its own fee that averages around 0.25%.
The Stash app is best for those who are on top of their basic savings discipline. it is great for people who follow the financial literacy process and are ready to take the next step into investing with small amounts of money.
While most of these “online savings account alternative” apps allow you to transfer money in and out for free, note that federal regulations may in some cases limit transactions from savings to checking and this usually applies to these app-based accounts as well. Note some of these free saving apps are just for Android or iPhones while others can be used on a computer or tablet too.
In addition, some of the apps provide more information on buying stocks, investing, building emergency savings, and providing basic financial literacy advice than others. But all of them are great resources in their own way.
By Jon McNamara