Managing Money: There's An App For That

An endless number of personal finance apps help consumers keep track of their money. Host Michel Martin speaks with Lisa Gerstner of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, about the different options for tracking savings and spending on mobile devices.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to switch gears from the world of global finance to talk about personal finance. We wanted to talk about some of the innovations in personal finance, and we want to start by talking about something more and more people are doing right now. These days, it's not unusual to see people whipping out their smartphones while they're shopping, even window shopping. Maybe you do this. You might take a quick look at your bank balance or your budget before you decide to make a purchase.

According to a report from Nielsen Research, 53 percent of smartphone users are now using them to keep track of their money. There are dozens and dozens of finance apps out there, so we wanted to spend a few minutes talking about some of them. We've called Lisa Gerstner for that. She is an associate editor with Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine and one of her beats is mobile banking. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

LISA GERSTNER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So how important have these financial apps become to consumers over the years? This is relatively recent, isn't it?

GERSTNER: It is, and I think it's become important to a lot of people, you know, this idea that you can be on your way to the grocery store and check your budget before you get there or find an ATM as you're standing on the street nearby that's not going to charge you a fee. It can be really useful on the go.

MARTIN: What do most consumers use them for? Exactly as you said, basically checking their balances to make sure that they are...

GERSTNER: I think so.

MARTIN: ...On point.

GERSTNER: You know, using budgeting apps to, you know, figure out where you stand, checking your credit score. There's all different kinds of areas that you can use for it.

MARTIN: Is there one app that you found particularly useful?

GERSTNER: I think that, in general, the Mint app is a really good one. You know, it's a popular personal finance tool online and it translates well into app form because you can get a really quick, nice summary of what's going on with your finances, you know, check your budgets. It'll give you alerts. You know, mine showed me that my direct deposit had gone through. So just that snapshot is really great to have.

MARTIN: And I noticed that there are a number of apps for keeping track of your credit, which can be very time consuming and irritating. On the other hand, are there concerns about security? Is this information secure? I mean, should you really be checking your credit score on the corner while you wait for the bus?

GERSTNER: Sure, well you know, it's a risk that you have to be willing to take to trade for that convenience. And I think a lot of these apps do a good job of protecting that information. You know, a lot of them, you have to enter a four digit pin just to get to the app. You set that up when you put the app on your phone. So it's a personal issue, I think. If you're willing to do that, then that's convenient for you and it's nice.

MARTIN: Are there apps that are particularly useful for helping people save as opposed to spend?

GERSTNER: Well, there's a kind of a neat app called ImpulseSave. I really like it. And what it does is it makes it as easy for you to save on impulse as it is to spend on impulse. So say, you know, you're walking home and you're thinking about getting take-out the fourth night in a row and you know this is a bad idea.

So instead of, you know, going in and swiping your credit card, you click a button in this app and it will move money from your checking account to a savings account. And I think that's just a really neat little psychological trick you can use to get yourself to save.

MARTIN: Speaking of which, are there other little neat psychological tricks that apps can help you, sort of, retrain yourself out of maybe buying that pair of shoes that seem particularly necessary at that particular point? Is there something maybe give you a little electric shock or something?

GERSTNER: No. There should be if there's not.

MARTIN: What do you use?

GERSTNER: Well, I do like the Mint app. I have that on my phone that I can connect it. There's also an app called Wallaby where if you like to use a lot of different rewards cards, that app will tell you where you can get the best percent back depending on where you are. So say you're at a gas station, it'll tell you, oh, well, this card in your wallet will give you 5 percent back on gas purchases. Use that one.

MARTIN: Wallaby?

GERSTNER: So...

MARTIN: Anything else?

GERSTNER: Oh, well, there is one called Manilla, and that is a great app just to store all this financial stuff you have going on. You know, the budgeting apps do nicely cover your credit and your bank accounts. And with Manilla, you can also collect travel rewards, subscriptions, even things like Groupon and Netflix that you wouldn't necessarily be able to put anywhere else. And you can look at all of it in one place just going to this one application, and say, oh, I have two Groupons left to use before October or something like that.

MARTIN: So what can you put on this? You can put all of your reward things on there, like your gas rewards, like your Giant rewards or your grocery stores, all of that?

GERSTNER: To some extent. You know, it doesn't cover everything under the sun, but it does cover a lot more stuff than a lot of other apps do. So, you know, getting into those magazine subscriptions and utility bills, it pulls it all into one place. You can pull PDF documents of those bills. It actually stores them in there for you. So it's really easy.

MARTIN: What is the trick of making the most of these apps without getting overwhelmed by your apps?

GERSTNER: I think it's a good idea to kind of pull out, you know, where do I need the most help, what areas are going to be best for me. Maybe pick three, four apps that will help you the most and use those because I think it is very easy to get overwhelmed with the 25 different apps in your phone. You got to narrow it down.

MARTIN: The other thing, though, that I hear people complaining about when they get invested in kind of electronic systems is it becomes hard to quit. It becomes hard to leave them when they're no longer serving your purposes. I remember you saw this back when, again - not mentioning any names - one of the national banks said it wanted to charge a fee for what, using your debit card for something like that. I forget. And a lot of people were outraged about this.

They said forget it, I'm out of here. And then they realized, wait a minute, this is not as easy to quit a bank as you think. People did do it, but it isn't as easy to quit as you think it's going to be once you put all your financial life into one kind of document. So what if you decide that these apps are not working for you, or you're just mad at them for whatever reason. Can you get out?

GERSTNER: I think you can get out. You can always, you know, remove all of your apps. I mean, when you get a new phone even, you know, you're not going to have all those apps on there. So you can extract yourself, but you still want to think about, how am I going to manage this part of my life. You know, OK, I stopped using a budgeting app, how am I going to budget? How am I going take care of that? You still need to think about it.

MARTIN: And finally, Lisa, is there anything in development? Is there anything that we could be looking forward to down the line in this area that's going to make it all better?

GERSTNER: Well, it's hard. It's always hard to predict the future, but I think that they're going to continue moving in this direction of adding convenience, personalization, you know, tailoring things to you. You know, I cover banking, and looking at what bank apps are doing to be more convenient for customers is really interesting.

You know, doing remote check deposit where you take a picture of your check. You can send it in from your couch. You don't have to go to the ATM or to the bank, and I think it's going to continue to move in that direction as consumers, you know, demand more out of these kinds of apps.

MARTIN: Lisa Gerstner is an associate editor with Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine. She was kind enough to join us in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Lisa, thank you for joining us.

GERSTNER: Thank you.

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