These money-saving apps turn your smartphone into a financial adviser, for free

Mint Personal Finance

Like just about everything else, personal financial software has jumped from the PC to the smartphone. This means it’s easier to track expenses and keep up with bills and spending on the go. It also means those of us who are economically challenged can receive helpful reminders, advice, and some cajoling to keep you on a budget wherever you are.

The big three — Mint, NerdWallet, and Personal Capital — are all free apps with basic features that are sufficient for most Android and iOS users. You can expect to receive ads and promotional messages, but in general they are relatively unobtrusive interruptions. Each of the programs has its strengths and weaknesses, but there are several tips that apply to all three:

It Takes Work

Some programs boast that it takes only a minute to get started. Don’t believe it. At a minimum, you have to authenticate each of your bank and credit card accounts. Anticipate more time setting up tracking if you have a mortgage or investments; and still more time if you want add other accounts like your mobile and utility bills. Have all your personal financial information handy to speed up the process.

Consider Security Issues

No matter how you slice it, there are additional risks involved in sharing your account numbers and passwords with a third party, such as a financial monitoring service. Each of the three we reviewed make efforts to secure your personal information but they also may share information such as your credit score with other business partners.

Don’t Share Too Much

A new wrinkle in personal financial software is to set goals–for saving or reducing debt–and share them with friends on social media. The idea is to help you meet those goals with the encouragement of your peers. We don’t recommend doing so, because it exposes you to scams like spear phishing. Keep your goals to yourself.

It Still Helps

With these caveats in mind, financial programs can be a godsend. At their best, they combine disparate investments, bills, and budget items in one simple to understand package. If you’re starting a new job, expecting a child, or making plans to buy a home, it can yield priceless information and set you on the right path. Here are the three we’d recommend:

Best for: People who hate thinking about money

Purchased by Intuit (the folks behind Quicken and TurboTax) a few years ago, Mint is the most complete and mature free financial app available. It’s also the most easy to use for newbies. When you sign up, Mint presents with a straightforward list of accounts to track, from credit cards and bank accounts to loans and insurance. It also includes those handy monthly bills like Internet, TV, phone, electricity and rent. Link them all to Mint and it can send you reminders as well as build a detailed budget.

Mint also gives you more fine-grained options when it comes to access to your data. For example, rather than just opening up all your accounts at a bank to the app, you can choose particular accounts at your bank to allow or block (the other apps simply gain access to all of them automatically). The program can create automatic budgets, based on previous patterns, such as looking at all your grocery spending from last month, and then telling you what you have left to spend this month. Mint allows you to add goals, such as paying off a credit card, saving for retirement, buying a home, or taking a vacation (you can also set your own customized goal).

If you’re looking to reduce credit card debt, for example, Mint will spell out explicitly how long it will take to pay it off by just paying the minimum, how much interest you’ll end up paying (shocking), and offer suggestions like using your debit card more to make purchases (in other words, quit charging). An easy sliding graphic shows you that just adding a few dollars a month can shave years off repayment and save you thousands in interest.

Mint is one of the programs that also allows you to share your goals online with Facebook friends but again, we don’t recommend doing so for security reasons. Also on the downside, Mint will email you pitches from partners for investment, loans, and banking services (which you should ignore).

Additional benefits of Mint include a well-designed online interface when you want to get a bigger picture on your laptop or PC. And at the end of the year, you can easily port over all your financial information to TurboTax.

Best for: Professionals just out of college

Nerdwallet | Best for finance app for Professionals just out of college

NerdWallet does its best to make managing money fun, chock full of catchy phrases like “Cha-Ching” when you make a deposit and encouragement like “Nice!” when you rein in spending. Like the others, it gives you a picture of your financial health (called a Nerd’s-eye view).

When you sign up to NerdWallet it asks you if you’re looking to build credit, earn extra cash back, stay on top of spending, or want to take control of debt. Depending on your choice, it then shows you sample features related to your goals. If it’s, say, debt you want to control, the app will show you how long it will take to pay it off and in what areas you are carrying the most debt (student loan, credit card, or auto, for example). For people who have better things to think about, the program will also remind you when upcoming payments are due.

One nettlesome area of NerdWallet is its persistence in attempting to get info like social security numbers. You can add the value of your car, for example, but when you try to assess related expenses, it asks for your social security number. (It should have automatically seen car loans from the linked bank accounts without asking for the number.) The app also wants your social security number and personal information to do a debt analysis, which shouldn’t be necessary. NerdWallet also wants your social security number for periodic credit checks, which we declined–although we had to quit the program to do so (there was no “decline” or “back” button). Here’s the problem with that: After it performs credit checks, NerdWallet may share the information with its business partners to pitch you other services.

Other minor glitches include the fact that, in a list of top places we spent money last month, Nerdwallet incorrectly listed home insurance as one of the highest monthly expenses, completely missing a much more expensive regular property maintenance payment. During setup, the program also failed to accept a U.S. phone number that other apps had no problem with.

Still, for those just starting out, there’s plenty to like. There’s a MoneyFix podcast, for example, and tips for scoring luxury trips for less money. NerdWallet also offers some unique cash-back programs for restaurants that you link to your credit card. We also love the way the app breaks down spending and reveals patterns (how much you spent by a certain day this month versus last, for example).

Best for: People getting serious about money

Personal Capital | Best for: People getting serious about money
Personal Capital

Personal Capital wins the award for a no-nonsense presentation of your fiscal situation. Once set up, it delivers a top-line net worth (assets minus liabilities) summary, a listing of all your accounts. A trending graph accompanies each category (loans may remain flat while debt is on the upswing, for example). Tap on an account and you’ll get a listing of what you’ve paid recently and the total amount you owe.

In the by-the-numbers approach you can add assets like real estate you own and your stock portfolio. Personal Capital will follow the oscillations of the stock market and your investments. You can link your portfolio via Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, and numerous others. If your broker isn’t on the drop-down list, you can search Personal Capital’s database for others like E*Trade. Keeping the emphasis on capital, the app also offers financial adviser services for people with portfolios of over $ 100,000 (for a fee, of course).

The program offers a LinkedIn-style assessment of how well you know your financial health. The more data you enter, the higher your score. It also tends to focus on the long term, including advice and help for retirement planning. On the more quotidian side, Personal Capital, like the others, offers standard budget tools, showing how much you’ve spent so far compared to last month. It also nicely breaks down categories like groceries, insurance, travel, and phone bills.

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