Last updated June 2020
Want to Start Saving (and Start Small)?
These Apps Can Help
You’ve heard the lecture: Save money and invest it wisely. But most of us have many bills, and the concept of building a nest egg seems impossible. And some people are intimidated by the complexity of investing in securities.
Fortunately, there are now multiple websites and apps to help wannabe savers start small by automatically putting away small amounts of money. And some let their customers invest in stocks and mutual funds while maintaining small balances. But before you jump in, think about what you’re saving for. If you want to build wealth, set aside cash as an emergency fund, or eventually buy a home, car, or vacation, these apps offer convenient ways to do that. But if you want to save for retirement or to pay college expenses, you’ll do better to invest using tax-friendly IRA or 529 plans.
Here are two apps we like to help you stash your extra cash.
Who are the best hoarders of the animal world? Squirrels, which also inspire the name of this app designed to help you collect and invest spare bits of money. When you sign up, you link your credit or debit cards to your Acorns profile, and each time you use your cards to pay for stuff, the app rounds up your purchase amount to the next highest whole dollar amount, depositing the difference into your virtual piggy bank. You can also direct Acorns to automatically deposit a set amount into the app each month.
Several banks that issue credit cards and debit cards offer similar automatic rounding-up plans, linked to personal savings accounts. What makes Acorns interesting is that instead of parking your nest egg in an account that pays very low interest, Acorns invests it in any of 12 exchange-traded funds (ETFs)—mixes of stocks, bonds, and other securities using various investment growth strategies. You set a risk profile (for example, moderate or aggressive), based on your tolerance for risk and goals. This so-called “micro-investing” lets you use very small amounts of money to participate in the stock market.
Acorns offers two membership tiers, “Lite” and “Personal,” with service fees of $1 or $3 a month, respectively. Lite includes just the basic micro-investing service. With Acorns Personal, you get a checking account and can contribute to an IRA to enjoy its tax advantages.
Investing small amounts will yield small returns. Saving spare change is still saving, but unless you’re boosting your account beyond the round-up payments, don’t bank on Acorns making you a millionaire. But we think it does offer a great way to get into the habit of saving. And we love that it helps make investing in stocks accessible to everyone.
Digit offers a novel way to automatically save. When registering, you connect a checking account to your Digit account. Then, using an algorithm that tracks your income and known expenses (rent, loan payments, etc.), it determines the best times for you to stash money in savings, and then transfers to savings what it sees as extra funds. If you have unexpected spending needs (water heater replacement and a root canal in the same week, yay!), Digit should see those payments and lower your savings rate.
Digit’s website claims it reviews its customers’ checking accounts daily to look for money to skim into savings. Transfers usually occur two or three times a week. It also offers a nifty option that lets you link a credit card with a revolving balance to automatically pay it down.
Money Digit sets aside for you earns low interest (it calls it a “savings bonus”) of 0.5 percent per year, paid quarterly, similar to the paltry rate of return you’d get from most banks’ personal savings accounts; so you might want to regularly move money it accrues into an investment option that provides better growth opportunities. And saving with Digit comes at a price: It charges $5 a month.
But if you need to save for a special purchase or vacation, Digit makes it easy to do that—and having moolah parked somewhere separate from your checking account might make it less tempting to spend it. Digit says its customers save an average of $2,200 per year.