Let your smart phone be a financial tool
For years, I've been telling people to track their spending, clip coupons and bank online. I repeat this advice over and over because it truly is helpful in solving many common financial problems.
These days, there's no excuse for not making these cost-cutting measures part of your day-to-day life. You no longer have to take out the scissors and cut out each individual coupon or put pen to paper to track every pack of gum. If you have a smart phone, there are mobile apps — many free, some very cheap — that can do all this for you and more.
"The great thing about mobile personal finance is that your device is with you all the time. Part of the problem with the older computer programs is you had to wait until you went home, and then you often forgot what you were supposed to do," says Robin Raskin, a mobile-application expert and founder of the Living in Digital Times conference.
She's right, of course. I can't remember the last time I left home without my Blackberry. Whether you want to keep track of where your dollars are going, save money or simply organize your finances, there's an application out there to help you. I've rounded up a few of the best ones in each category.
• Track your spending.
It's surprisingly easy to spend $50 a month on coffee or $100 on sandwiches for lunch when you don't see the numbers in black and white. You don't have to track forever — even just a month can be incredibly eye-opening. ExpenseTracker, an iPhone app, is $2.99 to download and simple to use. You can record each purchase in a few seconds, and then generate a report — say, at the end of the month — that shows how much money you spend in each area. ProOnGo, which is available for the iPhone, Windows Mobile, Blackberry and Android, allows you to take pictures of receipts. The app's receipt reader then pulls the details into the program — merchant, date, amount — and builds an expense report if you need it for business travel. The program is free to download but charges for extra receipt reads.
• Budget. Mint.com, which you've likely heard of, has free mobile applications for both iPhone and Android. Both applications allow you to access your account balances, look at your past spending, and set limits for spending in each category — dining out, shopping, entertainment and so on. That way, you can monitor your budget at any time, says Michael Martin, a mobile marketing expert.
"This is by far the best finance and budgeting app for any major phone. It works basically like the site, and syncs with the web version so you can use both," he said.
Quicken has a free iPhone application as well. Their version includes something called Paycheck Forecaster, which shows you how much money you have left and what bills are coming.
• Shop smart.
There are a few apps designed to help you do a search while shopping to see if you can find an item for less elsewhere. One, called Save Benjis, is available for the iPhone for $1.99 and lets you input the numbers in a bar code. The program has a database of about 15 million products as of now. Another, ShopSavvy, which is free for both the iPhone and Android, uses the phone's camera to scan a bar code. If "couponing" is more your style, Coupon Sherpa, a free iPhone app, allows you to search for and e-mail coupons to yourself. In most cases, you can also just show the coupon code at checkout.
• Get organized.
The Pageonce personal assistant app, which is free for iPhone, Blackberry, Android and Windows Mobile, helps you keep track of your credit card balances, bank account balances and investment portfolio in one application. You can also manage how many minutes you have left on your cell phone, your frequent flyer miles and other loyalty program points, and bill due dates.
"I used to be the person who carried every discount or loyalty card, and now you can actually put those cards in once, and then it generates the name of the account or the barcode that you use," says Raskin.
Other apps, like BillMinder for iPhone, which costs $0.99, will organize all of your monthly bills to show you which are outstanding and which have been paid.
• Be cautious.
There are two things to keep in mind before you start downloading like crazy. The first is that if you don't understand how to use the application, you can end up making life more complicated. So take some time to thoroughly read the directions before you download, says Rebecca Metz, owner of Modern Inconveniences. Then, "pick one component of the application to start with and use it for a week. When you feel comfortable with that component, and have it integrated into your life, then pull another."
• My second worry is safety, of course. We all know how easy it is to lose a cell phone. While in almost all cases you're not storing specific account numbers, my advice is to check the security and ratings of the application before you download it, and only store the amount of information you feel comfortable with. Then, take a few simple measures, says Raskin. For one, most devices now come with the ability to remotely wipe the data (which, if you recall, is what Apple did when one of their 4G iPhone prototypes was lost recently). If you're buying a new phone, look for this feature. You should also use a variety of passwords. "Each registration asks you for a password, and the more personal passwords you have, the better chance you have of people not cracking it," explains Raskin. You can also set many phones to lock automatically after a set length of time, and require a password for reentry — always a good idea.