From holiday shopping to family vacations to unexpected car repairs or medical bills, staying ahead of your finances is both an important goal and a constant challenge. We could all use a little help managing and saving our money.
Today we’re going to explore several startups out there that promise to help save you money, curb your spending, and fatten your wallet.
Mint.com, again? Yes, there’s a reason Mint shows up on list after list of financial startups and must-have personal finance tools: It’s free. And it works.
So here are the details, in case you’ve been sleeping under a financial rock.
Mint is a free, Web-based personal finance tool and app which connects to all of your accounts (banking, investments, credit cards etc.). It provides you with graphs, charts, budgets, and other tools to help you assess and understand your spending and budgeting behavior.
The only real question is whether it’s still fair to categorize Mint as a startup. It was founded in 2006 and acquired by Intuit in 2009; today it claims to have over 10 million users.
One of my favorite parts about Mint.com is how it alerts me to fees and makes suggestions on ways to reduce fees. For example, Mint alerted me I was just charged a fee for using an ATM in Tel Aviv yesterday. Shocking, because when speaking with my local credit union back home, they didn’t mention anything about this, and I even made a special visit to the branch to ask about any potential transaction and ATM fees and to ensure my purchases overseas would be approved while I was abroad.
While it’s good practice to regularly review your accounts and statements for errors — admittedly I’m not as disciplined with this as I should be, and I get the feeling most others aren’t either — Mint catches some obvious anomalies and a whole lot more.
While the additional fee was something I suspected might happen, my bank didn’t elude to these international ATM transactions fees, so I will drop them a nice note and discuss it with them upon my return home. Banks are often willing to waive fees like this, so it never hurts to ask (and always remember to be polite).
I’m pleased to say Mint not only highlighted the fee, but went an extra step and recommended opening an account from Schwab to stop paying international ATM fees. The Charles Schwab high-yield checking account has no account minimums and no ATM fees worldwide. I’m not a Schwab account holder (yet), but now it’s on my to-do list. Coincidentally, just a few days ago a friend in Tel Aviv recommended that I open a brokerage account with Schwab — not for the brokerage, but for exactly this reason: free ATM transactions worldwide.
A while back, Mint alerted me to a business checking account I don’t actively use that charged me a $12 inactivity fee every month when I didn’t perform at least five credit or debit card transactions. While these fees may seem minor, they add up, and it’s smart to eliminate and reduce them whenever possible –especially when free alternatives exist (and they usually do).
Trending in: #personalfinance #budgeting
Staying power: Mint.com was acquired for $170 million by Intuit in 2009. Intuit has about 90% of the online accounting market in the U.S. and a market cap of around $25 billion, so it’s not going anywhere. Speaking from personal use, I am fan of Mint.com.
A few weeks ago, I was out to lunch at a popular local restaurant on the square in Madison, Wisconsin. The food and conversation were good, nothing out of the ordinary.
It wasn’t until the following week when I was checking my online bank account that I realized I’d been charged $93.37 by the restaurant. Upon first glance, I thought the charge might have been for a night out on the town, but after checking my calendar I realized my $9 lunch was what the $93 dollar bill was for.
What to do next?
Think of BillGuard as a watchdog for your bills.
BillGuard uses proprietary technology to scan your credit card bills and check them for fraud or incorrect charges, and it will send you alerts you when you have a similar charge to one that other users flagged.
They have an easy-to-use interface — you can connect and sync your accounts in a few keystrokes, and then simply swipe right to confirm a charge and swipe left to flag a charge.
BillGuard was initially free for your first two cards, and then they charged a one-time fee of $9.99 for up to 10 accounts. However, they quickly found out that the market won’t support this, and abandoned the premium accounts.
I’m excited to continue to use BillGuard and hopefully won’t need it too often, but based on the research I’ve done, I think they are a company to keep your eye on and a service worth using.
Trending in: #billpayment #fraudprotection
Staying power: BillGuard just partnered with the credit agency giant Experian (one of the big three), so expect to be hearing a lot more about them in years to come.
Onavo claims to help users get 500% or more usage out of an existing mobile data plan. Beyond compressing data to lighten your 4G load, Onavo’s goal is to help you better understand how much data the apps on your phone are using to allow you to make better informed data decisions and save you money. The app and service are free.
The benefits of Onavo:
- Less data = less costs
- No more overage fees
- Worry-free roaming
- Simple and clear reports
- Knowing where your data goes
- Stop running pointless apps that suck your data
If you have an unlimited data plan, consider yourself blessed. Hang on to it at all costs. For the rest of us, there’s Onavo.
Trending in: #phone #mobile #dataplansavings
Staying power: Onavo was started in 2010 and acquired by Facebook in 2013 for more than $150 million. After losing my unlimited data plan a couple years ago (worst mobile phone decision of my life), anything that promises to help keep my data charges in check and delivers on that promise is a keeper.
How do we know if we are getting good financial advice?
Individuals, families, businesses, and investors everywhere struggle to accurately assess the quality of advice they receive, and after watching the financial crisis and high-profile fraudsters like Bernie Madoff wipe out billions in wealth, it’s become tougher and tougher to trust financial advisors.
Much like Zappos sells shoes of all kinds, styles, and sizes, financial advisors are not one size fits all (far from it!). Trusting someone to guide us on our financial decisions is a big deal, and there hasn’t historically been a very good way to decipher good from bad in the financial advisor arena.
Frustrated by the lack of clear information, unbiased advice, and the often unclear lines between sales and sound financial advice, Finom was born.
Finom is an online platform that lets you find, connect with, meet, and hire the best investment adviser for your specific financial situation, investment goals, and personal preferences. You start by filling out an online questionnaire, where Finom learns about your financial situation, investment experience, goals, and what you are looking for in a financial advisor.
And rather than introducing you to friends, which is how many of us find financial advisors, Finom relies on data to help improve your financial advisor search and match you with the right potential advisors.
Many beginner investors struggle to find a financial advisor who will work with someone with a relatively small amount of money, and cite that as a reason for not working with an advisor at all. Finom to the rescue! Along with the other preferences that factor into the process, Finom also matches you with an advisor whose minimum account requirement matches your investing profile.
Is Finom for you? Check out their website to learn more.
Trending in: #investing #financialadvisor
Staying power: If solving a meaningful problem is an accurate gauge of how long a business will be around, then Finom should be around for many years to come if they can continue delivering value to their users.
SmartAsset is a website and app that helps the average person make important financial decisions. They have proprietary financial modeling technology, which allows the company to provide automated, highly personalized advice for what SmartAsset declares are 24 of the most significant life events and financial decisions you may have to face — including student loans, retirement, credit cards, starting a business, and many others.
For instance, looking at the home buying process, SmartAsset offers individual guidance on the following questions in detail:
- How much house can I afford?
- Is it better for me to buy or rent?
- How much can I afford in mortgage payments?
- How much should I put down for a down payment?
- How does my credit score affect my mortgage rate?
- What will happen to my taxes by buying a house?
From retirement planning, to buying a home, to evaluating the cost of going back to school, or starting a family, the SmartAsset platform models decisions and creates interactive graphs, which provide advice and insights to answer your questions.
It’s a helpful tool not just for finding answers to questions, but for identifying the right questions to ask when making one of life’s major financial decisions. They have easy-to-follow interactive guides for you to use and populate with your own info as you go. By logging in, you can save all of your data (for free) and come back to use the site at a later time or to analyze a different financial event.
Trending in: #financialadvice #personalfinance
Staying power: As an information site, there is a lot of very specific value here centered around the 24 life events. As a graduate of Y Combinator with over $7 million raised, there is a good chance SmartAsset will be around for years to come.
Keeping track of your finances takes discipline. There have been times in my life where I’ve made good money, well into six figures, and other times when I made less in a year than I made in a month trading. I can speak from experience: It does not matter how much money you make, very few people enjoy budgeting.
When you make a lot of money, you think, “Hey, what’s the point? I make enough money, I’m fine.” When you don’t make a lot of money, it can be painful to crunch numbers and realize you can’t afford to go out to dinner and to the movies on Friday.
Most people don’t like budgeting. It’s the perfect problem to be solved by Level Money.
Level Money analyzes your finances by categorizing them into just a few categories: income, bills, save, and spendable. Its most user-friendly feature is the spendable bubble, which simplifies your finances into one number: spendable money. It’s something everyone can figure out and follow:
Income – Bills – Savings = Spendable Money
The app connects to 70 U.S. banks, which means it can cover over 85% of accounts in the country. I was slightly concerned that Level Money wouldn’t have my local credit union in Madison, Wisconsin, but I was pleased to find out it did.
After linking my accounts, which is secured by Intuit and took only moments, Level Money guided me through its easy-to-use Create My Plan, which helped analyze bills and income and desired savings to create a monthly plan that works for me.
What’s left over after bills and savings gets classified as spendable. The spendable category is then further broken down into spendable money per day, which can help anyone grasp immediately how the Starbucks lattes and late-night Amazon purchases add up (or subtract from our spendable discretionary income).
For users who don’t want to sift through graphs and charts, Level Money simplifies your finances into a couple of bubbles with a focus on just one important thing: how much money you have left to spend.
The most complex graphs and charts won’t help you manage your money and curb your spending if you don’t use them. So for fear of being redundant, Level Money gets two thumbs up for helping you keep tabs on your finances and making it simple to track your spending.
Trending in: #mobile #personalfinance
Staying power: Last year Level Money raised $5 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. Based on my initial feedback (I’ve only been using it a few days), while not as in-depth perhaps as Mint.com, it fills a valuable void in my budgeting process — an easy to read, real-time daily spending budget that I will actually check.
With endless automation for long-term investors and all-inclusive management fees as low as 0.15%, this next finance startup caught my eye.
Betterment is an online investment company that caters to you. They promise to deliver smart, personalized financial advice paired with low fees and a superb customer experience.
Betterment’s automated platform eliminates the complexities and time sink of the traditional investment account, offering free automatic rebalancing and a passive portfolio of 12 different asset classes, customized for your risk tolerance and investment time horizon.
Betterment’s goal is to free up your time for the more important things in life.
Trending in: #retirement #investing
Staying power: To date, Betterment has raised a whopping $45 million in venture funding. That in itself doesn’t make it a sure thing, but Betterment has a lot of offer. Read a more in-depth review of Betterment here.
One to Avoid: Groupon
I admit it. I was smitten by Groupon when they first came on the scene. Half off dining at fancy steakhouses, 60% off massage services, fitness discounts, and other deals I just couldn’t resist.
What I’ve come to realize is that Groupon doesn’t work for me. They try to sell me things that are already available online elsewhere. They play on the psychology of making us think we are getting an excellent deal.
I once bought two copper mugs on Groupon (the deal created an urgency to buy), but I later saw the exact same mugs at the exact same price online and wondered if I’d been played the fool. I’m happy with the mugs, they make a great home for my moscow mules, but it created an awareness of what Groupon is trying to do.
Another reality is that many retailers don’t have a comprehensive strategy to deal with the coupon redemptions and they aren’t prepared to handle the uptick in sales Groupon generates, which can lead to headaches as you try and redeem your Groupons. Sorry, Groupon.
Staying power: Google offered to buy Groupon for $6 billion (yes, with a b) back in 2012. Today Groupon is still valued at almost $5 billion, but they’ve lost their buzz and are not a company I’d recommend to save money.
One to Watch: Hooked
While a bit of a longshot, trying to compete in a market that Groupon (through Groupon Now) and many others have tried to crack, Hooked is a free mobile app to help you to discover exclusive short-term offers from nearby restaurants on and around college campuses. They launched at University of Texas-Austin, then University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Michigan, and have very quickly grown an impressive user base around college campuses.
Hooked is seeking to create behavior modification in where you dine. Looking for something to eat around you? Check Hooked (offered in limited areas at this point). The app offers you exclusive deals, sometimes up to 40-50% off, usually limited to just a few-hour time window which has already started.
To redeem is simple. Pick a restaurant and deal, and then click the Hooked button to show the cashier your phone before you make your purchase.
Rather than trying to sell you something you redeem at a future date, they are hoping to change where you eat and dine on the fly by using GPS and your location.
Recently we were looking for somewhere to grab a drink here in Madison and I thought, “Hey, let’s checked Hooked.” There was an exclusive Hooked promotion that offered 40% off beers at Genna’s Lounge, just a couple of blocks from my house and a few short steps from the state capitol. I remember doing a double take the first time I saw the offer, as it seemed too good to be true, and we were on our way to grab a drink anyway.
Staying power: They are exponentially growing their user base, but we have seen this before (see Groupon above). Their ability to continue to grab market share of both users and retailers will determine whether they are here to stay or another flashy startup that fades into dust. If it can become a destination app to answer the question, “Where should we grab a bite nearby?”, then Hooked could be a game changer.
There are a lot of startups out there that claim to save you money. Beware of startups like Groupon who want to save you money by encouraging you to buy things you don’t need.
Above all, be aware of your own personal strengths and weaknesses and select the services that fit your needs by complementing your strengths and compensating for weaknesses.