Apps! Artificial intelligence! Real-time algorithms! Robo-advisers! We’re living in the golden age of financial innovations—but all the options can be difficult to sort through. Thanks to our panel of all-star experts, you don’t have to. They’ve helped us find the the best new financial tools—hands down—so you can make the most of your money.
For putting a woman’s perspective on investing and money management
What It Is
An investing platform created by and for women. It offers a goal-focused investing approach, portfolio mixes that take into account women’s lower lifetime-earnings curves and longer life spans, and starting last year, an easy way to direct funds toward companies that advance women, are environmentally friendly, and have a positive social impact.
Why We Love It
A woman earning $50,000 a year might step into retirement with $268,639 less in her portfolio than a male peer. A woman earning just over six figures could have $1.05 million less than a male peer. Closing the investment gap, of course, can’t happen without getting in the game. Ellevest kills the intimidation factor without losing an ounce of financial sophistication. “The holistic approach can really help women wrap their arms around their finances,” says Kristen Euretig, a certified financial planner and the founder of Brooklyn Plans.
For making retirement saving a microdecision
More than 86 percent of the 3.5 million-plus people who use this microinvesting and banking app identify as beginner investors. What makes Stash so appealing to newbies? Straightforward fees (one plan is $1 a month, with a $5 investment minimum), loads of educational material, the ability to buy fractional shares of specific companies, and different options for automatic investing—such as scheduling regular deposit dates, rounding up every purchase and investing the difference, or allowing Stash’s algorithm to study your finances and pull out cash you won’t notice is missing.
For turning stocks into a loyalty program
Launched in 2018, Bumped is an investment app that gives users fractional shares of stock for every purchase made from participating companies (which includes Chipotle, Domino’s, Target, Netflix and Walgreens). Think of it as a loyalty program that pays out in ownership, rather than free donuts and discounts.
For helping self-directed investors dive deeper (no advanced degree required)
This jargon-free research tool gives investors a better understanding of their assets so they can build a more balanced portfolio. Through an easy-to-use platform you can explore fund and risk ratings of mutual funds and ETFs, see how fees will impact returns over time, and assess whether a fund aligns with personal values. This new feature is available for free to Merrill Edge customers.
For making getting life insurance (almost) as easy as ordering a pizza
What It Is
A super-simple, get-a-decision-in-minutes way to buy term life insurance. It also lets you tweak your coverage as your life unfolds. (Another baby? Increase your coverage! Paid off your mortgage? Dial back your death benefit.) Last year, the company launched Ladder @ Work so employees can take their insurance policies with them as they job hop. (Smaller companies who might not want to shoulder the administrative costs of a group policy can use this as a nice employee perk.)
Why We Love It
“More people need life insurance than have it. Getting coverage through work is the cheapest way. And the fact that it isn’t typically portable is problematic,” says financial expert Jean Chatzky. “Ladder solves for all three of those things.” Plus, because the app simplifies the process so much (no physical required!), it leaves no excuse to put off getting a policy.
For treating drivers like real people, not risk formulas
You could let your car insurance premiums be based on a series of complex algorithms that factor in everything from your marital status to your credit score to your zip code.
Or you could download the Root app, let it ride shotgun during a two-to-four-week trial, and get a quote based primarily on your actual driving habits. Users have slashed their premiums by up to 52 percent, and the service (in 25 states at press time) plans to roll out nationally by the end of 2020.
For making home and renters’ insurance more transparent
With typical home or renters’ insurance, every claim nibbles away at the company’s profit margin. But the founders of Lemonade didn’t want to be pitted against their policy-holders, so they structured things differently. The company takes a flat fee out of premiums and uses the rest to pay claims. Money left over at the end of the year is donated to charities, such as the American Red Cross and Unicef, that customers help choose.
For making it dead simple to stay on top of your credit score
What It Is
Credit Karma lets you check scores for free anytime (without getting dinged) and updates you about any credit-impacting activities on your accounts. In 2018, the site launched Home Buying Power, which helps members understand how debt impacts home buying and take steps to reduce it.
Why We Love It
If you’re like over 40 percent of Americans, you’re probably not keeping an eye on this part of your financial life. Don’t assume you need to pay attention only when applying for a loan: Your credit can affect unexpected pockets of your life, like insurance premiums and job applications, and monitoring it can help you spot identity theft. Credit Karma nabs a top score for “simplifying the financial lives of users,” says Brad Klontz, PsyD, a certified financial planner, a financial psychologist, and the author of Mind Over Money ($45; amazon.com). Updates are delivered to your inbox, and the insights are easy and actionable.
For when you don’t want to wait for your cash-back rewards
Apple recently partnered with Goldman Sachs and Mastercard to launch the Apple Card, which works through Apple Pay on the iPhone and also comes as a physical card. Users score 1 percent cash back on any purchases made with the plastic, 2 percent when they use Apple Pay, and 3 percent when they purchase from Apple itself. Rewards are deposited daily.
For offering serious perks for fun lovers
For people who spend a lot of dough on dining and entertainment, Capital One offers the Savor Rewards credit card with 4 percent unlimited cash back on many dining and entertainment purchases. The card also offers 2 percent cash back at grocery stores and 1 percent cash back on all other purchases.
For retirees who want to know which funds to withdraw from when
What It Is
People have long flocked to Personal Capital’s free financial dashboards for an overview of their banking, investing, savings, and spending. Last year, the financial-services firm introduced Smart Withdrawal to its wealth-management clients. The tool uses tax forecasting to predict the best order in which to pull money from various retirement accounts.
Why We Love It
Should you drain your taxable investment account before touching your IRA? What year is optimal for withdrawing from a Roth? If you’re flummoxed, you’re hardly alone. “For years, financial-services providers have focused on accumulate, accumulate, accumulate. Now they’re realizing the withdrawal side of the equation is equally—if not more—complicated,” says Chatzky. “I haven’t seen any other tool like this.”
For helping 18-to-30-year-olds dip their toes into investing
After an Ally survey found that nearly 66 percent of millennials think investing can be downright scary, the bank launched an interactive guide earlier this year that makes building a $1 million nest egg seem slightly less intimidating.
For stashing away pretax money for health care expenses
HSAs are a three-layer cake of tax advantages: Contributions are pretax (through an employer) or tax-deductible (if made by an individual); any spending on qualified medical expenses isn’t subject to federal taxes; and any investment gains are also federal-tax-free (when used for qualifying medical expenses). Yet while HSAs have surged in popularity by about 400 percent over the past decade, not all employers offer them. Fidelity now lls that gap, with a retail HSA available to anyone with a qualifying health plan.
For dialing back overdraft fees and penalties
What It Is
Chime is a fully digital bank that’s fee-free: no account fees, no minimums, no ATM fees, and for those with direct deposit, no overdraft fees even if the account balance dips negative. The SpotMe feature, which debuted in July, lets you overdraw your account by up to $200 without penalty.
Why We Love It
Banks rake in about $11 billion each year in overdraft fees—one of the priciest fees that can hit your account. Chime isn’t trying to make its money from overdraft fees (it gets paid by Visa when members use Visa debit cards to make purchases), so it can spot members a few bucks if they hit a negative balance before payday. Klontz says, “If a bank could give you a hug, Chime would do it.”
For making a trip to the bank more welcoming
Could a latte, a comfy couch, and free Wi-Fi make going to the bank feel less like an errand? Capital One seems to hope so. In the last year, the company has expanded its hybrid coffee-shop banks to several new cities, like Fort Lauderdale, Florida; San Diego; Washington, D.C.; and Portland, Oregon. Pull out a laptop and work or approach a representative for a digital-banking demonstration.
For building a handy virtual helper
In June 2018, Bank of America enhanced personalization for its chatbot, Erica. Accessed by 7 million people and counting via the bank’s mobile app, Erica can remind users about an upcoming bill, watch balances, view spending history, monitor recurring charges, and more.
For rewarding customers who shop at sustainable businesses
Aspiration, the online-only, ATM-fee reimbursing financial company released its new hybrid checking-savings account, Spend & Save earlier this year. With it, users earn an APY of up to 2 percent on savings and cash back on all debit purchases. Even better, the app rates merchants on how they treat the environment and their employees so you can track the impact of your spending and earn extra rewards if you shop at those companies.
For making it easy to do almost anything financial from our phones
Chase made several updates to its mobile app, including the addition of You Invest Portfolios, which puts users into one of four portfolios ranging from conservative to aggressive. Clients pay one price for ETFs, with no hidden management fees. The app also now allows you to lock your credit or debit card if it’s misplaced or stolen and make automatic transfers from checking to savings accounts. In addition, customers can get cash out at Chase ATMs without a debit card by opening their mobile wallet (through Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay) and tapping their phone on the ATM.
For turning savings into a game we actually want to play
What It Is
This mobile app connects to your bank accounts to siphon off savings without your having to think about it. You can round up transactions, move money at set intervals, or create rules to trigger deposits with certain tasks. On average, Qapital users sock away $1,300 per year. In 2018, the app launched Payday Divvy, which lets you parcel out paychecks into different budget silos, and Spending Sweet Spot, a tool that helps you figure out and stick to weekly spending targets.
Why We Love It
For most of us, saving ranks right alongside going to the dentist—we know we should, but...ugh. This app makes saving less root canal and more Candy Crush game. And thanks to chief behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the app is fueled by science that works: You don’t have a nebulous “save more” goal but a specific target amount—which, studies show, makes you more likely to follow through. You’re also asked to spell out how you want to use your savings (ski weekend in Tahoe? New-car fund? Kitchen reno?), and research has found that likewise helps with follow-through.
For giving busy people earlier access to their paychecks
The Even app links to your bank accounts, detects upcoming bills, and estimates what you’ll have left to spend at any given time. Through its newest feature, Instapay, Even partners with employers (like Walmart) to o er employees interest-free access to money they’ve earned ahead of payday.
For making getting answers to personal-finance questions as easy as sending a text
The Albert app connects to your bank accounts and analyzes your income, bills, and spending to come up with a personalized budget. Even better: The add-on service Genius lets you text financial questions—about anything from student-loan consolidation to investment basics—to a flesh-and-blood financial expert. The first month is free, and then you pay what you think the service is worth (minimum $4 a month).
For making the top budgeting tool even more useful
In August 2018, Mint refreshed its iOS app—which has over 10 million active users—with new designer features and benefits such as the data-driven MintSights, a tech-powered financial advisor of sorts that shows people how to improve their financial situation through budgets, debt consolidation and investments.
For helping mortgages align with modern homeownership
Why We Love It
Refinancing can snag you a lower interest rate and reduce your monthly mortgage payments. But until recently, short-term rentals weren’t eligible to use in the underwriting process. In 2018, Quicken Loans and Airbnb began sharing real-time, confirmed income data, which allows rental income to be considered when calculating the debt-to-income ratio. Earlier this year, Quicken Loans struck a similar partnership with rental-listing giant Vrbo. “Getting ‘credit’ for your income stream is exactly what people who host short-term rentals need. Genius,” says David Bach, author of The Automatic Millionaire ($13; amazon.com).
For dragging mortgages out of the Stone Age
Mortgage start-ups have been jockeying to pull the paper-bound industry into the digital age, but many lack the size to service loans long-term. Bank of America is one of the biggest brands to o er a digital end-to-end mortgage experience, taking home buyers from pre-qualify cation to preapproval to loan application when a purchase contract is in place—all via the mobile app and website. “Buying a home can be overwhelming and tedious,” points out millennial money expert Tonya Rapley. “This is a step forward.”
For getting important financial information all in one place
What It Is
This online storage platform gives families easy, super-secure access to financial documents, like life insurance policies, investment portfolios, and banking and credit card information.
Why We Love It
Fabric, an online insurance company and will provider, found that more than 40 percent of parents are likely to struggle to locate important documents. There are other cloud-based storage platforms around, but we’re fans of Fabric’s intuitive interface and the way it’s so easy to link info with a loved one. Plus, financial docs are more secure when stored separately from frequently shared photos and work materials.
For cutting through the insurance confusion
“Dealing with insurance brokers often feels like a high-pressure sales pitch followed by a flood of follow-up calls and emails pushing you to buy coverage,” says consumer finance expert Andrea Woroch. Not so with Policygenius, which lets you compare quotes from top brokers, including for lesser-known types of policies (like vision insurance and identity theft insurance). If you buy through the site, the commission-free advisers will help you handle straggler tasks, like canceling your old policies.
To create the Smart Money Awards, we compiled a list of financial companies offering products that debuted (or released new features) between January 2018 and June 2019. A panel of eight judges rated the list on innovativeness and relevance to Real Simple readers to reach a list of 20. The top winners scored highest among these ratings. All descriptions and services as of July 30, 2019.
David Bach, co-founder of AE Wealth Management and author of The Latte Factor ($16; amazon.com)
Jean Chatzky, CEO of HerMoney and author of Women With Money ($19; amazon.com)
Blair DuQuesnay, CFA, CFP, Ritholtz Wealth Management
Kristen Euretig, CFP, Brooklyn Plans
Brad Klontz, CFP, PsyD, founder of the Financial Psychology Institute and an associate professor of practice in financial psychology at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business
Tonya Rapley, millennial money expert and creator of myfabfinance.com
Kelsey Sheehy, Nerdwallet editor
Andrea Woroch, consumer finance expert