Updated October 16, 2017
Dealing with debt, having zero savings and no workable budget in place are financial holes that aren’t easy to dig out of. Even if you’ve made a New Year’s resolution out of changing these problems, a desire to change your financial situation holds little value without something to motivate the change.
A host of money apps and banking tools can help you achieve those goals, but the market is so saturated with them that you really need to search long and hard for one that’s truly worth the download. The best ones know how to gamify your savings.
What is gamification, exactly? It’s the use of gaming elements, like challenges and competition, to reward positive behavior in a non-gaming setting; in this case, it’s apps and tools that use gamification to make saving money fun and engaging.
Here are 5 of the favorites in our office. Try one out as you kick off your financial resolutions and level up your personal finance potential:
We couldn’t make a reference to leveling up without mentioning the simple, cohesive design of the Level Money app. Coined as a financial GPS, this stylized app acts like a money meter to balance the amount you spend against the amount you save. The app syncs up your bank accounts, tracks your transactions, and determines how much money you’ll need for revolving expenses and savings. The leftover amount is considered "spendable."
Why we love this app: Other apps focus too much on saving, saving, saving with no rewards for your efforts. The Level Money app encourages and challenges you to save by setting aside some spending money without blowing your budget and rewarding you for your success.
Note: Sadly, Level Money shut down in September 2017.
Link up all your accounts to the winning SaveUp program -- everything from bank accounts to student loans to credit cards and investments (like your 401(k)) -- and you’ll earn rewards points for every dollar you put towards those accounts. In return, you can use those points to play instant-win games, plus super jackpots and a chance to win free cars and vacations up to $2 million in value.
Why we love this app: Consider how a rewards credit card benefits users on a couple of levels. With responsible use, you get to build your credit and amass rewards points or cash back at once. The SaveUp app works on the same principle; not only do you benefit from getting your finances in order, but you’re rewarded with points that can be used for further rewards. (And unlike a trip to Vegas, you won’t lose any money in a SaveUp jackpot -- just points you can keep building.)
Qapital puts another spin on automating your savings, utilizing IFTTT applet technology to enable you to set up savings "triggers" that automatically save money when you’ve reached a certain goal. There are no limits or rules to what you can save for. You can sync it to a fitness tracker and set a trigger every time you complete a workout. Qapital users have reported that they’ve made savings triggers for just about anything, telling the app to set aside savings for working hard -- or, in other cases, to set a "guilty pleasure" trigger to penalize oneself after spending too much. Qapital also lets you upload pictures to accompany your savings goals. These triggers for rewarding positive behavior (and punishing bad behavior, like overspending on your credit card) make it an interactive tool that’ll make you look at savings in a more goal-oriented way than ever before.
Why we love this app: What’s so great about this app is that it enables you to tailor your savings and integrate triggers to keep you on target to reach your goals, challenging you to spend less in areas you may tend to overspend. Like a fitness program, if you indulge too much, you need to pay the price and triple your time on the treadmill. But when you reach your goal, you’re rewarded -- in this case, with a healthy savings account. The Qapital app works on the same fundamental principle, but boils down to the same basic function to keep you on track financially: spend less and save more.
Some of our earliest childhood experiences with saving money, coin by coin, was with a piggy bank. It’s a tried and true method that’s part of the fun in using the SmartyPig app, where you can set up several piggy banks, each for a specific savings goal, and schedule to move money (bacon) from bank to bank and account to account. The savings accounts you create are interest-bearing (up to 1.05% APY), so you can watch your funds grow towards your goals and customize how and where you’d like your money dispersed from piggy bank to piggy bank.
Why we love this app: What gives the SmartyPig app our oink of approval? It engages users because you can visualize, according to the app’s website, "the prize rather than the process." Set up three piggy banks for, say, your emergency fund, home down payment and new car fund, and each piggy bank icon will indicate what percentage you’ve saved so far towards your goal. Tracking this progress with a dynamic automatic transfer/high-yield APY process puts more fun (and takes out the work) often involved with saving. Plus, when you reach your goals, the app offers a special cash boost -- either a cash rewards or store gift card -- equal to a percentage of the savings goal you just met.
PNC Bank’s Virtual Wallet
Banks have been on the cutting edge of developing tools and apps that get depositors better involved in their savings goals, as PNC Bank’s Virtual Wallet is one of the most unique approaches to a hybrid checking/savings account you can find. Dispersing your funds across three categories -- regular spending/bills, short-term savings and longer term investments -- you can track and move your funds easily on the wallet’s Money Bar, where you can schedule bill payments, see how much money you’ve got free, and reserve cash to save. A feature called "Danger Day" alerts you when you’re looming close to depleting your account (preventing overdraft fees and a zero-dollar balance). And to shake up the piggy bank motif, a nifty game called "Punch the Pig" is a fun way to transfer money from your spending account to your growth account by punching the piggy bank icon. (Just don’t get too carried away.)
Why we love this tool: PNC is only one of a handful of banks that seems to understand that customers need to have a dose of fun with their finances. What more can you ask for with a checking/savings account equipped with a trackable money bar, interactive savings wish list, automatic savings engine, customizable calendar and even a punchable piggy bank? Engaging users with their finances gets them more involved with their own goals and keeps them more motivated to reach their goals. Want an upgrade? The Virtual Wallet also comes available with Performance Spend and Select options, too.
How do you know one of these apps is right for you? Well, the best way to find out is to download and try some of them, and test them out based on your financial needs. If a simple saving vs. spending platform is what you’re looking for, an app like SaveUp may be the right choice. But if you find a more game-oriented program better motivates you to save money, Virtual Wallet or SmartyPig may work best for you and your finances, helping you take charge of your money while making it fun and engaging at the same time.