Every April, American taxpayers are gripped by a collective panic as they try to make sense of their finances. Now, help is at hand—literally.
Author Hillary Rosner
IF YOU’VE NEVER STARED, dumbfounded, at toppling piles of crumpled receipts, wondering how your financial affairs came to resemble your laundry hamper, chances are you’re an accountant (or should be). Every year, as Tax Day approaches, millions of Americans swear panicked oaths to the gods of organization. What they get in response are software developers, who’ve been churning out personal finance apps faster than you can say “credit for qualified retirement savings contribution.”
There are dozens of these apps on the market right now, and while they won’t help you find that W-2 you slipped between the pages of a TV Guide for safekeeping, they promise to do pretty much everything else to whip your sorry personal finances into shape. Some are free, some require a subscription, but all offer a version of the same sell: You need help, and here it is.
Mint, MoneyBook, Doxo, Pageonce—these are just a few of the tools available, online and on smartphones, for tracking and managing money. Mint, for example, shows what you’ve been spending via color-coded charts, reminds you to pay bills and lets you set budget goals. Doxo, a “digital file cabinet,” aims to obliterate the crumpled-paper mountain by helping you store, manage and share financial documents. And if you long to be able to see all your bills and statements in one place, rather than hopping from one institution’s website to the next, Pageonce specializes in providing a central link for accessing multiple accounts and paying bills.
The Internet swarms with enthusiastic testimonials for these apps (“Invaluable for dumb schmoes like myself that virtually survive on impulse buys!”). Indeed, spend enough time reading such reviews and it can seem as though personal finance apps hold the key to happiness. If I just download this I’ll be organized! And rich! And taller!
While we’re all prone to believing in magic bullets from time to time—especially where technology is concerned—a dose of realism can be as useful as an SMS alert that you’ve spent 78 percent of your monthly salary on a pair of shoes. Having access to your financial information, after all, doesn’t necessarily give you dominion over it. As Amanda Clayman, a New York-based financial therapist (a growing field), puts it: “If you have information about your out-of-control spending, that’s just going to make you feel worse.”
Clayman does recommend that her clients use financial apps, but warns that the findings, removed from any real-world context, can be misleading. What makes financial sense for Joe Schmo of L.A. might not for Liz Schmo of Hoboken. Receiving data is just the first step; once you’ve got it, you need to figure out what it means for you.
Michael Kay, president of Financial Focus, a financial planning company in Livingston, N.J., is a firm believer in the power of data. “We encourage all our clients to know their numbers, understand their spending habits, make sure they’re saving appropriately,” he says. Kay cautions, however, that financial apps can give people a false sense of security. “Isn’t it what everyone wants, to feel that they’re in control? If you think you’re in control but you actually aren’t, you might have a bigger problem.”
For Joan Gray Anderson, co-director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Personal Financial Education, the very act of admitting that you have a money problem is a huge step forward. Gray Anderson studied the impact of consumer education programs on financial behavior, and found that what people actually learned was less important than the fact that they had enrolled in these programs. “What mattered was that they had opened their minds to learning and applying financial information to their lives,” she says, adding that those who sign up for financial apps are on a similar path. “The person who seeks out these finance venues is already predisposed to learn about personal finance and make some behavioral changes.”
In the end, however, the real benefit of these apps may be that they help people make the most of a far more valuable commodity than cash. “If you are spending less time dealing with stupid financial nonsense, that leaves more time to play with your kids, read a book of poetry or enjoy a beer with friends,” says David Wolman, the author of The End of Money. “Doesn’t that in turn make you happier?”
HILLARY ROSNER, a Colorado-based writer, is hiding from her accountant.