In six months, I've saved enough for the five-day trip to Montreal that I've been daydreaming about since last year, and I didn't even have to think about it.
I'm an all-or-nothing saver. I start with a strict and well-intentioned budget, rationing off large hunks of my income to my savings account. But then, after one emergency vet visit or car expense, I inevitably open the vault, and before I know it, I'm considering a late-night coffee run an emergency worth charging to my savings account.
It's an endless cycle, and I'm tempted to blame it on the fluctuation of freelance income, living in an expensive city (Los Angeles) and, of course, the economy. But, truth be told, it's me. Well, me and the entire millennial generation: We save at a dismal average rate of -2%.
You don't have to be a "saver" to save. You don't have to be a financial wizard, and you don't have to be rich.
So I decided to do something about it. I set out with a goal in mind — a dream vacation, which I'd been wanderlusting over for months — and began crafting a plan to make it happen.
After admitting my savings shortcomings, my next step was looking for apps to help me fix the error of my ways. I've tried auto-deposits and at-home cash reserves, but the only thing that's worked so far is a combination of modern banking tools that do all the hard work for me. Here they are.
1. You Need a Budget is a good place to start.
As it turns out, millennials aren't too bad at budgeting. Sixty-six percent of us follow a monthly budget. But as I know all too well, even a budget with the best of intentions can go bust. You Need a Budget is a desktop and mobile app that helps you start fresh right this minute.
You input and estimate all of your bills and income, then make space for surprise expenses. With YNAB, every dollar you earn has a job, even if that job is to stick around until you need to pay for a sneaky home repair.
Before YNAB, Soukprida Phetmisy, a Teach for America manager, was afraid to look at her checking account. "I was just terrified to see what I was actually spending," she told Mic. But now, with the app, she checks her account more frequently without feeling guilty.
The app's goal is to help you pay off debt and kick the paycheck-to-paycheck habit, so ultimately you're living on your previous month's income. This is the only program on the list that isn't free — it'll cost you a one-time payment of $60 — but if you follow the rules, they say, you'll triple that with your first month's turnaround.
Phetmisy is sticking with it. "It's super transparent and empowering," she said. "I feel like I have ownership of my money in a positive way."
2. Simple lets you track your spending in real time.
It's difficult to describe Simple without using that titular word. It's a convenient banking service that's a great replacement for your big-bank checking account. With the stark-white debit card and corresponding app, you can better track and understand your spending habits within your debit account.
Using the the money in your account, you can set aside funds with the "Goals" feature. Just designate cash for vacation, gifts or even monthly bills, and what's left is labeled as "Safe to Spend" cash.
According to Simple co-founder Shamir Karkal, "What's most interesting is that our customers keep roughly 30% of their account balance in Goals, a stark contrast to the average millennial savings rate of -2%." Whether this money is for long-term savings or monthly bills, being able to budget within your bank account — rather than on a scrap of paper or a running list on your phone — is absolutely the most proactive and real-time way to do it.
From the time you swipe the card to the time a store clerk hands you the receipt, Simple has already notified you of your purchase. In two clicks you can make notes on that purchase or assign it to a goal. Alex Kruger, 24, a Simple user who works for Verizon, told Mic, "Every charge and every swipe of my card forces me to interact with my finances. I don't just swipe my card and forget about it anymore."
3. Use Digit when you want to save aggressively.
Sign up for a free Digit savings account and link it to your checking account. After studying your spending habits for a week or so, the service begins to save you money in ways that you don't even notice.
Using an algorithm that's way more complicated than any budget you've come up with, Digit factors in your current balance, upcoming expenses, upcoming income and spending habits. It's straightforward, but surprisingly helpful. According to founder Ethan Bloch, the way we manage our money hasn't been updated in 500 years, but that's all starting to change.
These tools are empowering young people to save better, spend better and treat ourselves when we need a mental-health break.
There isn't even an app or a card to access your Digit account; all access and communication happens through SMS texting. Every morning, Digit will text you how much it's saved you and tell you how much is in your checking account. You can save more or transfer funds by simply texting back "Save" or "Transfer," among other commands.
Travis Walters, 29, marketing and operations manager at the online jewelry retailer Sparklepop, has been a Digit user since February. "I would describe it as aggressive saving," he told Mic. "Some days it'll save $5 and some days it'll transfer $40." No matter how much it saves you, Digit will never put you in a bind by overdrafting your account. That's the algorithm at work.
4. Prism lets you stop wasting money on late fees.
After using an all-in-one bill pay service, I really have no idea how I ever paid bills on time before. In fact, I'm not sure I did. One thing's for sure: You shouldn't have to factor late fees into your monthly budget.
In the first three months of 2015, the top few U.S. banks made $1.1 billion in overdraft fees. The very nature of overdraft fees is taking money from people who are out of money, so just sit on that stat for a second.
Now, download Prism. It puts all of your bills in one place and reminds you when they're due. You can pay each of your bills from the app with just a swipe and check on the status of all your bank accounts while you're at it.
5. Put your pennies to work with Acorns, an intro to investment.
Talking about dream vacations on an entry-level or minimum-wage salary can feel as far off as summering in Neverland, but no matter your income, you have money that's going unused. Acorns puts that spare change to work.
First off, rest assured that you can afford to invest. Acorns works by just rounding up each purchase you make to the nearest dollar, transferring that change into your Acorns investment account so you can start on a personalized, diversified portfolio. It's a baby-steps approach to investment. As you gain some momentum, you can make more of a commitment to recurring investments or depositing lump sums.
It's still your money — it's just finally doing some heavy lifting.
It's still your money — it's just finally doing some heavy lifting. You can add or subtract from your investment account as you wish without any fees.
Josue Hernandez, 23, a production manager for a manufacturing company in Dallas, has been using the app for four months. "I knew the [investment] basics," he told Mic, "but I was still hesitant to throw money into something specific. But with Acorns, it distributes your money for you into different types of investments."
Hernandez personally adds $100 "every two weeks, sort of like a savings account. But your money grows instead of sitting there doing nothing at the bank."
6. Mint Bills lets you get to know your money.
Your money shouldn't be a mystery. Mint Bills gives you some of the perks from each of these apps: Track your cash, pay your bills, see where to save and track your investments all in one place.
For some people, the all-in-one approach is best. But for me, it's a bit overwhelming. I feel I get more out of each of the previous specialty apps than I do out of Mint. For example, when you pay bills through Prism, they post faster than with Mint, but Mint's investment tool is great if you already know what you're doing.
Mint Bills is the ideal app if you want an easy way to keep an eye on where your money is going every month. You can face your fear of finances head-on.
No matter what, you gotta save like you mean it.
Growing up with a mistrust for banks has millennials on a search for the best customer experience. Finance companies are finding ways to use resources we already have and solve problems instantaneously with win-win solutions. These financial tools are disrupting the cloudy bureaucracy we associate with banks so we can finally gain control over our hard-earned cash, which is increasingly harder to earn.
Bloch of Digit insists the banking system is broken. It's really no wonder that we're in financial trouble: We lack the proper tools to manage our finances, he told Mic. But these tools are empowering young people to save better, spend better and treat ourselves when we need a mental-health break.
The bottom line: You don't have to be a saver to save. You don't have to be a financial wizard, and you don't have to be rich. With new tools to budget and allocate funds, you can finally gain control of your own cash flow and go on new adventures, no matter how much money you make.