You’re smart with money—yay! If you’re ready to be brilliant with it, here are the best apps, accounts, and tools (chosen by an independent panel of financial pros) to help you save, invest, get tax guidance, or just use your dang credit card points without tears. The winners of our 2022 Smart Money Awards are here to help you earn, save, and grow your money. Ka-ching!
RELATED: Our Best-Ever Tips for Saving Money
Save Up for Big Purchases
Throwing down a card for something you think you need ASAP—like a new guestroom mattress before the in-laws visit—can seem like a good idea…until the bill comes. When you’re itching for a spendy item, Accrue holds you accountable. Choose your splurge from one of its partner brands (Casper, Smile Direct Club, fine jewelry companies, and more) and make a savings plan. Get cash rewards (like $120 off a mattress) as you hit your goals.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: Accrue rewards you for being patient. “Linking the act of saving with its purpose—what you’re saving for—is a powerful motivator for those who struggle with debt,” says judge Kiersten Saunders (see below for info on our judges). “I’m also impressed with Accrue’s wide roster of retail partners.”
Score Impressive Debit Card Rewards
AmEx is known for its credit card perks, including cash back on essentials, like groceries, and hotel and travel points. This online checking account gives you similar rewards for a debit card. Plus, points get pooled with those from your credit card, and you can earn 0.5 percent interest on your balance. That’s better than what most national banks offer.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: You can grow your money and get better benefits while also streamlining your banking. “This is a no-brainer for existing AmEx customers,” says judge Grant Sabatier. “And it’s also attractive to new users looking for a higher-than-average return.”
Build “Set It and Forget It” Savings
COST: $5 per month
You know those coin sorters that separate quarters, dimes, and pennies when you pour in a bag of change? Digit is like that for your paycheck. Every time money comes in, the app divides it into bills, savings, an investing account, and a spending account, keeping you from absentmindedly using cash you’ll need for, say, your student loan payment at the end of the month. And you can pay bills straight from your account.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: Once you set up your monthly payments and savings goals (anything from retirement to a new laptop), Digit does the math. Automating saving “lets people who traditionally struggle with budgeting feel like they have everything under control, while still allowing them to freely use the spend category guilt-free,” says judge Erin Skye Kelly.
Access Traditional Banking if You’ve Been Shut Out
COST: $5 per month
Immigrants and refugees deserve safe banking, regardless of their citizenship status, and Majority offers banking without requiring a Social Security Number. All you need is a government-issued ID (from any country) and proof of U.S.residence to set up an account virtually. The company provides financial advising in more than 10 languages. And along with a checking account and debit card, customers get no-fee money transfers and unlimited, discounted phone calls to more than 20 countries. “As an immigrant 20 years ago, I had trouble opening my first bank account. I remember how miserable I felt when the bank said they couldn’t help me. Good job, Majority,” says judge Tatiana Tsoir.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: By removing hurdles, Majority makes banking—and thus saving and the ability to build credit—accessible to a huge underserved population. “Majority fills a need that immigrants and refugees can immediately benefit from. I love this,” says judge Marsha Barnes.
Share Expenses Simply
WellPaid saves you from hassling roommates, friends, or family to chip in for expenses. Link your bank accounts on the app, and when someone pays a bill, WellPaid triggers everyone else to send either a portion (a quarter of the electric bill, for example) or a fixed amount (like $40 for Wi-Fi).
WHY IT’S A WINNER: WellPaid is great for roommates or partners who don’t want to mingle bank accounts, and for exes who share childcare expenses.”Sending money back and forth on Venmo becomes clutter. Linking accounts without needing a joint account makes splitting simpler,” Tsoir says.
REAL SIMPLE STAFFER SAYS: “I live with my boyfriend, and we’ve been playing a constant game of tag on Venmo. After we linked our accounts with WellPaid, life got a little easier. No more tracking receipts, pulling up bank statements, and doing the math. Now the only trouble is decid-ing who pays the extra penny on rent.” —Teddy Willson, assistant editor
Take the Guesswork out of Points and Rewards
COST: $6 per month
Rather than accumulating points and then trying to figure out when and where to use them, work backward with Card Curator. Set a goal—tickets to Fiji, a two-week tour of Tuscany—and the app steers you to the credit card to use for each purchase to maximize the points you’ll need.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: For people who’d love to save on travel but don’t have the time or patience to research and optimize, Card Curator is a valuable adviser. “I love that it automatically updates with the latest rewards—one less thing to have to monitor,” says judge Dawn Dahlby.
Cut Big Purchases into Smaller Payment Chunks
COST: fixed monthly fee (amount varies per user)
Your car breaks down. Your roof leaks. Your water heater dies. We all have moments when we’re hit with a big, unavoidable expense. Existing Chase credit card holders can use My Chase Plan to break down any purchase over $100 into installments, without accruing the interest you normally would after not paying a bill in full. In the app, click on the purchase and choose a payment plan ranging from 3 to 18 months. The purchase appears as a smaller amount on your monthly bill until it’s paid off.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: While experts warn that this is not a tool for splurging on a $400 pair of sneakers, it’s ideal for handling a big emergency expense. “This is a great solution for people who are on a tight budget or are temporarily financially challenged,” says judge Cathy Curtis.
Earn Cash for What You Need
The idea is simple: Every month, Citi determines where you spent the most—grocery stores, restaurants, live entertainment (hey, tickets to Harry Styles!)—and gives you five times the cash back in that category (up to $500). Next month, if your biggest expense category changes, the Citi card adjusts, so you reap the extra bang for those bucks without any effort.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: “Finally, a company that recognizes that monthly budgets aren’t carbon copies of each other,” says judge Julien Saunders. We like to think of it as getting a discount on something you were going to buy anyway.
Get Rewarded for Earth-Friendly Purchases
This climate-conscious card isn’t only for your monthly train pass; you’re likely already buying a lot of reward-eligible items. Ever ride a rental bike instead of taking a car? Shop online for vintage clothes? Use a charging station for your electric car? Those and much more qualify for 5 percent cash back. You can even earn cash back on your Thanksgiving Tofurky—plant-based meat is eligible!
WHY IT’S A WINNER: If you’re already an eco-conscious shopper, this card puts money in your (recycled denim) pocket. On top of that: It might encourage you to make better choices. “I love that it’s incentivizing habits that are good for the planet,” Sabatier says. And if you occasionally balk at the higher price of sustainable goods, “the cash back helps subsidize that,” says judge Stephanie McCullough.
INVESTMENT & RETIREMENT
Reflect Your Values with Your Stock Choices
The best-performing funds usually include diverse stocks, but with a traditional mutual fund, you may be buying into some corporate values you don’t love. With Alinea, you can choose a group of stocks with a theme, like companies that are woman-owned or fight climate change, so you diversify your portfolio while investing in companies your beliefs align with.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: You can make data-based decisions (the app graphs out a stock’s performance). You can also see what other people in your network are buying and share your picks too. “I’d love to invest in more companies aligned with my values, and this makes it easy,” says judge Vee Weir.
Try a Nontraditional Retirement Plan
COST: $100 per year
For many of us, simply having an individual retirement account (IRA) and remembering to contribute to it is a win. But for people who want to do their own research, take some risks, and put retirement funds into long-term assets other than stocks and bonds, Alto is a good choice. It allows you to invest your IRA, traditional or Roth, in alternative areas, like real estate and art, which can be riskier but may yield higher dividends. Alto’s partners include venture capital and private equity funds that specialize in these areas.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: “Being able to self-direct your retirement funds has been pretty unavailable for many years, since very few institutions offer the option. I love it,” Tsoir says. It’s not for newbies, though. “Take your time to research the partner organizations,” McCullough says.
Learn How to Invest
This is the investing equivalent of bowling with gutter guards—a little extra help for those who are just getting the hang of things. Here’s how it works: Open a Schwab account with at least $50, and Schwab will automatically add $101 of the bank’s money and invest it in the top five stocks on the S&P 500. Schwab also offers investment guides and how-to videos so you can learn how to DIY.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: It’s fairly low-risk to invest in the top five stocks, and it’s a good learning opportunity. “Schwab is a reputable company to start investing with, and this is a great offer with a realistic strategy for beginners,” Dahlby says.
Embrace Risk and Excitement
Individual investors are usually shut out of pre-IPO investing; it’s the big banks that get to fund start-ups before they’re publicly traded. SoFi IPO helps regular folks buy in early. Customers must have an investing account with SoFi, an online bank, but there’s no minimum balance to participate. In the app, you see what IPOs are coming up and submit an “indication of interest,” like a reservation for shares.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: Getting in at the beginning of a newly public company can be a big score. This app makes it easy to bust into this investment arena. But it can also be volatile. “This is not the place to start investing,” Skye Kelly says. “But if you have a moderate level of experience, it’s a fun way to buy some assets.”
KIDS & FAMILY FINANCES
Help Your Teen Grow Their Allowance
This is a full-fledged brokerage account opened by you and managed by your 13-to-17-year-old, who can spend, save, invest in stocks, and of course, deposit birthday money. A no-fee ATM card comes with the account, and while parents can see the transactions, the teens are truly in charge. They can buy fractional shares of stocks, transfer money via Venmo or PayPal, and put cash aside in a cash-management account. The app includes a library of educational videos to help them learn about investing.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: Giving teens agency over their accounts is a great way to spark interest in investing. We also love that the account can transfer to an adult brokerage account when your child turns 18. “If you have investment experience and a teenager with a job, this is the product you’ll want,” Skye Kelly says.
Drill Down on Saving for College
College is extremely expensive and may seem far off. Should you start socking away money as soon as you have a baby? Prioritize retirement and count on student loans? This tool can put things in perspective. Existing Personal Capital customers plug in data to the Education tab—like the age of your child and what you’re saving for (college, private school, etc.). If your kid is already accepted to college or has a goal school, input the tuition amount. The Education calculator will take your other financial data into account, adjust for inflation, and show how much you need to be saving, plus how it will affect your retirement funds.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: You can add in unexpected financial changes (such as an inheritance or job loss) and see how those impact your timeline. And colorful graphics make scenarios easy to compare. “Knowing how college affects your other long-term financial goals is crucial. This app goes a long way toward helping families understand the impact of this big expense,” Curtis says.
Teach Kids How to Spend and Save Wisely
At some point in your parenting life, you will start to feel like a human ATM. Till, designed for kids, helps them earn, save, and spend using a debit card, which parents can freeze instantly in the app. Older kids with jobs can set up direct deposit, and there’s an option for parents to “match” their kid’s savings.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: If your child has a phone, this is a fun, streamlined app to help them see how much they have to spend. “Today’s kids will likely only ever experience direct deposits and electronic banking, so this app nails spending and saving education for kids,” Skye Kelly says.
Get Big Payoffs for Globe-Trotting
COST: $395 per year
Love free flights? Then hold on to your (business-class) seat. The Venture X card offers users five times the usual miles on flights and 10 times the usual miles on hotels and rental cars (when booked through Capital One Travel), plus double miles on all other purchases. It’s meant to reward people who travel a ton (so the high annual fee is offset by the savings). If you use the card’s travel service, you may be able to freeze the price of a flight (for a fee) for a period. If the cost goes up, the company covers the difference (up to a limit); if it goes down, you pay the lower price.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: For anyone with a lot of travel expenses, whether it’s for work, to fly a college student home, or as part of a fun-filled retirement, Venture will help rack up points faster than Steph Curry in a playoff game. “The ability to freeze the price of a travel ticket is magic,” Tsoir says.
Vacation on a Budget
Maybe you stumble on a super cheap flight to London, but when you Google “hotel London under $200 not skeezy,” you get no hits. Or a friend tells you about an affordable eco-resort in Costa Rica, but the flights are crazy expensive. With Elude, you set your budget first, then the app suggests destinations you can afford. Plug in your $5,000 total budget, select your departure city and dates, and swipe through trip options, with a breakdown of flights and hotels for both domestic (Big Sur, California) and international (Copenhagen! Cape Town! Tokyo!) adventures.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: We love that the app might open your eyes to a location you hadn’t thought of (or heard of!). Plus, you save hours of time not having to play travel agent. “This removes the drudgery of research and feels more like fun exploration,” McCullough says.
REAL SIMPLE STAFFER SAYS: “It’s easy to figure out and fun for browsing deals and getting a feel for how much a trip would cost. If you want to just get away for a weekend without any planning or stress, it seems like the app would be perfect for that.” —Hannah Dorough, assistant editor
Turn a Random Mix of Points into an Actual Trip
Tell NerdWallet what you have—such as delta SkyMiles or Citi ThankYou Points—and where you want to go (Europe? The Caribbean?). The tool walks you through several of the best ways to use or transfer your points for travel and provides tips on getting the lowest deal.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: Options! Who knew you could transfer credit card miles to a frequent flier program or use them to book flights on another airline? This tool knows the secrets and holds your hand through the process so you actually use the points you’ve earned. “I got great results in 10 seconds,” McCullough says.
Keep All Your Points in One Place—and Maximize Them
This brand’s rep for hacking the travel points system is well deserved. Add your credit cards and all other loyalty programs (like hotels and flights), and the app will keep track of their value, which pops up at the top of your screen, and alert you if any are about to expire. Then search for a trip, and the app tells you how to use your points to get there, laying out the steps to transfer or combine points to turn a reach (first class to Cabo?) into a reality.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: The app is more than just a points tracker; you can browse the Deals section to see sale alerts. “I was blown away,” Sabatier says. “This app is a true innovator, with an exceptional number of tools, features, and automations to help you maximize your rewards.”
REAL SIMPLE STAFFER SAYS: “I find points programs so hard to keep track of. Each credit card resets at a different date, and each month is a different category, so it’s hard to remember which card I should use at the grocery store or to buy plane tickets. Points Guy keeps track of my earned points and my missed points, so I can start to use my card to its full potential.” —Erica Finamore, home director
CAREER & TAXES
Have the Benefits of an Employer While Working for Yourself
The best part of being self-employed is working on your own terms. The worst part? Having to be your own HR department. Catch is a stand-in for those employer-centric services. Once you input your sources of income, the app can divvy up your paychecks, no matter how irregular, to take care of quarterly taxes and retirement savings. You can even set it to save for paid time off.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: In addition to other functions, Catch offers freelancer health and dental insurance options. “I love that this treats freelance income like that of a salaried person, so there is no ‘gotcha’ at tax time for not putting enough away,” Skye Kelly says.
Get Accounting Help for Your Business
COST: $269 per month
You have a vision for your business, and most likely, it does not include hours of crossing t’s and dotting i’s in bookkeeping. Enter Collective, which manages taxes, accounting, and payroll, freeing you up to focus on your company’s mission. If you’re accepted—Collective only takes on self-employed partners who will truly save money through its process—a rep walks you through converting to an S corporation (which can lower your tax burden and protect you from liability). Then you get access to a team of advisers, including an accountant and tax expert. They handle the back end of your business for you.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: Business taxes are complicated. Having a dedicated person on call to answer questions and save you from mistakes could be well worth the price. “It’s a very useful tool for small-business owners who may be in over their heads with the finances, but the price might be steep for some just starting out,” Dahlby says. McCullough knows several people who use Collective and love it.
Organize Invoices for Freelance Work
COST: $5 per month
When you work for yourself, looking for invoices at tax time can feel like an archaeological dig. Snap a photo of them as they come in, and Lili saves them. It also helps you set aside money for taxes, just like an employer would, and offers software that generates and organizes invoices to make sure no payments fall through the cracks.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: “Many freelancers I know are creatives and wish they didn’t have to worry about administrative tasks,” McCullough says. The tax help is key, Skye Kelly says: “Nothing derails an entrepreneur’s confidence like a surprise tax bill. This allows you to make great financial decisions as you go.”
HOME & REAL ESTATE
Rent with Perks
Credit card companies typically offer points on purchases like gas and groceries, but the biggest expense for those who rent an apartment or home—the monthly rent payment—has historically been exempt. Bilt allows you to earn points on yours, up to $50,000 a year, which you can use toward flights, hotels, and even SoulCycle classes. If you live in a city with high housing costs, those points can add up fast. (And you can redeem them for a plane ticket away from your overpriced studio.) Landlord won’t accept a credit card? Bilt can generate a check for you.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: The housing market is tough right now, with many people renting instead of buying, and rents are increasing. “This card came out at the perfect time to give money you’re already spending a second life,” Dahlby says.
Be Your Neighbor’s Self-Storage
COST: 4.9 percent fee plus 30 cents per reservation for hosts; varying service fee for renters
Neighbor is a middleman app that helps people with too much stuff pay a small fee to other people who have unused space in spots like their basements, attics, or garages. Search by your location to see photos of spaces available near you, along with square footage and other details. Neighbor provides hosts with liability insurance, and renters can opt for a protection plan.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: One neighbor gets affordable storage; the other makes some cash. Everyone wins! And excuse us for being sentimental, but we love the potential for getting to know someone in your community. “It’s like Airbnb for your stuff,” Skye Kelly says.
Speed Up the Home-Buying Business
COST: 5 percent per sale
Moving is a slog for several reasons—and a big one is how stressful the process of home buying can be. Opendoor gives you an estimated value of your house and offers to buy it on the spot (if it qualifies), enabling you to browse other houses (also on the app) while knowing your exact budget. When you want to make an offer, Opendoor again steps in as a financial backer, making your bid a more competitive, all-cash version, as long as you’re preapproved by your bank. (If there’s a problem after your offer is accepted, Opendoor will buy the home and sell it back to you at the same price when you’re ready.) The goal is a seamless transition, with close dates that work for you.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: Opendoor Complete, available in 16 of Opendoor’s 51 markets, is truly innovative in a business that can be slow and confusing. “When you’re buying a home, all the money moving around is anxiety-inducing and overwhelming. This lessens that and makes it an easier process,” Weir says. Adds Tsoir: “It’s so helpful to have a support system when you’re buying and selling. This app may mean not having to live with your in-laws for weeks!”
Own a Vacation Home Without the Responsibility
Consider this an upgraded version of your grandparents’ time-share. Pacaso offers co-ownership of second homes in swoon-worthy locations, like Nantucket, Maui, and Aspen. You buy a share of a property along with other buyers as part of an LLC, and Pacaso manages it and sets parameters for high season and holidays, so you never have to duke it out with your co-owners over who stays when. After a year, if you aren’t happy, you can sell your share.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: Pacaso is like owning a lake house with 17 of your cousins, if you never had to fight with them. “This is a game-changing idea that’s already starting to revolutionize the vacation home market,” Sabatier says. “Fractional homeownership is the future.”
Get Rewarded for Paying Rent on Time
Would you occasionally like a gold star for adulting? Pay your rent on time every month, and you get points to spend with Piñata’s partners, including Amazon, Task Rabbit, Starbucks, and the Container Store. How does Piñata know if you hit the mark? You set the due date in the app and link your bank account to verify that the payment was made. What’s more: You can choose to have your payments reported to a credit bureau to boost your credit score. And as if that weren’t enough: Piñata donates a meal to someone in need for every rent payment made.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: “If you have trouble remembering to pay your rent on time or are a first-time renter getting the hang of it, this is a very cool idea. It’s a win-win for renters and landlords,” Dahlby says.
Protect Yourself from Catastrophe
Many gig workers go without insurance, and Avibra fills the gap. Earn up to $15,000 in life insurance and accidental death and dismemberment coverage by engaging with Avibra’s content—read an article about personal finance or do a guided meditation, and you earn coverage. There’s also a Dollar Benefits Store, where you can buy extras, like telemedicine and dental coverage, for $1 a week.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: This won’t cut it for large family with lots of medical needs. But it is a “better-than-nothing solution that could prevent a financial tragedy alongside a health one,” Skye Kelly says.
Get Essential Disability Coverage
COST: from $3 per month
Disability insurance is designed to help cover your living expenses if you are sick, injured, or just had a baby and can’t work. Employers often provide it, but if you work for yourself, there’s no such thing as paid sick leave. Breeze offers plans for this must-have coverage. Input your age, location, and profession and answer a few health questions to get a quote.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: We all know we should have savings to cover several months if something happens and we can’t work, but few of us do. “Disability is a crucial and under-insured risk,” McCullough says. “So many families’ financial futures are upended by illness or injury. This won’t replace 100 percent of your income, but it can mean you keep your home during a health crisis.”
Buy Life Insurance Without Feeling Judged
COST: from about $30 per month
Term life insurance is one of the most no-brainer financial products out there—none of us wants to strand our family in a financial crisis if we die suddenly. The old way to qualify for life insurance involved medical tests and lots of invasive questions. This company is legit (backed by MassMutual) but offers Haven Simple, a policy that can give you up to $500,000 in term life insurance and requires just a few clicks, with no strangers taking your blood pressure. (Haven Life does offer up to $3 million, though, if you go the traditional route.)
WHY IT’S A WINNER: We’re fans of anything that makes something daunting, like contemplating your mortality, a little easier. And Haven Life allows you to check off a grown-up task in the amount of time it takes to make coffee. “It’s a very convenient option that’s needed in the marketplace,” Dahlby says.
Free Yourself from the Weight of Medical Debt
Medical bills are the number one cause of bankruptcy in the United States. PayZen steps in with a solution that left us wondering, “Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before?” PayZen pays your health provider, then sets up a payment plan based on your financial picture for you to repay the amount—without any interest or fees. A scary, overwhelming debt is reduced to bite-size installments.
WHY IT’S A WINNER: With PayZen, patients aren’t charged more than the initial medical bill. Skye Kelly’s endorsement is absolute: “I tear up thinking about all the people currently struggling who will be able to maintain financial dignity thanks to this product.”
We compiled a list of products across eight categories that debuted, or were updated, between January 2021 and June 2022. A diverse panel of financial professionals rated them and selected 32 winners based on innovation and relevance to Real Simple readers. All details were correct as of press time.
Marsha Barnes: certified financial social worker, educator, and founder of the finance bar, which provides personal finance tools and educational support
Cathy Curtis: certified financial planner and founder of Curtis Financial Planning in Oakland, California, who focuses on advising women.
Dawn Dahlby: certified financial planner and behavioral financial adviser who offers online financial coaching courses for clients around the country.
Stephanie McCullough: financial planner and CEO of Sofia Financial in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.
Grant Sabatier: author of Financial Freedom and creator of the Financial Freedom course, which helps participants build wealth and retire early.
Julien and Kiersten Saunders: authors of Cashing Out, about paying off $200,000 in debt, who share advice for building wealth and financial freedom, especially for black men and women.
Erin Skye Kelly: licensed mortgage broker who paid off $2 million in debt and author of Get The Hell Out of Debt, about her three-step process for eliminating debt and building wealth.
Tatiana Tsoir: certified public accountant and author of Dream Bold, Start Smart, a Guide to Entrepreneurship.
Vee Weir: personal finance educator in Boulder, Colorado, who paid off more than $70,000 in debt and shares tips on Instagram at @veefrugalfox.
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