Tips & Advice

Are budget-tracking apps safe?

Charlotte Empey, 17 April 2019

An app that helps manage your finances could be useful, but is your data secure?

These days, it seems like the next security breach is always lurking just around the corner. Whether it’s the latest Facebook password kerfuffle or a company’s credit card database being breached, news stories of innocent people’s data being exposed abound. That’s why it’s best practice to guard your personal — and especially, financial — information very carefully. But what if you’re one of the millions of people out there who could use a little help sticking to a budget?

Budgeting apps provide the convenience of all your financial data in one place, so you can easily monitor your spending. But in this climate of data insecurity, you may be wondering if it’s safe to hand over all of your financial data to an app.

It’s a good question, and one that has to be considered before setting up any budget tracking software. The good news is that it’s not as dangerous as you might think, provided you use a reputable budget tracker. We give a few suggestions below. But first, let’s look at what kind of info you’re sharing with the app and where that info lives.

In a nutshell, you’re sharing details of your credit card accounts and bank accounts. Some apps also work with other sources of income, such as stocks and investment funds. These apps will then sync with your online banking and other accounts periodically, to keep your budget up-to-date in the app. However, the apps just have “read-only” access, meaning they can see your financial activity — but can’t make any changes (like transferring money without your consent). Once they have your information, budgeting apps typically store that data on their own company servers. This is a security measure, for if someone were to steal your phone and open the budgeting app, they would not have access to your full information. The app will show your budget (things like purchases, bills, etc.) but not any of your bank login data. So if someone were to hack into your app, they still wouldn’t be able to hack into your actual bank account.

Still, you want to be smart when dealing with any money matters, so here are some best-practices for using these handy apps:

Tips for using a budgeting app

    1. Check the privacy statement — Before you decide on the app, look at its privacy statement. These can sometimes be long and full of legal jargon, so it’s a good idea to search the word “sell” or “share” in the privacy statement. Then you can easily check to make sure the app won’t sell your personal data to third-parties for targeted ads. If the app doesn’t have a privacy statement at all, find another app.

    2. Check the app’s security level. These apps deal with your financial information, so they should be using financial institution-level security measures. Look for the app’s encryption standards for user data (128-bit is good; 256-bit is better) and see if it has two-factor authentication as a login option for you (it’ll add an extra layer of security on top of your password).

    3. Find out who owns the app. Many budgeting apps are owned by larger financial institutions, which should have experience handling user data in a safe and secure manner.

    4. Password protect your device — To make sure that no one can take a peek at your finances, set up a password or PIN or fingerprint to unlock the home screen of the device you’re using. This is also important for protecting your actual bank account.

    5. Use an antivirus on your phone — Malware targeting financial accounts is on the rise, so even if you’re aren’t using a budgeting app you should still install a robust antivirus.

    6. Be careful using a budgeting app on public Wi-Fi —  You should never check your bank account or use a budgeting app over unsecured public Wi-Fi — it’s just too easy for hackers to see everything you’re doing. If you’re away from home and need to use the app, use your cell data instead of hooking into a free public network or consider using a VPN to encrypt your connection.

What happens if a criminal spends my money?

In general, if a criminal did manage to spend any of your money using your credit card, your credit card company should cover you. For the most part, credit cards offer zero-liability protection, meaning if your card is compromised and you report it in a timely manner, you will not be responsible for any unauthorized charges made on it. The Fair Credit Billing Act in the US limits consumer liability to $50 for false credit card charges, and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act protects transfers similarly. When it comes to stolen debit cards, the liability and process depend on each individual bank.

What are the best budgeting apps?

Remember, any app you use must have a solid privacy statement. Beyond that, finding the best app is going to depend on your personal needs. Are you solo, or part of a couple or family? Are you sharing costs with a roommate? Do you want financial advice inherent in the app, or do you just want a simple budget tracker? Here’s a list of five of the most popular apps in each country. Check them out and find the one that’s best for you.

U.S. & Canada

  1. Mint — The best-known budgeting app, Mint boasts 20 million users and counting. It’s owned by Intuit, and sends you alerts when you go over budget.

  2. PocketGuard — This one is easy to set up and it helps you find opportunities to save by looking at your recurring monthly bills and suggesting better deals for your budget.

  3. YNAB — The letters stand for “You Need A Budget.” This app leaves no dollar unaccounted for and forces you to think about every penny you spend.

U.K.

  1. Money Dashboard — See all your accounts in one place and set limits based on the previous month’s spending. This app supports 60 financial providers including major high street banks.

  2. Moneyhub — If you want to figure investment funds into your budget tracking, Moneyhub will work for you. It also looks at your monthly payments and alerts you if you can get a better deal.

  3. Squirrel — This one was developed to help make money stretch till payday. It separates bill money from spending money and enables you to set clear savings goals.

Australia/New Zealand

  1. TrackMySPEND — This one allows you to categorize your expenses, download your data to spreadsheets for easy analysis, and export to other accounting software.

  2. Pocketbook — You can set spending limits with Pocketbook, as well as connect the app to your bank so that it automatically tracks your income and expenses.

  3. PocketSmith — Developed in New Zealand, this budgeting app simplifies your budgeting efforts and make the claim of being the “Mint alternative” for Australia.

Like any app, budget trackers are not 100% risk-free. But as long as you’re practicing smart digital habits on both your mobile phone and your computer (whether PC or Mac), budgeting apps can be a nice way to track your spending, pay off debt, or just save for a rainy day.