How to vet budgeting and investing apps before you hand over your information

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It’s a new year, and for many, that means tackling financial resolutions head on.

Luckily, there are a wealth of free or low-cost tools at the disposal of anyone with a smartphone, including Robinhood, Stash, Mint and more for budgeting, saving, investing or even a combination of financial goals.

“Financial technologies are here to make your life easier and do a lot of the heavy lifting,” said Douglas Boneparth, a certified financial planner and president of Bone Fide Wealth in New York. But, if you aren’t sure what you need help with, it will be difficult to find and effectively use any financial application, he said.

Here’s what to consider before you hit download.

Establish what you’re hoping to accomplish

Before signing up for any financial application and handing over your banking information, personal finance experts recommend being crystal-clear on your goals, or what you’re hoping to accomplish by using this tool — do you need help saving, or are you looking to start investing?

“You have to know why you want to use the app,” said Cathy Curtis, CFP, founder and owner of Curtis Financial Planning in Oakland, California, and a member of the CNBC Advisor Council. That will help you assess if different products will be useful to you, especially important if you’re going to pay for one, she said.

You should also decide if you’re going to search for a free service, or if you’re willing to pay a fee, which will generally give you access to more bells and whistles.

Read customer reviews

Once you’re clear on your goals, do some research about each product, including the product’s reputation, the company behind it, its leadership and other backing.

“There’s so many new tools out there, I think it makes sense to do a little research and maybe talk to some people who’ve used it in the past,” said Ben Carlson, director of institutional asset management at Ritholtz Wealth Management. 

That includes reading articles about each company and its products, as well as customer reviews.

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Check security and insurance

A big thing to consider before downloading an app or giving it any of your personal financial information is the security of the product.

First and foremost, see if apps use two-factor authentication and have other security practices in place to guard against breaches, said Trina Patel, financial advice manager at Albert, a mobile banking, savings and investing app.

Next, she said to check what kind of insurance the financial institutions that own the apps have in place. If you’re looking for a banking-related app, make sure that the financial institution that owns it is insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Being FDIC-insured means that up to $250,000 of your deposited money is protected in the event of a bank failure.

It’s important to determine that the company itself is covered by the FDIC, not just the account it offers.

Take Beam Financial, for example. The company, which offers a mobile savings app and touts itself as the first high-interest bank account for millennials, had many customers who struggled to withdraw their money. Even though deposited funds were protected by FDIC insurance through a network of U.S. banks, the company itself was not insured by the FDIC.

If you’re going to use an investing app, check if the company that owns it has insurance through the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, or SIPC, a nonprofit membership corporation. Having SIPC insurance protects you up to $500,000 or $250,000 in cash if the brokerage firm fails. Keep in mind the value of any securities themselves are not insured, meaning that if you lose money on a bad investment, you’re not covered.

Experts also pointed out that security, while a concern, generally isn’t a reason to forgo any online financial products.

“I don’t feel that nervous about giving my financial information as long as I understand what the company does,” said Carlson.

Consider customer service and education

Another thing to consider or look for in your research is what kind of customer service or education each platform offers — if you have a question or a problem, will you be able to call a person for help, or is there another process in place?

“So many things are just automated, there’s not as much real people support,” said Patel. “Checking in to see what kind of support they offer and what kind of information they provide is very helpful.”

Last year had no shortage of trading volatility, and that led to some issues with online trading platforms such as Robinhood that had trouble servicing all their customers on days with some of the biggest market activity.

“How many times did you see that someone’s call center was inundated, or a platform went down?” said Boneparth, who is also a member of CNBC’s Advisor Council. “That’s really bad.”

In addition, if you’re looking to save or invest and don’t have a lot of previous financial knowledge, it’s worth checking to see what the app offers in terms of education before getting started. While technology has greatly lowered the barriers of entry to investing, it can also lead to people making costly mistakes if they don’t know what they’re doing.

Even if you aren’t looking to trade or invest, you should see what budgeting or saving applications offer in terms of customer support. If you need a bit of hand holding or would like the option to speak with a financial professional, you’d want to consider that in your decision of what product to use as it may also cost more for those options.

“Speaking from experience at Albert, we do have a free app option which anyone can download and use, but the additional charge that you pay for is to get access to on-demand financial advisors,” she said, adding that technical support is available for all customers.

Technology has helped many manage their money or invest it

Even though there are some things to look out for before you download and use a budgeting, saving or investing app, experts said that it’s overall a good thing that such products exist.

For example, apps such as Robinhood have made it much easier for people to invest. In the past, you’d have to work with a brokerage firm and go into an office to sign paperwork to establish an investing account, a process that’s now much faster online, said Carlson.

He added that the ability to automate savings or payments has been positive for many people.

“If you can use those technology tools to your advantage and automate as much as you can to save yourself some time and make it more convenient and avoid some headaches, I think that’s certainly a win for consumers,” he said.

In addition, while consumers should definitely do their due diligence, most apps are safe to use and can be a great help in managing finances.

“It’s definitely a good time for people to start taking inventory and see what kind of technology can I use to help me manage my money,” said Patel from Albert. “There’s lots of great apps out there that help you stay on track.”

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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