Saving isn't always easy. But I recently found myself putting away hundreds of dollars without even having to change my habits.
Some months ago, I toyed with the idea of trying popular money-saving or fin-tech apps and finally decided to test Albert, which I had heard about but never tried. I downloaded it and set up an auto-savings service. Then I promptly forgot all about it.
Last month, while digging through my checking account transactions, I ran across several withdrawals that I didn't recognize, and I realized that they were automatic transfers from Albert. I had stopped paying attention, but the app hadn't stopped working.
Turns out I racked up more than $650 in savings over the course of 12 weeks. The app aims to save 5% to 10% of your total monthly income when possible, according to the company. For me, that averaged around $57 per week.
Here's exactly why it was a great saving strategy for me.
Experts say automating your savings is the best way to put some money away for emergencies and other spending goals. But what does that really mean?
Most of the time, experts who encourage automating are talking about setting up regular transfers from checking to savings accounts, and apps can help make that happen. Some, like Qapital, round up your spending on each purchase and put that money into savings, so, for example, if you spend $2.50 on coffee, you can set the app to deposit 50 cents. Others, like Chime, will calculate and regularly auto-transfer a set percentage of your paycheck to your rainy-day fund.
Some apps go a step further: They find savings opportunities for you.
Albert works by analyzing your spending and then automatically pulling money from your checking account into a savings account. It's similar to the strategy used by the popular app Digit.
To start, you link your checking account to the app. Next, you can choose a set amount that it will automatically move into savings or use Albert's "Smart Savings" algorithm. Smart Savings runs a daily analysis of your spending and income and learns to recognize account fluctuations and bill pay periods each month, the company says.
Once it has a handle on your spending rhythms, it will determine an amount that is safe to put into savings and automatically initiate the transfer on a regular basis.
I usually keep way more money than I need in my checking account — it's a not-great habit I may never break. And even though I already have some savings automatically withdrawn each month, I get nervous about making extra transfers into a savings account. What if I guess wrong about how much I'll need or forget about a bill? I'm scared that I'll overdraw.
But Albert removes that stress. It will never initiate a withdrawal if your checking account balance is too low, the app says. So using Albert, I can let that extra money in my checking account be moved into savings without worrying. Plus, if I know I have a big expense coming up, the app lets me pause the withdrawals and restart them when I'm ready.
I'll also admit that the app initially caught my attention because their Instagram account is funny.
When I actually dug into the details, there were several aspects of this app's Smart Savings that sold me on downloading it:
- It's free: Unlike Digit, which costs $2.99 a month after a 30-day free trial, there's no extra charge to use Smart Savings.
- The money is safe: Any money in Albert savings is held in FDIC-insured banks, which offers peace of mind. The company doesn't specify which banks it uses but each customer is insured up to $250,000.
- It doesn't offer interest, but it does make transfers easy: The biggest downside I found is that, because Albert is not a bank, it can't issue interest. It does offer users monthly "bonuses," though. If you're a regular app user, you get 25 cents on every $100 in your savings account.
If you're like me and would like to earn interest, that's possible with a workaround: You can pull savings from Albert without any transfer fees and add that money to a high-yield savings account instead. Albert says customers should allow 2-3 business days for the transfer to process.
Albert also offers budgeting, bill-lowering and financial advice functions. And if you choose to sync up your investment and insurance information, the app will measure your overall financial health and suggest which areas to work on first.
Albert also automatically categorizes your transactions. This is usually where I get frustrated with budgeting apps because I hate manually labeling each expense. But Albert was far more user-friendly than others I've tried: It's able to recognize patterns and figure out what each expense is, then categorize it as a bill, transportation, rent, etc. That way, you can see where you're spending — or overspending — the most.
For me, the app even correctly identified which expense was my rent, even though I don't directly pay my landlord. Instead, I give money to my roommate, who sends the rent through a digital payment portal.
Not every transaction went smoothly. The app did make a few mistakes, including on some of my regular bills. Once I manually set it straight, though, the expenses showed up correctly.
I didn't really explore the other aspects of the app, but they could be useful. For example, Albert partners with Billshark to identify bills you may be able to lower. Billshark says I can lower my current monthly Internet bill by $8 a month. I haven't tried this yet, but if I did and Billshark were successful, they'd charge a fee that equaled 40% of my savings.
The app also has a "Genius" service, which provides financial advice but costs a minimum of $4 a month for a subscription. Users can ask a team of licensed investment advisors questions via text about a wide range of topics, including how to invest, retirement plans, insurance and budgeting.
Overall, using Albert helped show me where I have extra savings. By moving those dollars out of checking and into savings, I avoided spending on extras I didn't really need, such as dining out more. Instead, I safety put that money away for a rainy day.
I'd say Albert works best if, like me, you want to cut back on your spending and put some savings aside for a short-term goal, such as a vacation.
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!