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5 apps to help college students get their finances off to a strong start

Here are some apps that will help you manage your money, whether you want to get a head start on investing or dive into budgeting.

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 Rob Culpepper | Getty Images
Select’s editorial team works independently to review financial products and write articles we think our readers will find useful. We may receive a commission when you click on links for products from our affiliate partners.

Managing your finances as a college student is often easier said than done. You may find yourself trying to balance the various expenses of attending school (paying for textbooks, meal plans, supplies and commuting) on a limited budget without a lot of guidance. Sometimes, it can be hard to know where to even start.

Making a habit of saving, investing and budgeting as early as possible can help get you on the road to financial flexibility. Having an emergency fund, for example, will allow you to cover unexpected expenses that pop up in everyday life, from car repairs to broken laptops. And getting started with investing when you're young, means that you can avoid keeping to much money in cash and enjoy the long-term benefits of compound interest.

To help anyone out there who's just getting started, Select rounded up some of the best money apps every college student needs. They're all easy to use but really effective when it comes to managing your cash, so you can begin to dip your toe into money management and build a stronger foundation for your future.

Best money apps for college students

For learning how to budget

Goodbudget

Information about Goodbudget has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by Goodbudget prior to publication.
  • Cost

    Get 20 envelopes for free; for unlimited envelopes, you need to upgrade to Goodbudget Plus, which is $7 per month or $60 per year

  • Standout features

    Allows users to plan their household's spending using the "envelope method," where they allocate a certain amount of their income into categories like groceries, rent and debt payoff. Users are only supposed spend what's in their envelopes and if they go beyond their budget the envelope will show red to indicate that they overspent

  • Categorizes your expenses

    Yes, but users can customize

  • Links to accounts

    No, users manually create "envelopes" and input their transactions

  • Availability

    Has a web-based version, and also offered in both the App Store (for iOS) and on Google Play (for Android)

  • Security features

    256-bit bank grade encryption in a secure data center

Terms apply.

Budgeting may sound intimidating, but it's simply a plan for how you'll spend your money each month. When you know what's coming in (i.e. how much you're earning), you can more effectively manage how you choose to spend it. There are many different ways to create a budget, but beginners who want to manage their money on-the-go should check out the Goodbudget app.

The app is pretty much the digital version of the envelope method, a budgeting strategy where you label a few envelopes with different spending categories and put a certain amount of cash into each. Once you spend all the money, you'll need to wait for your next paycheck (or the next month) to replenish your envelopes.

Goodbudget pretty much uses the same idea, but instead of real envelopes, you'll have digital ones. You can label them to indicate things you usually spend on — for example, school supplies, gas, fun money and food. Each category will have its own envelope. You'll divvy up your paycheck among each one, and you're only allowed to spend the amount allocated in each envelope.

If you overspend, the envelope will turn red to indicate that you went over budget.

Unlike most budgeting and expense tracker apps, Goodbudget does not link to your bank accounts. You have to manually create the digital envelopes and input your transactions. The app gives you 20 envelopes for free, or you can sign-up for unlimited envelopes for $7 per month, or $60 per year. You can learn more about Goodbudget in our roundup of the best budgeting apps.

For getting started with investing

Acorns

On Acorns' secure site
  • Minimum deposit

    $0 to open the account; $5 minimum deposit to begin investing

  • Fees

    30-day free trial; $1/month for the Lite plan, which includes an investment account; $3/month for the Personal plan, which includes an investment, retirement and checking account; $5/month for the Family plan, which includes an investment, retirement and checking account, and the option to open an investment account for a child

  • Bonus

    None

  • Investment options

    ETFs

  • Educational resources

    Custom financial literacy content from Acorns and CNBC

Terms apply.

One common misconception about investing is that you need a lot of money in order to get started. In fact, you can get started with as little as some spare change, and that's exactly what the Acorns app does.

The app rounds up spare change from your everyday purchases and invests it into preconfigured portfolios. In other words, you can invest even while buying your daily cold brew from the campus coffee shop. Let's say that coffee costs $4.30 – Acorns will take 70 cents and invest it for you. Just be sure to link your credit card to the app and use it to pay for items, otherwise you won't be able to use the roundup feature.

You can also deposit money into the app without making purchases. The account is free to open but you'll need a minimum of $5 to start investing.

For saving money

Digit

On Digit's secure site
  • Annual Percentage Yield (APY)

    Begin earning 0.10% APY after using the app for three consecutive months

  • Minimum balance

    None

  • Monthly fee

    30-day free trial; $5/month

  • Maximum transactions

    None

  • Excessive transactions fee

    None

  • Overdraft fees

    None

  • Offer checking account?

    No

  • Offer ATM card?

    No

Terms apply.

When it comes to saving money, every dollar adds up — especially when you're consistently stashing small amounts over time. That's pretty much what Digit is here to help you do.

The app connects to your bank account and automatically saves small amounts of money for you each day. This could be 75 cents, one dollar, five dollars and anything in between. (You can indicate a maximum amount you want Digit to save on any given day.) Digit puts saving on autopilot, so you don't have to manually move money into a separate account.

You can also create different goals to save toward, like a spring break trip or a new laptop. And if you don't have any specific goals in mind, you can just save money for the sake of getting a jump start on post-grad life.

For cash back without a credit card

Rakuten

Information about Rakuten has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the company prior to publication.
  • Cost

    Free

  • How to save

    Get cash back on eligible purchases, automatic coupons and price comparisons.

  • How to use it

    Shop on Rakuten.com, the Rakuten app or install the browser extension.

  • How to receive your savings

    Cash back is awarded every 3 months by check or PayPal payment.

Terms apply.

Once you're in college, some expenses are just hard to escape, like textbooks and groceries. But it's nice to earn a little cash back on these essentials. That's where Rakuten comes in. It's both an app and a browser extension that can help you earn cash back when shopping online or in-person.

To get started, connect your debit or credit card(s) to the app. Then, when you make a purchase from a brand within Rakuten's network (there hundreds to choose from), you'll receive a certain percentage in cash back. The cash back gets paid out quarterly and can be a great way to boost your savings just by buying things you needed anyway.

For keeping track of multiple accounts

Mint

Information about Mint has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by Mint prior to publication.
  • Cost

    Free

  • Standout features

    Shows income, expenses, savings goals, credit score, investments, net worth

  • Categorizes your expenses

    Yes, but users can modify

  • Links to accounts

    Yes, bank and credit cards

  • Availability

    Offered in both the App Store (for iOS) and on Google Play (for Android)

  • Security features

    Verisign scanning, multi-factor authentication and Touch ID mobile access

Terms apply.

If you feel like you've got a few too many financial accounts, keeping them all in one convenient place can make it much easier to track everything. Mint lets you connect your checking account, savings account, credit cards, investment accounts and retirement accounts (if you got a head start by contributing to a Roth IRA or if you're lucky enough to already have a 401(k) plan) all under one app.

Staying up-to-date on the state of your money can help you avoid missing a bill payment or overdrawing on your account. But if you're not regularly checking these accounts, going through the process of resetting a forgotten password can often be more work than you bargained for when all you want to know is how much you have in savings. With Mint, you no longer need to remember multiple passwords. Just sign into the app, and you'll get comprehensive view of where all your balances stand.

Bottom line

While using apps to manage your money may not be a good fit for everyone, one thing's certain: practicing good habits are essential for building a strong financial foundation – and college is a great time to start! Keep in mind that personal finance is personal – whether you love an app that automatically syncs your bank account info or you prefer creating your budget manually, there's a method out there for pretty much everyone.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.