One of the biggest challenges of expat money management is tracking and taming the financial complexities of multiple locations, households and moves. The minute you’ve got a handle on the your cross border costs and currencies, something changes – your kids start a sport, move schools, head off to college or your partner announces that they’ve been offered an incredible promotion to Outer Mongolia and you’re leaving in three weeks…
The demands of managing the finances on the move have meant that I can’t solely rely on my checkbooks, credit cards and spreadsheets anymore – instead, I use a range of tools that help me keep my personal and professional finances separate, monitor and manage income and payments on the go, and keep me updated when something has gone wrong.
The growing focus on mobile apps is great news for global nomads, because we can now manage our finances wherever, whenever we need to. So, to help you keep your financial affairs in order while the rest of your life is up in the air, here are my recommended 10 best money apps for expats on the go…
Want my favorite app for tracking your income and expenses in more than one currency? Try Toshl. It lets you choose a currency for each transaction, categorize, tag (and search) expenses, offers exchange rates, syncs across devices and has an data export feature. Paid upgrades give you more options, but the basic version does a great job for most of us. It has an incredibly annoying sound, so head straight over to the settings menu to at least turn the noise off. Sadly, you can’t do the same with the monster, but frankly, it’s a small price to pay for making international expense tracking so darn easy. It has just launched the web version, a welcome relief for those of us of a certain age and font size preference…
It also has one of the best introductions to basic financial record-keeping and management that I’ve seen – literally walking you through set up step by step, and explaining some key stuff (like how to track ATM withdrawals and credit card payments correctly) which most other apps assume you already know.
LearnVest launched in 2009 with a mission to untangle and empower money management for real women. While the branding is geared towards the fairer sex, the tools and services are universally appealing: easy to use, comprehensive and seriously good. They started with an online budgeting platform and released an app in 2012, bringing all the best features to your smartphone.
Their app uses bank level security to access your accounts and deliver your financial activity right to your fingertips, where you can categorize, set budgets and track goals. It gives up-to-the-minute clarity on how much you have spent in any particular area – perfect for when you are moving and need to track specific types of one-off expenses. We add a relocation expenses category every time we move, keeping tabs on expenses for reimbursement and real-life data on how much your move is actually costing. It’s also helpful to track bank fees, currency rates and all those hidden or unpredictable expenses – all crucial information for when negotiating your next assignment contract. Not least LearnVest places emphasis on proactive financial planning – both short term budgeting and long term life plans.
Another brilliant app, but Mint’s automated categorization means you can get really lazy, really fast. While it does a great job of telling you where your money has gone, we are all about forward planning and active participation. Mint is the financial version of moving back in with your parents – i.e. you can see it all happening, but you’re enjoying it all being done for you, thank you very much. Having said that, it’s worth checking out for the free credit score feature, which is invaluable if you’ve just arrived and are going to need to take out loans.
If you’re going to use Mint, you’ll need to set clear financial ‘buckets’, monitor their levels and recalibrate proactively. It’s a great one for using retroactively to quickly see where your money has gone to put a plan in place for the upcoming year – so right now if you’re warming up for end of year tax preparation, it’s worth giving one of the above a whirl.
For those of us who prefer to keep our financial information offline, Wally is a great way to keep track of what’s going where. It doesn’t sync with bank accounts (great for those of you who are worried about security) so it allows you to be more controlled and creative with your categories and funding. I love it for it’s clarity and ease of use – and the ability to take photos of receipts.- perfect for tracking business income and expenditure. When purchases from Amazon or Costco could be anything from toilet tissue to diamond earrings, it’s incredibly helpful to be able to look back and see exactly what that three figure line item was without having to rummage through my Amazon purchase history.
For anyone who has done the Creating a Back Up Plan live workshop, you’ll know how important it is to have expat friendly categories – and Wally does that better than anyone. You can give it a test run here.
It’s not as pretty as LearnVest or Mint, but BillGuard is worth downloading just for its fraud protection capability. Unlike other apps, it pays attention not just to the money you spend, but where and how you spend it, and flags anything that is out of the ordinary. But here’s the great thing – it also crowd sources fraud information and uses it to protect you – in other words, if fraud has been detected at a location or a institution, it will alert you if you might also be at risk, and give you a simple way to get your money back.
For travelers, this is huge; you know immediately if you are the victim of duplicate or fraudulent charges, and can contact or flag the merchant with a single tap. The app also gathers information submitted by other users to approve or report merchants, helping you to avoid problems before they happen.
I have been singing the praises of Credit Karma for the last five years, from the days when it was a tiny web-based service. Not only does it offer free access to your credit scores, but it is one of the best sources of information on managing your credit out there. The service is free – their revenue is earned from tailored product and service recommendations, but there is no pressure to buy. You can check your score as often as you like and discover exactly what you need to do to fix any issues.
They’ve also got some great tools for calculating home loan affordability, loan repayments and credit score changes – vital when you’re pondering whether to rent or buy those big ticket items.
Transferwise fixes one of the huge pain points of expat money management – international bank transfers. If you’re operating in multiple currencies, at some point you will be moving money between accounts internationally – and will be familiar with the punishing fees, exchange rates and extensive wait times.
The Transferwise app puts you in the driving seat with clear conversation rates, visible fee structures and single day transfers. The account set up is speedy, with clear instructions and all the required information in one place. In my experience, the hardest part is setting up transfers from your own bank; which, bearing in mind how much money they lose out on after you switch, is probably deliberate. Once you’ve got your systems set up, believe me, it’s worth it. Simple, speedy cost efficient money transfer that reflects the needs of modern international life. Bliss.
I have a love hate relationship with Paypal – I loathe it’s clunky design, it’s irritating login system and it’s confusing user experience, but in terms of ease of payment across every platform, – and in the shape of it’s new app – Paypal is difficult to beat. Until recently, I’ve tended to use it sparingly, but thanks to Bank of America sending me three replacement credit cards in the space of six months, I’m starting to use it more widely for recurring payments to reputable companies. That way, instead of having to update multiple accounts and risk late payments, I just update the credit card listed on my Paypal account and go on my merry way. Note, however, that this should only be used for regular payments with known, reliable services – because Paypal has a nasty sting in the tail.
The huge problem with Paypal is that it typically removes the consumer protection provided by your credit card company. If you buy something direct with a credit card and run into problems, the credit card issuer has a responsibility to resolve the situation – but with Paypal, that legal relationship is not in place. Paypal does have it’s own buyer protection, but it is an internal code with timing restrictions and a far more limited scope. So, use it for sending and receiving money and paying your dog sitter – but for any big purchases, pay direct.
If you want to send money simply and swiftly, Venmo is a difficult one to beat. Create a Venmo account, link bank accounts or credit cards and make payments to anyone with a Venmo account at the touch of a button. It’s how I manage my son’s college living expenses and reimbursements, and was a lifesaver when he was studying abroad and needed money quickly.
It’s target market is the social young ‘uns who share expenses but rarely use cash – allowing them to send money back and forth without the need for ATM’s or multiple cards. Gone are the days when you are waiting for someone to repay you for the cab fare or concert tickets – now, you can get the ‘funds’ on the spot. For expat money managers, it means that you are freed from those currency challenges, complicated bank transfer processes and lengthy delays – the money gets to their Venmo account instantly and can be transferred to their bank within a day.
As an added bonus, each transaction demands a description, so tracking who paid for what (and when) is a breeze. Which is perfect when you want to point out exactly how much someone’s four month ‘budget’ sojourn in Europe actually cost…
Splitwise is a fantastic app for anyone sharing expenses. I have just returned from a weekend in New York where we rigorously tested it, and it made paying and splitting the bills a breeze. Set up your group, add their emails and enter each bill with who paid and who to split it between. It keeps track of each person’s debt or credit, is easy to edit, lets you add photos of receipts (brilliant for expense reimbursement later) and send a chirpy email reminder to any debtors out there. Wonderful.