The App Guide: Best Money Apps

With your smartphone, you can spend money on just about anything these days. But instead of letting your device drain your bank account, why not turn it into a money-management tool? There are tons of great apps out there for managing and maximizing your hard-earned money -- and many of these apps are free.

Here are some of the best money-management apps to help you handle your cash:

Money App No. 1: Mint
Helps you … Manage all your accounts
The app version of Mint.com offers a free solution for managing your accounts, creating budgets, and setting and meeting financial goals. Sync Mint with your bank, credit card, loan and retirement accounts, and it can download, categorize and monitor all your transactions. For example, if you’re looking to spend no more than $200 each month on eating out, Mint will tell you how much you have left to spend in that category or -- whoops! -- how badly you’ve already blown your budget. It’s free and it’s safe: Mint promises to “always transmit personal and financial information securely.” Just be sure to set the app to request your passcode each time you launch it -- this is not the sort of app you’d want easily accessible on your stolen phone.
Available on: iOS and Android devices

Money App No. 2: TripLog/1040
Helps you … Save tax money
One of the easiest ways to lower your taxes each year is to deduct your year’s worth of mileage. But in an audit, the IRS asks for an expense log. TripLog/1040 makes it easy to track it all: For only $4.99, you can track mileage in four categories (business, charity, medical and other) for three different cars. Start tracking now to avoid a mad dash on April 15 next year.
Available on: iOS devices. For Android devices, check out Cashbook

Money App No. 3: Pay Off Debt
Helps you … The name says it all!
If you’re paying down debt like many people these days, you can save time and money by prioritizing your payment schedule. Pay Off Debt, a $2.99 app, sets priorities based on your balances and their interest rates, and it even shows how long it would take you to pay down debt if you weren’t following its “snowball” repayment method. Best of all, it shows your magical debt-free date, helping you stay motivated and on track.
Available on: iOS devices. For Android devices, try Debt Payoff Planner

Money App No. 4: Bloomberg Mobile
Helps you … Monitor investments
If you’re invested in stocks or mutual funds, financial news giant Bloomberg has you covered. Its free apps, available for just about every platform out there, offer news, stock quotes, trends and analysis. You can also follow a custom list of stocks, so as long you’re not faint of heart, you can monitor every spike and dive that your dollars take.
Available on: All major mobile platforms

Money App No. 5: Simple Loan Calculator
Helps you … Estimate payments
This free app serves a simple, but important, function: It estimates your monthly payment when you enter an amount to borrow, the years you’ll take to pay it off and the interest rate. Or, enter what you can afford to pay monthly, and the app will tell you how much you can borrow. It also offers a repayment schedule.
Available on: iOS devices. For Android devices, try Loan Calculator


5 Tax Secrets to Save You Money

When Megan Mrazik, a senior financial analyst in Stamford, Conn., filed her taxes on her own for the first time two years ago, she did what 70 percent of Americans do: She sent them electronically over the Internet. To save money, Mrazik also used Free File, a no-cost service offered through the IRS website.

“It’s very user-friendly, especially for people who don’t have to itemize or declare anything specifically,” says Mrazik. “I also liked how, within 24 hours of submitting the form, you get a notification via email that tells you if it was accepted or denied.”

But e-filing for free is just the beginning. Cloud-based tax tools can also help you find tax breaks in the process. “It’s like having your own personal tax concierge,” says Mary Beth Franklin, a senior editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine in Washington, D.C. “Most programs do the simple math for you, so you eliminate the stupid mistakes, and it asks you questions you might not have thought to ask yourself. You might qualify for tax breaks you didn’t know about.”

Beyond the online tax filing services like TurboTax, H&R Block and Tax Act, we scoured the Web to find the hottest tax-saving tips so you don’t have to. Here are five other ways to save on your taxes from start to finish:

Tax Secret No. 1: If you made home improvements, the government may pay up.
You heard right, and that’s just one of a dozen tax breaks you might qualify for with the Recovery Savings Act Tax Tool. (Paying college tuition or buying your first home can also net you a fatter return.) Answer eight simple questions, and you could be on your way to pocketing hundreds of dollars. It’s like found money!
Tipster: The Recovery Act

Tax Secret No. 2: Avoid red flags that could cost you.
Say a 1099 comes late or not at all. While it may be tempting to “forget” to include that amount on your return, the IRS receives copies of all of the W-2s and 1099s you receive -- and they’re pretty adept at catching which ones you failed to mention, which makes you a prime target for an audit. On Kiplinger’s site, you can find out the other red flags for auditors -- and a slew of helpful tax tips.
Tipster: Kiplingers.com

Tax Secret No. 3: If you missed out on a deduction, you can still claim it.
If you’ve just heard about the ENERGY STAR credit (where the government rewards you for making energy-efficient improvements to your home) but have already filed your return, you haven’t missed the boat. Indeed, the IRS allows you up to three years to file an amended return for stuff you forgot.
Tipster: Click On Detroit 

Tax Secret No. 4: Visits to the doctor aren’t the only deductible medical expenses.
Depending on your adjustable gross income (AGI), you may be able to deduct a portion of what you spend on eyeglasses, bandages and even birth control pills. The list goes on.
Tipster: Taxgirl.com

Tax Secret 5: Use mobile apps to track your cash.
The IRS wants to save you money. It’s true: They’ve got a host of free, helpful services like IRS2Go , a new mobile app that gives you daily tax tips and lets you check the status of your refund. And Free File is a no-cost service that links taxpayers up with the right tax software for their needs and allows them to file effortlessly. Also, don’t lose track of your generosity. The app iDonatedIt  was created by a CPA firm and helps you keep track of your donated items to reduce your taxes.
Tipster: IPhoneNess.com 

Bonus Tip: Did your kid work for your home business this year?
You may be able to write off their wages as a business expense if you follow the right steps. For example, you could write them a job description, cut them a company check and W-2 and pay them under $5,700 for the entire year so they don’t get stuck with a miniature tax bill themselves.
Tipsters: National Association for the Self-employed and AG Web 

As always, check with an accountant to make sure you’re on the up-and-up before you follow any new tax tip from an online -- or offline -- source. And then hopefully reap the rewards. “All in all, I had a good experience e-filing, so I’ll be doing so again this year,” says Mrazik. “Best of all, it didn’t cost me any time or money.” Now that’s a tax season miracle.

Tax Filing Made Easy Online

W-9s and 1040s and Schedule C’s … oh my! It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at tax time. But like many Americans, you can now turn to the Web to simplify the tax filing process.

Tammy Stachowiak of Lyndhurst, Ohio, for example, has e-filed ever since hearing about it in 2008. It not only provides almost-instant gratification (Stachowiak receives her return within two weeks), but also helps with prep work. “When we used the old-fashioned way of filing by mail, there was always some form we needed -- whether for school reimbursement or my real-estate business -- that we would either have to retrieve from the IRS website or get faxed to us,” says Stachowiak. “With e-filing, I don’t have to try and track down forms I need.”

What resources might work for you and your family? Here’s our short guide to help you get started.

1. Choose the Right Tax-filing Cloud Service
You can prep, file and store your tax documents in the cloud. But which program should you choose to streamline your tax filing process? Compare these popular choices:

    •  Free File 
    Cost:
    Free for federal and state if you made $58,000 or less
    Benefit: Free File is a federal e-filing program developed by the IRS and the Free File Alliance (a group of private-sector tax software companies) for eligible taxpayers. Check the IRS’s Free File page here, which lists companies that offer free tax-prep services.

    •  TaxACT 
    Cost: Free federal; $9.95 deluxe federal; $17.95 deluxe federal and state
    Benefit:
    TaxACT offers a maximum refund pledge, guaranteeing its results and offering product refunds to those who find better tax refunds elsewhere. The deluxe edition walks you through “life changes” that may have changed your tax write-offs, and lets you transfer key information from your prior year’s tax return (e.g., your IRS PIN and stock information).

    •  TurboTax 
    Cost:
    Free federal; $29.95 federal and state
    Benefit: Those with more complicated tax returns that include anything from homeownership to substantial medical expenses can turn to TurboTax Deluxe on the Web. The site also offers tax prep and filing plans for those with investments, rental companies as well as businesses.

    •  H&R Block 
    Cost:
    Free federal; $19.95 federal and state
    Benefit: The main difference between H&R Block and TurboTax is the cost, and according to some reviewers like CNET, it offers a bit more tax guidance. It also offers tax prep plans for homeowners, investors and the self-employed.

    •  SnapTax 
    Cost:
    $14.99 federal and state
    Benefit: This app offered by TurboTax lets you go mobile with tax filing. If you have a simple return (e.g., 1040EZ), you’ll be able to take pictures of your W-2 forms and transfer the data into your tax return, as well as ensure accuracy before filing.

2. Store Your Tax Filing Paperwork Online
With so many tax forms to keep track of, it’s easy to feel scattered or to misplace necessary items just when you need them most. Use Evernote , a free Web service and mobile app, to consolidate all your tax forms, receipts and other paperwork you’ll need to do your taxes. (Since Evernote is in the cloud, you’ll be able to access your forms from anywhere.) Forms can be added via camera phone, scanner or snail mail, and they can be stored in a central folder tagged “Taxes” for easy future reference.

3. Mind Your Privacy
As online tax filing becomes increasingly popular, it’s more important than ever to keep security concerns in mind. Before using any online tax-filing services, ask yourself the following:

  • Is the site secure? If the page URL starts with “https:” when you go to enter your personal information, you can rest assured that your SSN or other personal data is secure. Also look for the “TRUSTe” and “authorized IRS e-file provider” seal on the site.

  • Does the site have a green bar? The IRS now requires all sites accepting individual tax returns to display a green Web address bar with a padlock icon. This green bar should feature the legal name of the company.

  • Are you protected from malware? Hackers use malware to try to steal information. To ward off such attempts, install an up-to-date security program or subscribe to a Web-based service.

“I’ve dealt with numerous identify theft issues when shopping online over the years, but I still have absolutely no concerns about filing my taxes online,” says Amy Lamare, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who e-files online each year. “I trust they won’t turn around and sell my information, and it’s saved me so much money!”

By keeping these protections and precautions in mind, you too can move forward with e-filing, knowing you’re protected.

5 Cloud Tools to Boost Your Productivity

Do you think of the Web as procrastination central? It can be, but there are also tons of tools out there that can actually help you get things done.

Rebecca Ciaburri, a nurse manager in North Haven, Conn., for example, is a big fan of making lists. “My desk is covered with Post-it notes,” she says. But as an iPhone user, Ciaburri wanted a list-making application that would allow her to access her to to-do’s whether she was sitting at her desk at work or out running errands.

Thanks to cloud computing -- where applications are run from the Internet (the cloud) rather than by downloading software -- it was easy for Ciaburri to find just what she was looking for. An app called Remember the Milk  allows her to type in an item on her to-do list from her iPhone as well as her Gmail account. The app even syncs with her Google Calendar. “I could be in a meeting and remember that I needed to go to the post office tomorrow, and I could just type it in and then forget about it, because I knew it would be right on my phone,” she says.

Countless cloud tools and services like Ciaburri’s preferred one allow you to access your files and collaborate with others from just about any device or computer. Here are five cloud tools that will help you get more done today:

  1. Google Apps. From email to calendar to document sharing, Google Apps offers a range of free tools that don’t equal you having to install fancy software on your computer or devices. “Google Apps is a real game changer. It’s easy to use, it’s free and/or cheap, and Google Docs allows you to share and makes changes to documents throughout an organization,” says Selvidge.
  1. Dropbox. This cloud service lets you create a folder on your computer or device, then every time you make a change to a document in that folder, the information gets synchronized up to the cloud, and then synchronized back down to your machine. “I don’t even have to think anymore about where a file is,” says Stever Robbins, author of Get It Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More. “I know I can just go to my laptop or desktop and know that the file is waiting for me.” Dropbox also allows you to share files with other users.
  1. Mozy. This online file storage system allows you to store up to 2G of photos, music and files for free. Backup is automatic and unobtrusive, says Selvidge, who signed up for an account after she lost her laptop -- along with a month and a half’s worth of work. “It’s not convenient to manually hook up your external hard drive all the time. Mozy does it automatically while you work,” says Selvidge.
  1. GoToMeeting. If you’ve ever had to walk someone through a document or PowerPoint over the phone, you know how frustrating and labored it can be. With GoToMeeting, the difference is that you can share your entire computer screen, talk and IM all via the Web -- no software is needed. The site offers a free trial for 30 days to host an online conference for up to 15 people. “Our company does all of our product demos on GoToMeeting,” says Selvedge. “It’s low-cost and a great productivity tool.”
  1. Skype. If you don’t want to spend money on a cloud-based conferencing tool -- and want to be able to video chat on top of it -- check out Skype. The free service enables live video chats with up to nine people. And Skype is already popular among the less tech-savvy Web users out there. “The quality is good,” says Selvidge. “Plus they keep adding powerful features … now you can exchange documents through Skype.” If you’re not able to use video, Robbins adds that “it’s also great for multi-way audio conference, which I use all the time for my business.”

As for Ciaburri, whether she needs to be more productive at the office or home, with her cloud-based to-do list and other tools, she’s glad to say that now at least she never forgets her top priorities -- like getting milk.