Saving for a trip is often made to sound easy: skip a latte every week, and before you know it, you’re halfway to Patagonia. But anyone who’s tried to squirrel away more than a few bucks here and there knows it takes a lot more discipline to accumulate significant reserves.
That’s bad news for those of us (read: everyone) who don’t have time to toil away at Excel spreadsheets, or who get anxiety from just looking at our bank accounts. Luckily there are tools that do the hard work for you. For the past few years, I’ve used a combination of savings, investment, and budgeting apps to put aside thousands of dollars to pay off my student loans, quit my job to write freelance full time, and fund a life of adventure.
My obsession started when I stumbled upon the Qapital app in late 2016, after emptying all but a few hundred bucks from my bank account to pay off a student loan. The timing couldn’t have been worse: I’d recently booked a trip to Cuba, where you need cash for everything—I couldn’t put expenses on a credit card and pay it off with the next paycheck. Qapital, which transfers money into a separate account based on parameters you set, held me accountable toward spending less than usual on everyday treats, so I’d have money for on-the-ground purchases. In conjunction with freelancing on the side of my full-time editorial job, closely monitoring my savings goals, and cutting back on splurges, the app helped me put aside more than $10,000 in less than a year.
From then on, I was hooked. I now have a set of apps that helps me cut down on frivolous purchases, earn cash back on necessities, and track my spending.
Qapital is the easiest set-it-and-forget-it savings app I use. It transfers money into an external account based on rules you create yourself, which can be as simple as “round up to the nearest $1” every time you swipe a credit card or as elaborate as putting aside $5 toward a donation to charity whenever you splurge on Starbucks. To make the stakes even higher, sync it up with the app IFTTT (If This, Then That), which uses real-life cause and effect scenarios to deposit a set amount to your Qapital account every time a specific action occurs. I use IFTTT to put aside $1 every time President Trump tweets, which has funded more than one taco-infused adventure to Mexico City. It’s $3 per month for Qapital’s basic savings model (additional features, like investment and checking account services, cost up to $12), and IFTTT is free.
If you have a cell phone, internet, or cable bill, odds are you’re overpaying for it due to fine-print exceptions like reimbursements for periodic lapses in service. Trim’s bots renegotiate your bills and monitor your internet provider for outages you might not have been aware of, then request refunds on your behalf. The bots log into your accounts and contact customer-service reps posing as you to lower monthly fees and request discounts and refunds. I regularly save about $5 to $20 per month using Trim on my Comcast internet bill alone, even with the app’s 25 percent commission. Trim will also identify all of your recurring monthly subscriptions, so you can see how $5 here and $15 there adds up over a month or year. You can ask the app to cancel some of these services on your behalf, saving you time, cutting down on your excess spending, and helping you funnel that money directly into savings for travel.
This app trolls your inbox for flight information and automatically requests refunds or mileage points when you experience a significant delay or cancellation. It will also check for compensation from the previous year’s flights upon sign up, so you can get cash back even before booking another trip. This is especially useful if you’ve taken a flight from the European Union recently. EU regulations mandate that airlines pay customers up to around $660 for delays and cancellations. On a work trip earlier this year, I got stuck in Stockholm for an extra day because of a late flight. Within a couple weeks, Delta sent me a check for $675, which I immediately dropped into my savings. Service takes 30 percent of what they save you, but it's well worth it.
Most of us earn cash back or miles on credit cards for everyday purchases. Drop works similarly, giving users points for every dollar spent at certain stores (such as Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods) on top of the normal rewards that you receive from your credit-card company. It’s basically free money that can be redeemed for gift cards, like $100 at American Airlines or $25 at Whole Foods. Points add up slowly if you only accumulate them from daily spending, so browse Drop’s special offers for bonus points on purchases like online shopping, trials with Hulu or Barkbox, and promos for a wine subscription. You save more money by not spending it, of course, but if you’re going to shop anyway, it’s worth checking for deals before making a big purchase. In a little over a year, I’ve accumulated about $235 in Drop points.
Small purchases during a trip add up fast—especially if you fall into the exchange-rate trap, where everything seems cheap compared with prices back home. That’s why I use Trail Wallet, which records every dollar you spend for a trip, from the moment you book the first flight or Airbnb to the car ride home from the airport. It allows you to log transactions in any currency and converts them to U.S. dollars, offers day-to-day real-time spending reports, and calculates your daily average as you go. Set a daily or overall budget, appoint caps for standard categories like food and lodging, or pick one of your own choosing (I spend too much on coffee). The free version allows for 25 transactions per trip, but I recommend paying the $5 fee for full access. This app helped me stay $200 under budget on a recent trip to Japan by putting my small buys into perspective. Skipping a souvenir here and there allowed me guilt-free splurges on more expensive meals and higher-quality gifts toward the end of my trip.