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The Smartphone App That Completely Changed the Way I See Money

How one freelancer learned to "pay herself first" even when she wasn't sure when she was getting paid.
Image: A woman uses her cell phone
Many apps track your spending and help you automatically fund your savings. lechatnoir / Getty Images

“Pay yourself first.” It’s one of the most basic tenets of personal finance — the idea that you should pay yourself, i.e. put your money into savings, before you spend on anything else.

It makes total sense. If you put away a good portion of your paycheck into savings before you do anything else with your money, you’ll be less likely to spend it. That’s why so many personal finance experts advise you to “set it and forget it,” i.e. set up automatic withdrawals for your savings. By automating deposits from your checking account into your savings account, you can make sure you’re depositing money every month, or even every week — without any extra effort on your part.

Despite the fact that I write and edit articles about personal finance every day, I’ve never done this.

Just around the time I started caring about money, I also started my freelance career. My income has been inconsistent ever since. Sure, I know about what I’m going to earn every month, but it can fluctuate. I also don’t always know when I’m going to get paid — I can expect my invoices to be filled around the 1st or 15th of the month, but I never know for sure. I can’t set up automatic withdrawals on specific dates, because I can’t always be sure I’ll have enough money in my account to cover them.

I’d been reading about ways to cut back my spending and save money, but I hadn’t found anything that worked for me. There were countless times I’d transfer a big chunk of money into savings, only to then transfer most of it back the next week to cover costs between paychecks. Because I couldn’t set up automatic transfers, I felt discouraged to set aside money at all. I didn’t see the point in saving money unless I was transferring a large amount. I never bothered saving small amounts on my own, because I’d never seen how small amounts can add up quickly.

But, at the very least, I needed to figure out a way to set aside money for taxes. After my first year of freelancing — a rude awakening come tax season — I knew my life would be so much easier if I could just automatically set aside that 30-40 percent of each paycheck I received. I read up on various savings apps, and finally settled on Qapital.

Qapital works by linking your spending accounts (I have both my bank account and credit card linked) to op. You can set up personalized savings goals and apply a different “rule” (or multiple rules) to each goal. The rules tell the app when and how much money to deposit in each specific goal. For example, the “Round-Up Rule” lets you round up each purchase you make and then deposits the change into your selected savings goal — so if you specify for the app to round up each purchase to $1, the next time you buy a slice of pizza for $2.50, the app will round it up to $3 and deposit the remaining $0.50 into the goal you’ve selected. The “Guilty Pleasure Rule” lets you automatically sets aside a certain amount every time you indulge in something you’re trying to resist — that could be $10 saved every time you cave and order Seamless. And the “Freelancer Rule” sets aside 30 percent of each deposit whenever you get paid — so no more worrying about those quarterly tax payments.

(Qapital has added more options for banking since I’ve started using it, including a checking account and debit card, but I still simply use it for my savings.)

I was very excited to start using it. I’d finally be able to set aside money for taxes without the hassle of forcing myself to do so — it was one super-annoying money thing I’d finally have take care of. But what I didn’t realize was that each of Qapital’s goals is customizable; you can change the amounts and percentages to whatever suits you. So while I could use the Freelancer Rule to save 30 percent for my taxes, I could also set up a second Freelancer Rule to save a different percentage for something else, and a third, and so on.

After looking through my spending and deciding how much I could save, I set up several savings goals. I then applied the Freelancer Rule in different increments to each goal, which now looks like this:

  • Taxes: 30 percent
  • Retirement savings (which I transfer to my Roth IRA once a month): 10 percent
  • Moving fund (to cover first month’s rent/security deposit/other expenses when I move early next year): 5 percent
  • Vacation fund: 5 percent

The beauty of the app is that I can change my goals whenever I feel like it. For instance, when I first started, one of my goals was to pad out my emergency fund, but when I got to a certain point, I ended that goal and moved on to saving for my upcoming move.

It’s such a good system for me in so many ways. Not only am I covered for taxes, but now, whenever I want to cover trip costs, I just dip into my vacation fund instead of putting them on my credit card and praying I’ll be able to cover it later. I’m still learning to have discipline with money, and soon I want to add even more goals — such as a gifts and charitable donations fund, or even a wardrobe fund to make buying clothes a more straightforward part of my life, financially.

There’s a lot of personal finance advice out there that’s touted as tried-and-true: "This works for most people, so it will work for you, too!" But when some tactic that’s universally revered, like automatic savings deposits, doesn’t work for you, it can be incredibly frustrating.

But that’s one thing the personal finance community has, in the past, often gotten wrong: There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for everybody. We’re all dealt different hands in life. Regardless of whether it’s out of necessity or desire, some of us make unconventional life decisions — and that means we need unconventional solutions. I’m so glad I found Qapital, because it’s made reaching my savings goals (and to be honest, I’m barely using any of the app’s functions). If you find yourself struggling with pieces of conventional personal finance wisdom, I bet there’s a better solution for you somewhere — you simply have to go looking for it.


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