Tech tools to help you budget

One of the most important steps in achieving financial fitness is having an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses. But many Americans can't cover even a $500 expense, a recent Federal Reserve study found. That's a problem because if an emergency happens, it could meaning using high-interest credit cards or personal loans to cover the bill -- resulting in a debt spiral.

Finding extra pennies and managing a household budget can seem like a daunting task, but in recent years a wide range of apps have popped up to help track earning, spending and saving. Using technology to track your financial activities can cut down on the time it would take to budget the old-fashioned way, and automating saving can help you build a cushion against financial hardship.

Here are a few top-rated apps that can help you budget and save for that rainy day.

Mint: This free personal finance app allows you to connect all of your accounts and create a budget. The app is free, but add-on options, like a credit monitor, entail a monthly fee. You can set up reminders to pay recurring bills and avoid late fees, and also receive alerts if there are unusually large transactions or other suspicious activity on your accounts. You can also receive a weekly summary of your transactions and see where your money went.

YNAB: You Need a Budget is an app designed to do just that -- it helps create a budget by allowing you to break down your spending into categories and develop a plan for where you want your dollars to go. For example, if you're planning to spend big for the holidays, you can begin setting aside a small amount each month starting in January ... and when December rolls around, you'll have gift money -- and rent money. The app costs $6.99 per month, but it may be worth the expense. According to the company's website, new users save an average of $600 in the first two months and more than $6,000 within the first year.

If you're looking to invest in addition to setting aside savings but don't have large amounts of money saved to put into an investing account, "micro-investing" apps like the two below allow you to take small amounts of money and put them to work in the stock market. 

Acorns: To use this app, you connect a credit or debit card and for each purchase you make, up to your specified amount, it rounds up to the next dollar -- taking the difference and investing it. You can set up investments in different portfolios designed by the company and add additional funds beyond the spare change.

Stash: This is a similar system, allowing you to automatically allocate small amounts to your chosen portfolio on a recurring basis. The company also has a tool called Smart-Save, which analyzes your linked accounts and determines when you might have money that would be best sent to savings rather than spending. 

Both investing apps charge monthly subscription fees of $1 per month on accounts under $5,000.  

As with any investments, risks are involved. Before you begin investing, you may want to speak with a financial adviser to help define your long-term financial goals. And keep in mind, you should always check to make sure the app you're using is secure.