Spending Is as Easy as Pushing a Button. The Hard Part? Keeping Track.

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Tara Siegel Bernard, a personal finance reporter, discussed the tech she’s using.

What are your most important tech tools for tracking budgets?

This may sound strange coming from a personal finance reporter, but I’m not a big fan of traditional budgets — I don’t think they work. I try to keep my own spending in check by taking the reverse approach. Instead of tracking every dollar, I focus on what we need to save for: retirement, college or some other goal. After you’ve automated your savings goals and created a bit of a cushion for emergencies, you’re freer to spend without thinking too hard or feeling too guilty. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s better than a failed budget.

That method won’t necessarily work in all situations, especially if you need to tackle debt or establish a stricter spending plan in retirement. And everyone can benefit from tracking personal spending, even if you do it only for a few months or check in only every quarter.

Mint has been around for a while, but it is still a solid way to take stock of where all of your money is going and whether your net worth is moving in the right direction. It also allows you to create a budget, and alerts you when you’ve spent too much. I use it infrequently, and there’s usually at least one kink I need to work out whenever I log in; most recently, it counted all of my retirement accounts twice, which was kind of cruel.

Personal Capital, an investment advisory service, also has a robust free tool that tracks your spending, cash flow and retirement goals all in one place with minimal effort.

For people who want a more proactive approach to spending and whittling down debt, there’s You Need a Budget. I’ve come across many people in my reporting who have attested that it’s life-changing.

Which basic tools would you recommend for people to increase their savings and investments?

It’s not so much a tool but a technology: automation. After you’ve settled on a low-cost investment provider such as Vanguard, automation is the surest way to set yourself up for success. Automate as much as you can — your Roth I.R.A. contributions, your kids’ 529 college savings accounts. If you have an employer-provided retirement plan like a 401(k), see if it will allow you to automatically increase the percentage you’re saving each year. If not, set a date in your electronic calendar to remind you to revisit all of those amounts annually.

I also like the little revolution that the roboadvisers have started. They lean heavily on technology to help invest and manage your money, though more of them are increasingly integrating human advisers. Betterment and Wealthfront have free tools that will let you play with various goals and savings amounts to see how long it will take you to save what you need.

What money apps do you recommend for the younger set?

I have a 2-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son, who recently started asking me questions about how credit cards work and how much money we earn. Another day, we were in a bookstore and he wanted me to buy four new Dog Man and Captain Underpants books. All of this happened within a couple of weeks, so I took that as a cue.

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The simplicity of the PiggyBot app for her 6-year-old son appealed to Ms. Siegel Bernard.CreditLisa Weatherbee for The New York Times

There are a ton of money apps for children and teenagers, but I was hoping to find something to help him focus on developing patience and delaying gratification. Today, bags of groceries magically appear on our doorstep without any visible transaction. If we need something, we can just press a button — as adults, we’re a month removed from any consequences, and children are often completely unaware that there was any exchange at all. Stuff just arrives when you want it.

To help acquaint my son with the reality of how all of this works, I decided to pay him an allowance of $5 a week. Instead of putting it in physical “save, spend and give” jars, he’s tracking the same categories on an iPad. I scanned a few different apps, but the simplicity of PiggyBot seemed well suited for younger children. He immediately set a goal to buy two of those books — but he’s going to have to wait nine weeks to get them. (I also told him that we could just go to the library.)

Outside your job, what tech product are you currently obsessed with?

I live a pretty low-tech life. We listen to music through Sonos and watch television through a four-year-old Roku device, though we haven’t entirely cut the cord because my husband is a soccer fan. I did recently learn that we can hand in our cable box and pay a little less, while keeping access to cable channels through Roku, though you lose the ability to record.

There are also several apps that I use daily or weekly. I always have roughly five dozen tabs open on my computer screen, as well as stories I come across on Twitter that I want to read later. To minimize the clutter, I save everything to the Pocket app, which I’ll read on my commute. I also keep a to-do list on the iPhone “reminders” app.

I also love Ink and Postagram for turning my children’s photos into cards for relatives, all from my aging iPhone 6s, which has started to shut down in the cold.

I have a long wish list of apps, but I really want more sophisticated tools that would help us become smarter consumers. I want to enter a product name into an app so it can assure me that we’re not feeding our children weed killer in their oatmeal.

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“I live a pretty low-tech life,” Ms. Siegel Bernard said. “We listen to music through Sonos …CreditLisa Weatherbee for The New York Times
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… and watch television through a four-year-old Roku device.”CreditLisa Weatherbee for The New York Times

Lots of web writers talk about the so-called FIRE, which stands for “financial independence, retire early.” People are retiring as early as their 30s. What do you think about this movement?

We can all learn something from folks like Mr. Money Mustache, who is credited with popularizing the idea of hyper-frugal, anti-consumerist living and saving a significant chunk of your salary so you can either retire early or pursue more rewarding work.

But the movement started with a lot of technology workers — and it’s a lot easier to save half your salary when you’re a well-paid software engineer with health insurance and no debt. Sure, these folks had to exercise discipline and restraint. But they had the luxury of exercising that discipline; there are so many people living on much less and struggling to pay for health insurance, rent, child care and student loans or to keep full-time jobs with chronic conditions.

It also raises a lot of questions: How do they pay for health care? Will the money really last as long as they need it? A lot of research shows a portfolio may last around 30 years if you withdraw 4 percent of the initial retirement portfolio balance, and then adjust that dollar amount for inflation annually. So when you start looking at longer time horizons — or a 50-year or 60-year retirement — it’s increasingly possible to run out of money if you don’t make adjustments.

But it’s easy to see why so many people find the movement intriguing and why it has become such a popular story line. You can’t help but wonder what it took to achieve financial security so early, so you click and hope to learn something.

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