By Juan Castillo
Even the iconic piggy bank is getting a digital makeover.
Feeding the piggy has long been a down-homey, tried-and-true way to teach kids how to save money. Now, these lessons increasingly can be found on smartphones and mobile money apps designed specifically for children.
And why not? The average age for kids to get their first smartphone is about 10, according to research firm Influence Central, so money apps connect with kids in their comfort zone.
"It's where they are and what engages them," says Ted Gonder, co-founder and CEO of Chicago-based Moneythink, a nonprofit that mentors young people and helps them adopt positive financial habits. Moneythink develops money apps to use as teaching tools, having found they can be more effective than dry lectures or drier textbooks.
There are a few wrinkles in their approaches, but most money apps for kids act like virtual banks, offering lessons on how to budget and sock away money for spending goals. They tend to emphasize child-parent interaction; a common feature tracks chores the child needs to accomplish before receiving an allowance from parents.
A few banks also offer apps for kids. Parents retain control and children can't actually make financial transactions, but the same money lessons apply.
Most apps, however, fail to address the most important consideration a parent should have when teaching a child about money -- making a distinction between wants and needs, says John Buerger, a financial planner and president of Altus Wealth Solutions in San Luis Obispo, California.
"All we're looking at in most app cases is, 'You work, you get paid for your allowance,' and that may be problematic from a philosophical standpoint. Your chores are your chores [and] you do them for your family," Buerger says.
Still, Buerger praises financial literacy apps for starting conversations with kids about money. "I like kids paying attention to money as early as 5 or 6," he says.
If you're looking for a financial education app for your child, Buerger advises picking one that incorporates interactive features or gamification to help hold a kid's interest.
James DeBello, CEO of mobile deposit technology company Mitek in San Diego, has another take: Keep it simple. The best apps "require fewer steps to get from point A to point Z," he says.
Here are five highly rated financial education apps vying for your child's attention -- and yours -- in a growing and crowded digital field.
Bankaroo -- developed in 2011 by then-11-year-old Dani Gafni and her father, Etay -- helps children track their savings and what their parents owe them for chores. Designed for kids ages 5 to 14, the free app features tools for learning how to budget, save, set goals and do basic accounting.
Bankaroo, available for iOS, Android and Amazon devices, says it has about 100,000 users in more than 100 countries. In April, it released a new version of the app in Spanish.
The iAllowance app is another one in the vein of allowance trackers for parents and their kids. It's not free -- and available only on iOS for $3.99 -- but iAllowance has some handy features not found in other apps.
Parents can push alerts to children to get chores done, and set up automatic allowance payouts and rewards when kids meet certain goals. They also can create an unlimited number of piggy banks for each of their kids.
Also built around the idea of a virtual banking, allowance-tracking platform, PiggyBot is aimed at kids ages 6 to 8. It has some neat features, such as the ability to post photos of things your children want and a screen to show off the things they've purchased, giving them an idea of their goals and rewards. The app's developer says it reinforces principles of saving.
Piggybot was developed in association with Kasasa, a national brand of free checking and savings accounts that works with community banks and credit unions across the country. Piggybot is free, but available only on iOS.
An offering from Union Bank for children ages 6 to 11, the Yuby app lets them track their earnings, spending and the chores they need to do to earn their allowance. The free app is a virtual experience only, and no financial transactions occur. It's available in iOS and Android.
Children also can keep a wish list and compare the costs of the things they're saving for. Another feature allows earmarking of money for charity. A parent's approval is needed for some actions.
USAA Bank's mobile app
This members-only bank doesn't have a special app for children, but it allows kids ages 13 and over to access their youth savings and spending accounts online and on the bank's regular mobile app with their parent's approval. The free app is available for iOS and Android devices.
Some app features, such as USAA Money Manager, which categorizes spending, aren't accessible to children under 18, and parents control other features they wish to extend to their child, such as remote check deposit.
"This comes down to teaching the basics of banking in a real-world scenario," says Brian Hurtak, an executive director with the bank. USAA is open only to active and former military members, their families, and cadets or midshipmen.
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Juan Castillo is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JCastilloNerd.
This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by USA Today.