Perhaps you recognize this nagging truth about your financial habits: It’s sooooo much easier to spend money (especially other people’s money on credit) when you don’t keep track of it.
I know that’s me. And over the years I’ve tried many systems, some practical (Excel sheets on my laptop), others laughable (little tiny Post-it notes stuck to my credit cards). Too often, the hardest part of keeping track is, well, keeping track — and it would also help matters if everything you tracked tied into your checking account or bank. That way, you can’t cheat: Everything gets recorded. And it would sure beat one of my more recent systems, which involves a month’s worth of receipts wadding up in my wallet (exactly what used to happen to the Post-it notes).
Turning to my phone for help
So I decided to do something brave and different, at least for me: I moved into the world of mobile-centric banking, using my iPhone as the base of operations. And so far it’s working from this very crucial standpoint: I now have a new ream of tidy digital records that let me see where I lack discipline, and where I stay on course, in real time.
A few months back I wrote about Moven, a startup in New York City that allows you to make purchases both by debit card and radio-frequency identification (RFID) stickers that you touch to a MasterCard payment console.
Certainly the convenience of buying items this way is nothing new, nor are financial websites that track your purchases.
But Moven combines both functions to make tracking my spending, category by category, as easy as spending the money itself. And that, I believe, is revolutionary. In a few short weeks, Moven has helped me get a grip on my finances in a way that no homemade graph or wadded-up mound of receipts ever could — and in real time.
Getting the data (without the work)
The financial fun began on Sept. 14, when I made my first purchase by way of my Moven debit card, linked directly to my Citibank checking account. If you can stick a debit card into a parking meter kiosk, as I did that morning outside my local Starbucks, you can use Moven. And so my first purchase of $1.25 was recorded. As a reminder, the Moven iPhone app sent an alert to me telling me I’d just made this transaction. That means Moven updates my financial picture within seconds of my using the debit card. Wow.
But the real magic of Moven occurs over the course of weeks or a month, where the website does the grunt work of grouping purchases according to categories — not unlike what you would do manually in a spreadsheet or in another personal finance app like Mint.
I have a full transaction history broken down in chronological order, with handy icons that symbolize everything from health (a cross in a square) to transportation (a bus). On the top of this page, a word cloud tells me that I spent mostly on dining out and shopping, followed by groceries and health. (Yet transportation, another big expense, somehow didn’t make the word cloud.)
In all, I spent $377 via Moven over eight days, and the more accounts I add to Moven, the better a job it can do tracking all my expenditures. The “pulse” page shows me a breakdown between “spend” (shopping, dining out, entertainment) and “live” (home, groceries, transportation), and the amounts of my biggest purchases. And both of those categories are divided into a day-by-day “MoneyPath” line graph, and “MoneyPulse” circle graph that resembles a speedometer, with your spending in the green, yellow or red.
So am I in the green or the red? Moven doesn’t have enough data from me to show month-to-month results, nor have I yet connected any savings accounts so I can track saving.
Better than a bank?
Any sort of change in life is intimidating, especially when a new technology is involved. But because Moven feels so much like using my regular debit card — with the added bonus of that RFID sticker on my iPhone — the first part of the change proved about as bonehead simple and painless as possible. Mobile check deposit and online bill payment will be coming soon to the service, too.
Meanwhile, in the weeks ahead, it should be easy to link my other bank accounts and credit cards, and get more data into the system so that I can make smarter decisions, and develop some real awareness around where I spend and overspend.
I’m not sure that would be possible with a bank, or any credit provider. As of this writing, in fact, I’m in a dispute with a credit card company that clearly has no interests in mind but its bottom line. (Stay tuned, as that may become the source of a future column on your rights as a credit card holder.)
Moven, by comparison, has all the appearances of a company dedicated to something else other than just making a buck. It promises fee transparency (it costs about $6 a month to use after a trial period of three months), and has an online “Moven oath” that centers around principles copped straight from the medical profession: do no harm, care for the community and prevention before cure.
The folks at Moven say that they truly want to see the people using their service get better financially. To that end, it helps to know that their fees over three months amount to less than what I would pay for one co-pay to see my primary care physician. And hey, I want to be healthy financially as well as physically.
So the verdict thus far is that Moven works for me in a big way. And I’ll report back in time to let you know what I’ve leaned of significance in terms of how its tools can help you get your financial act in order.