Level Money, an app recently acquired by Capital One, aims to track your “spendable” money—i.e. the amount that’s left over after you’ve paid all fixed expenses, and set aside some money for savings. This happens to be how I manage my own finances—only I track my “spendable” in a clunky spreadsheet, and manually enter all transactions. When I heard about Level Money (or just Level), I was excited! Maybe I wouldn’t need to do all that tedious manual budgeting anymore. I really wanted to like Level. I want to make that clear. Because, despite its promising premise, Level the app doesn’t live up to Level the concept.
In its mechanics, Level works like a lot of other apps
Level, like Prosper Daily, has you connect your various accounts—checking, savings, and credit cards—and then downloads your transactions. (Level seems to only do this about once a day—a strangely sluggish schedule in the world of real-time updates.) Level also has you create a “plan” where you enter your expected monthly income, your bills, and your savings. From that plan, Level determines your “spendable” money—i.e. anything that’s left over. Then it will tell you how much you have to spend for the day, the week, and the month. In theory.
Level can’t handle more complex (or unusual) financial situations
I’ll admit, March wasn’t the best month to start a new expense tracking app. I had more freelance income than normal, as well as tax refunds from two different states, and birthday money from my mother. I closed my Digit account, so the almost $1,000 I had there got dumped back into my checking account. Part of that I used to buy a new iPhone, a long-planned purchase, and with some of my freelance money, I bought a DSLR, a birthday gift to myself. Oh, and I had to replace my windshield, and pay to get my car inspected and registered in Maine. Thus March was an exceptionally unrepresentative month, in terms of both my income and my spending. But much of that extra income was already flagged for certain purchases or for savings (for instance, much of my smallish tax refund would go to pay for using TurboTax to file three returns and for paying my federal tax bill, and half of the Digit money had long been meant for the iPhone), and I didn’t consider any of it part of my “spendable” as I conceived it. Level, however, did, and the numbers it was giving me bore absolutely no resemblance to the amount I knew I had to spend on everyday things. Moreover, I had no idea where it was even getting this number, and there was nowhere I could go within the Level app for it to tell me.
Level allows you (in theory) to exclude income, but the language is confusing
I went to their website and searched for something along the lines “spendable amount makes no sense.” There was a (pretty thin) answer about how sometimes the number is off, but mostly because it hasn’t updated in a while. The suggestion was simply to close the app and reopen it. This did not solve, or really even address, my problem. The rest of the FAQ was also unhelpful, with no answer longer than a few sentences. They had a blog, but it was a content marketing operation, with posts about savings that had multiple links to Capital One 360’s banking products. Not knowing what to do, I went into “credits” in my transactions, and tried to change the “type” of my freelance income, birthday money, and tax refunds. Level has three options, and they are all vague and difficult to differentiate:
- “Don’t count”
What’s the difference, I wondered, between “Normal” and “Income”? Isn’t your regular paycheck pretty “normal”? And it wasn’t exactly like I wanted that money not to “count” since Level would also be tracking my purchases, which would include, for instance, that new iPhone and DSLR, and not counting my freelance income or the Digit dump would make me look like I was spending way more than I had.
In sum, I never trusted the numbers Level gave me
Just to see, however, I went in and changed all my non-paycheck income to “don’t count.” The number was still nowhere near what it should be. Was the app counting my high-yield savings account, which was where I stashed my emergency fund, and which was definitely not “spendable”? I disconnected the account. My spendable somehow went up. Having gotten nowhere with their website, I @-ed them on Twitter. A very helpful and nice person DM’d me and said I should probably just up my auto-save for the month. Upping it as high as it could go got me somewhat closer to what I knew to be my “spendable,” but by this time I basically did not trust anything Level was telling me, primarily because there was no way I could check how it got its numbers. It listed a certain amount as what I “began” March with, but I couldn’t find where it was getting that figure. Was it just my checking account balance on March 1? I tapped the amount with my finger, hoping it’d show me its math or explain its sources, but my tap did nothing. You can easily see your transactions for the month, but if you can’t understand where they got their beginning balance, it doesn’t really matter. Frustrated, I eventually figured that I had been fiddling for so long, it was possible there was still income listed as “don’t count” when it should be back to “normal.” (Or to “income”?) I decided to give up and start over. I deleted my account and created a new one with a different email address. Though I was now mildly more familiar with Level’s inner workings, I still had no idea why it was giving me the numbers it was. And while upping my autosave had seemed to work before, my autosave was now capped at a much smaller number, and putting it as high as it could go didn’t get close to where I needed my spendable to be.
If an app requires constant fiddling, it’s not that helpful
I returned to Level once April rolled around, and wondered if maybe the whole problem had been my wackadoo finances for the month of March. At first, my hunch was correct: The numbers for April looked right. The “spendable” was around what I knew to be my available money. Huzzah! Alas, my joy was short-lived. I had bought my iPhone on March 31st (the iPhone SE), but the charge didn’t show up until April, so that immediately threw my amount for the month off. And the money meant to pay for the iPhone had been earned (or transferred) in March, so there was nothing extra in my April income to set off this additional charge. (This is a good time to mention how arbitrary it is that we organize our financial lives into months, especially when most of us are paid on a biweekly basis. A mere day or two and suddenly the means to pay for something is completely severed from the payment itself.) Two days later, my “spendable” looked even worse, as I had charged the phone to a credit card, and then immediately paid it off. While most apps, usually count a credit card payment as a neutral transaction (your checking account balance goes down, but your outstanding debt goes down by an equal amount, so your net worth is unchanged), Level didn’t seem to, or didn’t in this case. My spendable went down by another $500, and then by another $500 a little later, as the credit card payment was somehow downloaded twice. Strangely, other credit card payments are listed under “credits” which meant that paying off those balances bumped my “spendable” up by the same amount, even though my real spendable had stayed exactly the same. I thought, perhaps, this was a temporary glitch, and, given enough time, Level would realize the error, eliminate the duplicates, and pair the charge with the payment. I went in to check a couple of days later, and I got a pop up telling me there was a server error, and that Level was very sorry. It has given me that pop up error every time I’ve opened it since. I could, of course, go in manually and delete the duplicate payment, and modify the date for the original iPhone purchase. (Or I could in theory, before the server snafu.) But isn’t the point of an app that it does these things for you?
Level’s bright spot: Category tracking
While I could never get Level’s primary feature to work, I did really love one of their secondary ones: the ability to track spending by categories. Now, of course, some apps are happy to categorize your transactions and spit out a pie chart at the end of the month showing you how you spend your money. But Level’s quite ingenious approach is to let you build your own categories from the bottom up, by going through your existing vendors and flagging them as you’d like. I could scroll through old transactions, check all the coffee shops I frequent, and create a category for “Coffee shops.” This allowed me to make sure tracking caught all the appropriate transactions, and nothing else. I could go in and flag all my monthly bills (the “nut,” as it’s sometimes called) and easily see how many of my fixed expenses had been processed. I set up trackers for groceries, gas, and restaurants. In a glance, I could get a quick sense of my overall spending, as well as a sense of how that spending was distributed. Category tracking actually took a rather tedious aspect of my spreadsheet system—manually adding up category totals—and made it simple, customizable, and easy to use. Unlike the baffling math behind my mysterious “spendable” amount, it’s a nice, if not mind-blowing, innovation.
The ideas behind the Level app are sound, but until these considerable kinks are worked out, I can’t see myself using it for anything other than basic tracking. That tracking is nice, but it’s not enough to tempt me away from the more overwhelming, somewhat outdated.