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Choosing a money management app: How to make budget culture’s fintech work for you
Finding the right tools for you starts with understanding your financial circumstances and needs.
I’m a sucker for a new app.
But consumer fintech — financial products and services powered by technology (especially digital or mobile technology) — is a tricky subject for me.
Most apps and tools are completely budget-forward and rely heavily on budget culture messaging to convince you you need them in your life. And yet, technology is a magnificent tool for getting money off your mind and experiencing more ease and peace. So can we use these tools without letting them completely suck us into budget culture habits? That’s what I’m regularly experimenting with, personally.
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I don’t have affiliate or sponsorship relationships with fintech companies, because I come from branded content in personal finance media and know the pull those relationships have over even the most well-intentioned and ethical content creators. But I remain an enthusiastic user, and I fully support anything that automates financial labor so you can spend less time thinking about money.
And I don’t (currently) have the resources or knowledge to build my own app (which would be, obviously, the best app).
So I work with the fintech landscape that’s available and recommend the best (or, sometimes, least offensive) apps to address various financial needs. Fintech companies and products change, merge and disappear quickly, so I can’t make a definitive, evergreen list of what to use when. Instead, I can offer you this guidance in choosing the right tools for yourself.
Ask yourself these questions to find the best fintech tools for your circumstances.
What are your financial needs?
If you’re like me, you might want to jump on any new app you discover because it feels like it holds the potential to change your life, and a new way to organize information is just always so… agh! gimme it!
Maybe that’s not you.
But just in case: Before you devote your time and energy to a new money management app, start with understanding your relationship with money, where you need support and what you want to achieve. That gives you a list of criteria to look for in an app, so you can make an active decision about the tools you’ll involve in this relationship.
For example, a spend tracking app might help some people feel in control of their money (and we can talk another time about that need to feel in control and what makes us feel out of control…). But constantly tracking and measuring your spending might actually add anxiety for you. Maybe in your case, a simple cash envelope bank account like Qube Money would be a better fit.
Another example: A micro-investing app that encourages regular trading with small investments might guide you toward greater risk than your circumstances call for. The community finance app SoLo, in contrast, serves folks with small amounts to invest without encouraging risky stock trading.
What’s your comfort level with technology?
You might be resistant to fintech apps or online banking altogether because you don’t use a lot of digital or mobile technology in general. That’s OK; try not to internalize the cacophony of experts touting one or another app as vital to your financial wellbeing.
Once you’ve named what you want out of a money management tool, you can search for a fit within the realm that feels right for you. Maybe a printed money map or journal is easiest for you to wrap your head around. Or maybe you’ll never remember to contribute to your goals if you don’t have an app with automatic savings (hi).
Be careful, though, not to fear fintech because the marketing is so often geared at the youngest adults — millennials for years, now turned on a dime to gen Z. Despite their desperately youth-centric branding, these apps are usually designed for a more complex financial situation, i.e. many people in their 30s or 40s. And the user experience might be less intimidating than you think.
For example, the app Cleo is obviously marketed toward 20-somethings (in the web browser, it turns your cursor into a slice of pizza), but its AI chat feature might make the app comfortable to use for anyone who’s foray into technology has only gone as far as texting.
Does the app serve people like you?
There are many reasons to be skeptical of financial institutions in our economic system, and handing your relationship with money over to fintech is no different.
If you’re among the millions of people our institutions underserve — because you’re part of a racial minority, or you’re an immigrant, or you’re in a same-sex or polyamorous relationship, or you live in a rural area, or you live paycheck-to-paycheck — the majority of fintech tools are just as bad at considering your circumstances as traditional banks.
But some pioneers in the space are doing better work! Here are a few inclusive and heart-centered fintech apps I’ve seen:
Dinero en Mano (en: Money in Hand) is Spanish-first (with an English option) gamified money management app.
Aspiration is a banking platform that rewards spending with carbon offsets and planting trees.
Greenwood is a banking app designed by and for the Black and Latine community.
Re:Start is a banking app designed with immigrants and refugees in mind; it’s available in dozens of languages and doesn’t require a Social Security number to sign up.
Is the technology inclusive?
Like most technology, fintech is often created and run by wealthy white men. As powerful as the tech can be, the exclusivity of its decision makers can leave holes in its capabilities and understanding of its users’ needs.
You shouldn’t have to use a platform where you don’t feel represented.
The coaching resource platform Change Machine has developed a Seal of Inclusivity (SOI) to help you determine whether a fintech product or service is equitable, including this criteria:
Is it inclusive and accessible, including for folks with a poor banking history, low access to technology, an Android smartphone (or no smartphone), no bank account, no computer, etc.?
Are the fees and minimum deposits, balances or investments low (or zero)?
Is the company transparent about how it makes money and how it uses customer data?
Does the company offer easy access to customer support to ask questions, dispute fees and manage transactions?
Does the app prioritize the your financial interests and security over engagement?
Don’t be afraid of fintech!
Even if you’re not normally an early or eager adopter of technology, watching emerging fintech for new tools and features could make money easier in your life. Let your financial needs guide you, and vet fintech tools to find the ones that are made to meet them.
Financial educators, coaches and advisors, read more in my latest article for Kiplinger.
Learn the fundamentals of budget-free money management in my latest class!
The Budget-Free Fundamentals series gives you everything you need to gain a fresh perspective on your relationship with money. In a few short lessons, you’ll gain tools to use money the way you want without relying on restriction, succumbing to shame or following advice rooted in greed. Paid subscribers have full access to this and all Healthy Rich classes.
📺 Something to watch next…
In this video from CNBC, then-technology correspondent Elizabeth Schulze explains the vast range of fintech as an industry, how it impacts unbanked and underbanked populations worldwide, and the risks and challenges in the industry.
Image by @Aspen via Nappy