Once upon a time, paper ruled the earth — or at least the personal finance world. Money, bills, statements, checks, coupons, tickets: all came on paper. Transactions were made, expenses tracked, and checkbooks balanced by hand with pen, paper and (gasp!) arithmetic. And this worked reasonably well back in the days when the pace of life was slower, and we all bought a whole lot less.
With the arrival of the information age and our ever-shrinking “spare time”, PC- and, later, Web-based personal finance tools were introduced to great fanfare. Intended to eliminate, automate, or simplify all the old paper-based tasks, these tools made math errors history and did save time. But they weren’t always what they were cracked up to be. In particular, the personal finance data you needed was usually at least a reboot — if not many miles — away when you needed it.
Now money, along with so much else, is going mobile, and the number of personal finance “apps” for handheld devices is absolutely exploding. Across a wide variety of tools for banking, investing, managing and spending your money, you can find capabilities such as access to useful information, reminders, alerts and even mobile transactions. Best of all, many of these tools are free or low-cost, so you can check them out without a big investment. Let’s take a look at what’s out there…
Banking via handheld:
- Direct access to accounts and account management, including overdraft alerts, (better yet) ability to check balances real-time BEFORE making a purchase, and (best of all) electronic checkbook balancing — These features are still mostly only available from big banks such as Chase, Citi, and Bank of America. But other apps like Loot let you balance your account at any bank or credit union.
- Pay bills any time anywhere, BillMinder being one example app.
- Compare loan terms — e.g. at the car dealer — real-time using an app like LoanShark.
- Find an ATM — For those situations where only paper money will do (they still exist!), ATM Hunter finds the nearest ATM in your network.
Investing via handheld:
- Apps from Bloomberg and E*Trade, to name a couple, let you monitor the market, get stock quotes, and make trades from the road.
Shopping via handheld:
- Apps like Remember The Milk and Grocery IQ eliminate extra trips by helping you remember what you need when you are out and about.
- Others like My Shopping Buddy, Gas Cubby, and Pennies improve buying decisions by providing information about, respectively, what something really costs to own, how much it costs to fill your gas tank, and the ability to check your budget pre-buy.
- After you decide to buy, there are apps to help you find the desired item for the best price, whether that’s checking if you can get it used on eBay, comparing the price at the store up the street with Save Benjis, or getting a discount via My Coupons.
- And — good news for your college-bound kids — PayPal now lets you text them an infusion of cash!
Managing your money via handheld:
- For every new technology, there’s one “killer app” that really illustrates its potential. For mobile money, I’m convinced it’s Mint, in conjunction with its Web-based version. It’s fast, smart, easy to use, proactive, free, and it just works. But what really makes it sing is something called “aggregation” — a fancy term that simply means you see your whole personal finance picture in one glance. This is, in my view, the key to good financial decision-making, and something that the zillions of whizzy, but narrow, point solutions out there simply cannot provide. If you have time to try just one app, make it Mint.
So there’s a lot of really cool new stuff out there to play with, and there’s no doubt these tools can save you time and money. But what was true when Thomas Tusser said it back in 1557 still holds in the handheld personal finance world: A fool and his money are soon parted.
Indeed, depending on how you use them, mobile money apps could be the be-all and end-all for making the most of your money, or they could just be a more convenient (and fun!) way to go broke. While a plus in so many ways, the instant nature of the platform introduces new “gotchas” and magnifies old ones. (Think how much easier and more expensive it is to inadvertently launch a series of overdrafts in this world of potentially colliding paper checks, automatic recurring transactions, and multiple debit cards for a joint account.) Plus, as for any young industry, early adopters are likely to run into bugs, missing features, lack of support for their favorite platform (iPhone, Blackberry, Android, etc.), cross-platform incompatibility (Web vs. mobile app), and security risks.
Yes, there are still plenty of kinks to be worked out, but make no mistake: mobile money is coming to a bank, broker, or store near you. To make the most of the new technology while minimizing the risks, choose wisely based on your needs, the product offering, and the plentiful online user reviews. And if you remember that all the “old school” rules still apply (a tool is only as good as its operator; spend beneath your means; if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is), your personal finances should be better off for having hit the road.