New technology can improve your financial health

New financial technology (fintech) apps can take the guesswork out of becoming fiscally fit by aligning incentives with consumers and automating daily decisions.

Erica Martinez helps lead Plaid's NYC mid-market Growth team. She helps startups scale account management and customer success teams.

Despite the fact that the US economy has enjoyed nearly ten years of robust growth, only about a quarter of Americans are in good financial shape. Among the rest:

  • Nearly half spend more than we earn.
  • More than a third have saved $0 for retirement.
  • About a quarter have worried about having enough food to eat over the last year.

Americans struggle with our finances for several reasons. Many of us never receive any financial literacy training, either at home or in school, and thus don’t know how to interact with the financial system. Others are saddled with crushing debt—student, medical, credit card, or otherwise—and are unable to make ends meet. (article continues below)

diagram courtesy of Erica Martinez

Financial vulnerability is serious business, and there are resources available for those who are struggling. For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has an easy-to-navigate resource center that walks people through individual challenges they may be facing, as well as offering strategies to build overall financial health. On the site, you can learn how to prevent overdraft fees or even get advice for speaking with debt collectors on the phone.

More good news: new financial technology (“fintech”) can take much of the guesswork out of becoming fiscally fit. It works by automating many of the daily decision points where we may be hurting ourselves—often without realizing. That could mean forgetting to pay a bill, making a credit card purchase we can’t afford, or failing to save for retirement.

Although fintech still works best in service of (rather than replacing) a personal financial plan, it can be a powerful tool to help you on your journey. In this article, we’ll discuss several solutions to different parts of your financial life: paying down debt, budgeting, bills, saving, investing, lending, and insurance.

Pay down credit card debt.

Struggling with credit card debt? You’re not alone. According to the latest data from the Federal Reserve, Americans now have more than $1 trillion in credit card debt. More than half of us don’t pay our cards off every month, and the average family has a balance of $6,375.

Despite the fact that the US economy has enjoyed nearly ten years of robust growth, only about a quarter of Americans are in good financial shape.

Keeping track of bills and due dates can be difficult if you have multiple cards. One way to consolidate credit card debt and pay it down more quickly is an app called Tally. You connect all your cards; Tally pays them off; then you pay Tally—often at a significantly lower interest rate.

It’s worth noting that not everyone can use Tally. You have to have a credit score of at least 600 to qualify, and there is currently a waiting list for their loans.

Qoins ($1.99/month) is another useful tool for paying down debt. Whenever you buy something with a card, it rounds up the purchase amount to the nearest dollar and uses the spare change to make an extra payment toward your debts at the end of the month.

Make a budget.

According to a recent report by Schwab, just one in four Americans has a budget.

That’s unfortunate, because making a budget has been linked to many other positive behaviors, including paying bills on time, making regular deposits into a savings account, and paying off your credit cards. It means that most of us are approaching our finances the same way we would approach an improv class: without a plan. When an opportunity to spend (or save) money emerges, we don’t have a reliable way of knowing whether or not it’s a good idea.

Budgeting can seem time-intensive and difficult—but new technology has made it much simpler. One promising solution is You Need a Budget (YNAB). You start with how much you get paid every month; from there, you indicate what’s important to you and give each dollar a “job.” And that’s it. You’ve got a budget.

Making a budget has been linked to many other positive behaviors, including paying bills on time, making regular deposits into a savings account, and paying off your credit cards.

YNAB costs $6.99 per month. On average, its users save $200 in their first month and $6000 by the end of their first year.

Clarity Money offers another way to tackle this problem. It uses algorithms to analyze your spending behavior and makes suggestions about how to improve your financial health. For example, it can help you cancel old subscriptions or set up a recurring deposit into your savings account. Even better: it’s free to use.

Pay your bills on time.

One out of every four American adults doesn’t pay their bills on time. And that’s a problem, because late or missed payments can result in fees, higher interest rates, and damaged credit scores.

Truebill ($4.99/month) helps you avoid these pitfalls with an all-in-one calendar of your monthly recurring payments, including amounts and due dates. Often, its users find that they are still paying for subscriptions that they have long since stopped using and forgotten about. What’s great is that you can cancel those old subscriptions from inside the app.

Perhaps the most surprising feature about Truebill is that you can use it to negotiate lower monthly rates for things like internet, cable, and cell phone bills. According to Truebill, it often ends up saving its users about 20% on their existing plans.

Save toward your goals.

Did you know that regularly staring at a digitally aged photo of yourself can cause you to make better financial decisions?

The researchers speculate that, through repeated exposure, the young subjects were reminded that the old person in the photo was also them. That if they spent more now, they would have less later.

It’s true. In an experiment, a UCLA social psychologist found that young people who used a retirement savings tool that included an aged photo of themselves saved, on average, 6.2% - 6.8% of their earnings to a workplace retirement plan, compared with only 4.4% - 5.2% for those who stared, instead, at a current selfie. The researchers speculate that, through repeated exposure, the young subjects were reminded that the old person in the photo was also them. That if they spent more now, they would have less later.

Qapital ($6/month) works by reinforcing those principles. It gives you a snapshot of your finances, including your monthly expenditures by category. You can track your progress toward long-term financial “Goals” like retirement or a lavish vacation. From there, you create “Rules” that automatically save money whenever your favorite sports team plays a game or you walk over 10,000 steps.

For those seeking an even lighter lift, Digit ($2.99/month) is an app that takes all the guesswork out of saving. It analyzes your spending over time, figures out how much you can afford to save every day, and funnels that money into an FDIC-insured savings account.

Invest in your future.

How much will you need to comfortably retire? Everyone’s number is different, and there are many ways to arrive at it. The AARP says that a standard retirement savings is between $1M and $1.5M. Fidelity recommends that you store up 10 times your income at age 67.

A more straightforward approach: multiply your annual cost-of-living by the number of years you expect to live—and be sure to err on the side of caution.

Financial health has been linked to numerous other benefits, including mental health, physical health, family stability, educational attainment, and upward mobility.

However you measure, it’s clear that many Americans will fall short of these numbers. According to a recent report by the Center for Financial Services Innovation, 42% of us aren’t saving for retirement at all. This is especially disturbing given the uncertain future of safety nets like social security.

So-called “roboadvisors” can’t solve all the problems associated with retirement savings, but they remove a lot of the guesswork. For example, with Wealthsimple, you can create and fund a retirement account in a few minutes. You select the account type, investing timeline, and risk level. They take it from there, automatically investing dividends and rebalancing your portfolio.

Acorns makes it even simpler. They’ll round up your purchases and invest the spare change in a pre-built portfolio that matches your preferred risk and growth levels.

Be savvy when taking on debt.

Financial advisors love to warn Americans against going into debt. And for good reason: Americans with savings accounts have a median balance of $5,200 per household, while the average family carries a monthly credit card balance of $6,375.

But not all debt is bad debt; sometimes a loan can be a good way to invest in your future. Student loans, buying a car, and starting a business are common examples. If you’ve done your research and decided that taking on a loan is the right decision, then it’s important to obtain the most attractive terms for your financial health. Those marginal dollars, after all, can be reinvested in your future.

Not all debt is bad debt; sometimes a loan can be a good way to invest in your future. Student loans, buying a car, and starting a business are common examples.

The problem is that many traditional lenders consider only a FICO score when deciding whether or not to give you a loan—and on what terms. For many Americans, our FICO score isn’t an accurate reflection of our true financial situation. For example, 83% of Americans have never defaulted on a loan, but only 45% have access to prime credit.

A lending app like Upstart looks beyond a consumer’s credit score. They use artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze alternative financial data like monthly bank balances, transactions, and total assets to determine a potential borrowers’ creditworthiness.

As a result, Upstart is often able to offer terms that are more competitive than traditional lenders. At the same time, many such apps boast default- and loss rates that are competitive with, even below industry averages.

Choose the right insurance.

Accidents happen, and insurance can be a good way to protect your family, your possessions, or your livelihood. Unfortunately, the legacy insurance industry is plagued by misaligned incentives and a lack of transparency.

As it stands, individual policies are difficult to search and compare, and brokers are not clearly incentivized to help you find one that’s right for your needs. The problem is that everyone involved—from insurer to broker to agent—makes money either by selling policies or by minimizing payouts from claims. They want to sign you up, but they don’t want to fix your car.

Getting your finances in order is not easy, and it’s not obvious. No one is going to call and hector you if you don’t invest in your 401(k) or put money into a savings account.

A few fintechs now offer alternative approaches. Lemonade upends the traditional model by refusing to profit by denying claims. To make money, they take a flat 20% of all premiums. Once a year, if there is money left over, they donate it to your favorite charity. Lemonade currently offers renters insurance and homeowners insurance.

Cover addresses the transparency problem in a simple way: they’re not an insurance company. Rather, they help you identify and compare policies from a variety of different insurers, so that you can find the one that best suits your needs. It’s as easy as taking a picture of the thing you want to insure: your apartment, your couch, your car. Then load it in the app and request a quote.

Start your journey to financial wellness.

Getting your finances in order is not easy, and it’s not obvious. Beyond taxes and payment due dates, there are no deadlines. No one is going to call and hector you if you don’t invest in your 401(k) or put money into a savings account.

Nonetheless, building financial health is one of the best investments you can make in your future. Financial health has been linked to numerous other benefits, including mental health, physical health, family stability, educational attainment, and upward mobility.

New technology can automate, predict, and simplify many of the most difficult aspects of personal financial management. Although fintech is not yet a replacement for making a personal financial plan, it can be a powerful tool to help you on your journey.

Erica Martinez helps lead Plaid's NYC mid-market Growth team. She helps startups scale account management and customer success teams.

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