Smartphones can do just about anything these days, but after testing two different personal finance apps, I don’t think they are the best platform for managing money — at least not for me.
In an attempt to streamline how I track spending and manage my debt, I tried using Level and Mint on separate occasions over the past month. While the apps conveniently put all your account information in one place, help build budgets and break down spending habits into easy-to-read graphics, I stopped using both within a couple weeks.
I know I’m a millennial who should love another reason to be attached to my smartphone 24/7, but when it comes to managing money, I prefer more basic systems, like a good ol’ Excel spreadsheet.
Too many reminders
Level and Mint both offer reminder features for things such as bill due dates, deposits and budgeting suggestions. While those are good things to know, I think there’s a limit to how much financial information we need on a daily basis.
When I used Level, my phone would beep with a notification every time I made a purchase or paid a bill. Every morning it would also alert me how much I had in my spending budget for the day and then throughout the day as I chipped away at the budget it set for me. If I overspent, I’d hear about it until the next week began and my weekly budget reset. Oy.
With Mint, because I didn’t need to go into the app every day, when I did log in I’d be bombarded with notifications about my spending, upcoming bills, recommendations for more positive financial habits, etc. It was too much information when all I wanted was to quickly check a card balance.
Maybe if I wasn’t already so attuned to my finances, the reminders would be welcome. Instead, I found them to be annoying and they discouraged me from opening either app.
Despite the convenience of having all accounts and activity logs in one place, I also found that a personal finance app isn’t the most accurate way to keep tabs on your financial activities.
For example, it takes Level about 24 hours to update account information. If I wanted to quickly see if a bill payment processed or what I had to spend while waiting in a store checkout lane, I’d have to estimate balances in my head, based on what I remember doing over the past day. If I wanted the most up-to-date information, I’d have to log into my accounts individually. Not convenient.
With Mint, account activity updated almost immediately, which was fantastic, but I noticed the dates and times of transactions were not always accurate. There was one day that the app marked all my transactions for 1:22 a.m. Trust me, I didn’t go to Target in the middle of the night.
Also, if I paid bills early Mint wouldn’t ditch the corresponding bill reminders until the due dates passed, even if the payment appeared in the app’s account log. A couple times I logged in and a long list of “unpaid” bills appeared, causing me to momentarily panic. If you don’t keep separate payment records, paying bills could become really confusing with this app.
Digital guilt trip
I stress about money and debt enough without my smartphone reminding me that I’m not a financial saint.
Level gives you the option of setting monthly spending budgets for different categories (entertainment, clothing, coffee, etc.) and will categorize your transactions into those groups and alert you when you approach a set spending limit.
While that can help reduce frivolous spending, if you exceed a category budget, Level doesn’t let you forget it. Every time you open the app until the next month when the budget resets, it will remind you of your budgeting failure.
With Mint, all account information is displayed on the main screen and it uses red to indicate debt, so when I’d open the app, all my debts were right there in red, next to a list of bills to be paid and a shrinking checking account balance as the weekdays progressed. If you tend to get emotional about money or feel guilty that you can’t make all your accounts green immediately, the app may only make you feel worse.
Apps just aren’t for me
If you’re new to balancing a budget or managing multiple financial accounts, I think a personal finance app may be a good place to start. At the least, you’ll get most of your information in one place and won’t forget to pay your bills — they won’t let you.
However, if you’re a zealous money manager, a personal finance app may be a tedious annoyance, as it is for me. Maybe I’m expecting too much from phone programs, but if I’m going to give an app access to all my accounts and spend my time setting it up, it should at least save me some time, effort and stress.
Going forward, I’m going to keep up my current Excel spreadsheet for managing my finances. If anyone has recommendations for other personal finance apps that have worked for them, I’d love to hear them. I’d consider trying others, but for now, I’m keepin’ it old school.