Why it's so hard to track what you spend

BETH PINSKER
Last updated 13:48 17/06/2014

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Struggling to get out of credit card debt he accumulated in college, Rion Robinson tried a lot of different approaches to curb his spending, from old-fashioned spreadsheets to money management programmes like Mint.

None of them worked.

Then Robinson, a 27-year-old who works for a medical supplier in Columbus, Ohio, tried the Level Money budgeting app. He was out of debt six months later.

Level, which launched last autumn, is aimed at millennials with their relatively straightforward finances and reliance on digital technology. It tries to distill budgeting to just one number: what discretionary money you have available to spend.

For Robinson, it was $17.57 a day.

"I checked it every day, sometimes multiple times a day," he says. "It made it real for me."

Robinson is not the only person to feel separate from the physical presence of money.

"We've lost the ability to just look in our wallets and see how much is left," says Level founder and chief executive officer Jake Fuentes.

The company does not disclose how many users it has, but says the app has been downloaded more than 500,000 times.

Because of Level, Robinson gave up his $3 latte because he could finally see how it crimped his grocery budget. He also gave up buying music from iTunes and switched to a free online streaming service. And he dropped a package of cable channels.

Getting to a daily spending number is not easy maths, which is why most budgeting programmes only analyse previous spending. But companies like Mint, with 15 million users, and major US banks like Wells Fargo are also working on ways to spin finances forward.

While many bills and income payments are regular, others are not as easy to track.

"Spending can be lumpy," says Brett Pitts, Wells Fargo's head of product management for the digital channels group. "And just tracking cash flow for the sake of it is too small a frame."

The problem: Most money management programmes only look back a couple of months when users get started and may not capture upcoming quarterly water or tax bills, one-time lump-sum payments like tuition for summer camp or school, or unpredictable expenses like car repairs. Bills that are split with others also need to be apportioned.

Feeding in all the data required to make a reliable calculation can be an onerous task. Mint has found that only about 20 per cent of Americans will take the time to quantify their expenses.

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Vince Maniago, group product manager for Mint, a division of Intuit, says his team is working on a solution to the daily spending question. He thinks it will take about a year to work out all the kinks.

Users want it, he says, but they just do not want to do the work to get it. "It's like wanting to eat kale and quinoa, but instead we don't," he says.

Wells Fargo is testing solutions that go beyond just providing a balance update. Many of the bank's customers check their accounts from lines at the store to make sure they have enough to cover purchases. But account balances do not factor in upcoming withdrawals so that if you buy groceries today, you may be slapped with an overdraft fee tomorrow when the gas bill gets automatically deducted.

"The challenge with checking your balance every day is a false signal," says Steve Wendel, principal scientist for HelloWallet.com, a financial analysis service now owned by Morningstar.

The way to get people more engaged is to ask very little of them, Wendel says. A few push alerts to warn about low balances or big upcoming bills will do it, but more than that just overwhelms them.

That was definitely the case with Jessica Flaherty, a 30-year-old from Lewiston, Maine, who was mired in law school debt. Flaherty did not want to deal with her problems, so she just ignored them and turned off her phone to bill collectors.

When she finally decided in February that she needed to do something, she did not focus on a daily spending number.

"I did not have a number to spend in a day," she says. "I had a negative number."

Instead, she set up an account at Mint, fed in all of her information and set up a goal to pay off her debt. A pop-up told her there was no way to do it.

Flaherty found some things to sell and was able to pay down her highest-interest loans, cutting her monthly payments from $1000 to $500. She also got a job as a volunteer coordinator at a local library.

Since then, Flaherty has not been late making loan payments. Spending changes are harder: "I have not succeeded in the coffee budget," she admits.

Still, Flaherty says she feels more in control of her finances now.

"I try to be more on top of it," she says, "and not beat myself up when I fail."

- Reuters

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