The promise of personal financial management is to provide account data in a single view — but not all viewers are single.
PNC Financial Services Group now allows joint account holders to get a more detailed view of each other's spending in its Virtual Wallet account, an online product that borrows themes from PFM systems and presents most financial data in a calendar view.
Each account holder can now see the other's bill-payment transactions on the calendar, as well as in the "Scheduled Out" and "Free Balance" spending values. Previously, different owners of an account had a different view of the cash flow.
Virtual Wallet divides users' money into three linked accounts. Spend is the conventional checking account, Reserve is typically used for overdraft protection and Growth is its savings account.
The latest update to Virtual Wallet "achieves a more accurate representation of the 'Free Balance' in the Spend account," PNC spokesman Tim Rice said by e-mail.
PNC would not offer other details, but industry experts said stronger joint account functionality is important for banks to offer couples because it helps to provide them more clarity about their finances. Generally speaking, joint account functionality does not get top billing on personal financial management software suites from banks or vendors, but it is something many are carefully considering.
"This is a good starting point, but ultimately consumers are telling us in our surveys that they want to have a single place to see everything," said Mark Schwanhausser, a senior analyst for multichannel financial services at Javelin Strategy and Research in Pleasanton, Calif. He said one of the drawbacks of the Virtual Wallet is that it only lets consumers see information about accounts held at PNC. Many PFM providers let consumers view accounts from multiple banks.
"What would really benefit consumers would be being able to view not just the joint accounts at PNC, but elsewhere," Schwanhausser said. In that scenario, PNC would become more of a financial portal supporting a total picture of family finances.
Other analysts agreed that a comprehensive joint account view would give consumers a better understanding of their finances. "Whether it is a single account holder or a joint account, the ability to manage our finances with a holistic picture of the accounts is a basic need," said Jacob Jegher, a senior analyst with Celent.
"They are now saying you and I have a joint account, and you will now see a holistic view, not just one picture or the other," Jegher said.
Third-party PFM vendors said they were considering how best to add joint functionality to their products.
"We believe that allowing holders of joint accounts to more seamlessly manage their accounts by deploying the correct permission schema is key," said Jaidev Shergill, Bundle Corp.'s chief executive. "We would also like to see how banks evolve their account structures before deep functionality on joint accounts can be built by nonbank PFM providers."
One of the main issues, Shergill said, is that most account aggregation platforms sit on top of bank account systems, but the way joint accounts are structured within the bank is not unified. They can be one account with multiple owners, which Shergill said is a common structure today, or they can be structured as individual accounts that are linked by some layer of code. In the latter case, the PFM provider would also have to import additional user fields in order to enable a joint account view.
Currently, Bundle lets users aggregate multiple accounts in one place.
"The plan is to allow for 'family' accounts that, in essence, create a joint account view without actually having a joint account," Shergill said. Bundle may offer a family-account view by the second quarter of 2011.
Other vendors said joint accounts scored low on consumer lists of must-haves.
"We don't support it today, but we have had discussions internally about supporting the idea of family accounts," said Steve Schultz, chief operating officer of Pageonce Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif.
"Like many software companies, we listen to users and figure out features and functionalities they want, and we try to rank them in order," Schultz said. "Family accounts are not in the top five." But Pageonce is considering it, he said.
One of the factors in constructing a family view is the different ways in which joint information is consumed, Schultz said. Typically, he said, one person in a family is the financial decision maker, and that person benefits from more frequent access to account information and control of accounts.
Other analysts said the idea of family accounts was fairly straightforward, and should not pose much of a technology challenge to the vendors.
"To the PFM tool, it doesn't matter if an account is a joint account or not. An account is an account," said Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite Group in Boston. "The more accounts linked, the more complete a picture of the user's overall financial life the PFM tool can provide."