Bankers Struggle to Reimagine PFM for Mobile

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The average bank is still on the fence about what — if any — personal finance management (PFM) features they should add to their smartphone apps. All agree, however, that what works for PFM providers on websites needs to be modified for mobile apps.

"Mobile is more of a channel for people on the go," says Tracey Weber, Citigroup's head of internet and mobile banking and BTN's 2012 mobile banker of the year. "[People] are not sitting there and pondering this or that." Rather, people are more apt to use mobile devices to see whether a transaction went through or to initiate a bill, she says.

Citi, which partnered with Yodlee to create PFM tools for its online banking site, boasts some personal finance-related features in its tablet app but has yet to layer any into its smartphone apps. "We will continue to watch the evolution of mobile," says Weber. She says Citi is having a "healthy discussion" on the topic.

Analysts suggest banks will start with "PFM lite" in their mobile apps — quick spending insights to help people make more informed shopping decisions. One nascent idea tossed around by industry members would play out something like this: A consumer enters a shoe store and receives a message from his bank that alerts him he is close to exceeding his discretionary spending budget, for example. Or perhaps he receives a message about how much he's spent on liquor for the month after he swipes his card.

The point of embracing such capabilities, which may have Big Brother implications, is finding ways to rethink software for a channel that offers unique capabilities.

"PFM needs to be reimagined for mobile," Neff Hudson, assistant vice president of emerging channels at USAA, told BTN earlier in the year. "You need to rethink financial management for day-to-day interaction. … It's about better decisions in everyday spending."

"There are some interesting things ahead of us," adds First Financial Bankshares' Vice President of Alternative Delivery Channels Jeff Casey. "Mobile devices are a collection of sensors."

Smartphone sensors like microphones and GPS can be used to help customers manage their money, Casey says. He wants his Texas bank's mobile app to look beyond transaction features and include functionality to better help customers meet their longer-term financial goals when they are out shopping. "There is a lot of room for innovation in the space," he says.

Some startups have moved ahead on this front. Simple, for example, offers customers PFM-lite tools that highlight the amount that's safe to spend, while consumer-facing Check, formerly Pageonce, lets people link in outside accounts and pay their bills through its apps.

However, few banks have publicly touted PFM features available on their smartphone apps. [PFM vendors that sell to banks like Banno offer the capabilities.]

"Mobile is a whole other beast," Jacob Jegher, senior analyst at Celent, says . "Small slivers of PFM can be of interest" on smartphones.

Bank of Montreal (BMO) customers are asking the bank to create tools that would alert them when they are about to overspend, Dan Dickinson, head of online and mobile banking for Canada at BMO, tells BTN. The bank, which has yet to offer PFM tools in its mobile app, will evaluate which features are sound for the channel, which Dickinson says takes planning. "We will invest some time," Dickinson says. "We're trying to rethink traditional PFM features that can apply in a small screen and possibly to low connectivity. …The insights become more meaningful." He points to startup Moven as an example of a young company doing a great job at designing spending insights for its pilot app.

Today, BMO, which partners with Strands, offers customers PFM tools through online banking that include features such as savings goals, budgets and a community tool that lets users compare their spending patterns to peers. The bank does not let people link in outside accounts, largely because it has yet to hear from a heavy amount of customers asking for such a capability. "I'm not saying the demand is zero, but there is just not a burning need for it," says Dickinson. If he had a "bottomless pit of money," account aggregation would make it to his list — though still not at the top.

Citi, meanwhile, baked account aggregation into its online banking services. The bank believes the feature provides a great utility in that it allows people — and the bank — to have a fuller picture of where their money is going. "There's been steady growth in account aggregation," says Weber. Customers, who opt in to the feature, are linking in 3.3 external accounts on average. Citi has offered the capability since October 2011.

Getting customers to take the first step to link in outside accounts is one learning hurdle as the feature is somewhat counterintuitive. "It takes some education," Weber says. And there's no marketing silver bullet; rather, Weber says people need to be reminded of the capabilities multiple times, in multiple ways. Once set up, people will have to do light maintenance of their aggregated accounts. If the user name or password changes to a linked outside account, the Citi customer will have to update his credentials like he would on any other account aggregation service like Mint or Check, for example.

Citi works at regularly updating the PFM features available to customers and the way it presents them in the "dashboard" interface. "We are continually trying to improve the experience," she says, noting that one feature which excites her is the goal setting one. "It's still early days. …I think the power of PFM will grow."

Banks want people to use PFM tools because PFM users are generally stickier and financial institutions get more customer data, which is gold. However, most Americans do not use traditional PFM tools. Indeed, banks have yet to gain more than single-digit adoption rates of existing PFM tools delivered through online banking, according to industry research.

Celent's Jegher points out that improving aggregation and delivering fancy user interfaces and pleasant experiences will fail to solve this overriding usage problem. "There's a change in behavior that must take place within financial management," Jegher says. "Average Americans don't know how to manage their finances."

And even for sophisticated users of personal finance software, tools must require little time of the end-users. "The key to success is solving a problem that people have," says Chris Musto, a managing director at Novantas. "And it can't be that their lack of attention destroys the value of it."

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