First Look: PFM Defies Definition

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When I was about 13 years old, my librarian mother made an executive decision to jumpstart a family book club, choosing Waiting for Godot as the first pick. The absurdist play, though short in terms of page count, took hours and hours for me, then a voracious reader, to complete. While the characters waited for Godot, I lingered on every page, feeling time slowly drain away.

My journey then reminds me of my journey now in testing personal financial management tools. For weeks, I've been on a personal finance bar-chart-hopping-mission to determine what qualities qualify an offering as a PFM tool. After touring plenty of vendors' pitches, sitting through demos and PowerPoint presentations, creating my own accounts, etc., I expected to get my answers quickly.

But I didn't. Instead, I encountered too many dead ends (including some vendors unable or unwilling to let me try out my own data in their software). From my trials and many errors, I've come to a much different conviction: I have a better shot at defining love than PFM.

Since some of PFM's earliest days in Quicken — for the accountant nerd in some of us — PFM has come to mean establishing budgets and other aggressive personal accounting maneuvers through software. These days, post-recession and popping with new players, the typical PFM product includes many features, including the ability to aggregate accounts, receive bill reminders, establish goals, view and split transactions, visualize spending categories in bar charts and line graphs, receive how-to savings tips via colorful content, and to some extent, visualize a short-term cash flow. Such offerings are coming from vendors that sell to banks (think Yodlee, Fiserv, Strands Finance, Geezeo, Intuit, MoneyDesktop) and direct to consumer tools with startups like Pageonce, Personal Capital and Planwise.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, there are a handful of players that offer PFM, but downplay the term in marketing their services to banks because of the taint the term has come to have within the industry. That is to say: banking users don't use it — or at least not yet in the bar-chart-heavy iteration delivered through a tab in online banking, or what I might call the abyss.

Part of the poor usage performance has to do with its nebulous definition, which I believe is much broader than budgets.

I, for one, could care less about pie charts or categories showcasing the ways in which I spend. I refuse such intimacy with my transactions. All I want to know is: am I spending more than I'm saving? In other words, let me have my Jameson indulgences if I'm prudent with my overall credit card spend. Categorizing my spending choices hinders my lifestyle choice. And yet, I'll log into my digital banking a few times a week to ensure I haven't lost my credit card mind. To me, logging into online banking is PFM. And it's enough for now.

Others, though, need and want more tools. Establishing budgets tickles certain people's fancies, while exchanging personal finance data in for relevant offers works for others, while others crave better insights about their spending. The point is, digital banking — in all of its varied forms — is all part of the ever-evolving PFM landscape. To have a bank account is to have some iteration of PFM tools. What varies is the degree of sophistication.

In a recent call with Jacob Jegher of Celent, we dug into the question, "What is PFM?" "It's one of the more difficult questions because the nature of [the technology] is very vast and subjective," Jegher says.

Though he argued he could brew up some vague definition like "a collection of digital tools that provide users with ongoing and predictive access to financial position and state," he says those words are fairly empty because the definition depends on who is using the technology.

For the wealthy, the tool might mean tracking investments in annuities until they cough up enough to pay for a yacht, while for a college student living out of a Crock-Pot, it might mean ways that save him from a $30-something overdraft fee, he illustrated.

"It's up to the user to define," Jegher says.

I whole-heartedly agree and would add that the user might not even consciously define the category either and that's just fine, too.

Sure, PFM evokes images of account aggregation, automatic categorization, spending pie charts for many a financier; but this banktress has come to believe the category to also include reduce-fee suggestions, account alerts, and any financial insights delivered to me as all pieces of PFM.

So on my quest to find meaning in PFM, this is what I'm deciding: like love, PFM is up to the consumer to decide. For one person, it will be a "you are out of control" alert to a mobile phone. To another, the service will mean "let me tag my transactions while at the point of sale." To a third, it will suggest, "I know what my spouse is up to." Each of those interpretations is right. And that's a good thing. Suddenly, adoption rates don't look so pathetic or my journey to define the term, meaningless.

As the category of PFM matures, and it will, expect more customization — and definitions — to come. Even the government is working out ways to help deliver the goods.

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