For more than a year now we've been writing about how personal financial management (PFM) tools are the "must have" addition to online banking. And not without reason. Recent Aite Group research found that 35 percent of big banks say they already have some facet of PFM, and 60 percent are considering an offering. There's also plenty of froth in the market. Intuit bought for $170 million last year and Citibank and Microsoft went live with in February.

As I see it, there are two problems with the hype surrounding banks and PFM. The first is that this is strictly big-bank territory. Community bank CEOs are focused on cleaning up their balance sheets, increasing efficiency, and, to the extent that they're looking at technology, they want to squeeze savings from existing contracts or efficiency from already-owned technology (see Top Community Bank IT Initiatives, p. 24). Many haven't even migrated to their core provider's latest generation of online banking, and most of those current versions don't offer PFM.

The second problem is the same one that online banking, then mobile banking, had to tackle: how to take informational PFM-balances, budgets, pie charts-and make it transactional. Even Bundle, the newest entrant in the market, is limited to letting consumers view what their peers are spending on things like restaurants and car insurance.

Mint founder Aaron Patzer predicts the next generation of data analysis will give consumers peer spending comparisons, things like the average price of a gym membership in their town. That's probably mildly interesting to the average gym-goer, but not life-changing stuff.

PFM needs further innovation to become valuable. Even Patzer agrees. "I think PFM today-and this includes Mint-is primarily balances and pie charts, how are my investments doing? It lacks the emotional component, and lacks the bit of advice, 'What do I do next?" he says.

So Mint's next generation will venture into decision tools and advice, the kind that wealth managers, and some banks, like Charter One, already dabble in. As Patzer sees it, when you help consumers set aside money for retirement or a vacation, "All of the sudden it becomes, 'How do I achieve the important things in life?'"

Conversations about the "important things in life" aren't the typically bailiwick of Bank Technology News. But the point is really about the value that bank technology ought to offer consumers. While it's encouraging to see big banks integrating informational PFM tools, the majority of consumers won't benefit until we see the trickle-down effects to community banks, and the next generation of PFM that turns the data into 'news they can use.'

Because, as Patzer points out, "Rather than the numbers, at the end of the day money is just a tool for doing what you want with the people you care about."

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