Mobile apps that help people manage their money on the go are having a moment.

Over the last couple of years, banks have been slowly but surely upgrading their apps to include tools intended to help customers build healthy financial habits via savings, budgeting or both.

To name a few: KeyBank is making financial wellness scores available via digital banking, USAA offers an app designed to help millennials save, Ally Bank offers an app designed to help people spend less, TD Bank in Canada is white-labeling technology from Moven and, most recently, Bank of America updated its mobile app to include budgeting features, while Wells Fargo launched a stand-alone savings app.

Some view the updates as a creative way to bond with depositors. And it is something many depositors need: 35% of a typical bank’s customer base needs help in knowing how to save money, according to 2015 research from Simon-Kucher, a New York consultancy.

“In the old days, it was all about rates and incentives,” said Wei Ke, a partner at Simon-Kucher. These customers "need more than rates. It’s not just a question of discipline.”

Of course, the question about how customers view rates is an important one. Several of these tools are intended for younger consumers, many of whom were not adults the last time rates were on the rise. Banks are betting that such tools, as well as their overall mobile strategy, will be enough to keep their customers and win over new customers in a competitive rate environment, but it remains to be seen if that will work.

“Yes, they actually care more about being helped to save as opposed to interest rates,” Ke said in a follow-up conversation. “Of course, we are in a low-rate environment, which may also contribute to people not caring so much about rates.”

If banks see these engagement tools as a way to differentiate themselves with consumers, they are playing the long game.

That’s because in order for these tools to work, people have to change their behavior to use them. Indeed, the previous iteration of the concept — personal financial management tools tucked away on a bank’s website — has often been criticized by analysts for failing to catch on with most consumers because of all the labor required.

However, unlike PFM of yesteryear, the mobile money management features are supposed to require less work on the consumer's part and they are arriving as ever-more fintech companies like Qapital and Digit are wooing consumers on alternative financial-health apps.

So far, some banks appear pleased with their early results.

Take TD Bank in Canada, for example. On various earning calls, the bank has highlighted its progress with the stand-alone app it calls TD MySpend — an app that white-labels technology from Moven and lets customers track their spending habits and receive notifications in real time. According to the institution, 840,000 TD customers are registered for the TD MySpend app, as of Jan 20 — a partnership the Canadian bank announced in 2014 and an app it made available in April.

“On average, approximately 30% are active with login over 30 days and over 320,000 are active with login over 90 days,” said Dean Tseretopoulos, assistant vice president of digital channels at TD Bank.

Bank of America in December announced new budgeting features baked into its mobile app, among other updates, in December. As of February, 2 million customers had looked at the spending and budgeting tool, while 650, 000 customers have created budgets — most of whom let the system set their budget rather than create one from scratch.


Michelle Moore, head of digital banking at Bank of America
“All of these technologies will eventually merge together as they are launched,” says Michelle Moore, head of digital banking at Bank of America.

The results are exceeding expectations and customer response has been positive, said Michelle Moore, head of digital banking at B of A. She credits part of the early engagement to the more modern, interactive and playful design.

“Designs have evolved so much over the last two years,” Moore said.

B of A’s new mobile features, for instance, let consumers set up budgets or use the technology to mine their data and set budgets up for them, in addition to visually showing customers their income versus spending patterns.

Wells Fargo is also betting its design will be intriguing to customers. It is using mobile gamification for its stand-alone app, Daily Change.

“The hope is that by completing simple, fun savings challenges, it will become a habit that sets them up for financial success,” Jonathan Hartsell, manager of virtual channels product management at Wells Fargo, wrote in a blog post that touted the app.

To do that, the Daily Change app lets users set up challenges such as drinking tap water instead of bottled water. Then, it sends daily reminders to users to make transfers to their savings account and kudos messages for when they succeed. The idea, of course, is to help customers establish healthy savings habits on a device they engage with frequently. Unlike B of A, Wells launched a stand-alone app that requires users to have savings and checking accounts at Wells Fargo.

As some observers see it, the odds for consumers using their banks’ mobile PFM features are greater than online banking-oriented budgeting features — so long as the functionality avoids repeating past mistakes, such as only displaying information in pie charts.

“Giving information is not enough. That’s not the gap in our savings crisis,” said Kristen Berman, head of product at Common Cents, a financial research lab at Duke University that is supported by MetLife Foundation. “The gap is how to do it. The gap is actually doing it.”

As banks continue to see what mobile financial health features resonates with customers, they are also gearing up to launch chatbots — a technology that should, in theory, make it even easier for consumers to understand and take action on their money habits via their smartphones.

B of A, for instance, is gearing up to launch its chatbot erica who could, say, alert customers when they are coming close to a budget they set.

“All of these technologies will eventually merge together as they are launched,” Moore said.

Automating the decision process — managing their money for them — and providing real-time information are essentials to engage users.

“Make it easy and seamless,” said Simon-Kucher’s Ke. “At the end of the day, all we want to do is form a habit and get on with our lives. ... We don’t want to overthink banking.”

Mary Wisniewski

Mary Wisniewski

Mary is deputy editor of BankThink. She also writes on a variety of subjects as part of American Banker's bank tech team.