Monday, January 2, 2023

Best Money Management Tools of 2023

Personal finance aggregators are tools that help users manage and track their financial accounts, including bank accounts, credit cards, investments, and loans.

An aggregator is a software tool that takes data from multiple sources and provides centralized access to it. When it comes to personal finance aggregators, the consumer has many choices.  My household uses Monarch Money, because it excels at a shared family-based approach to finances, but Mint was the original innovator in this field. Although it's been owned by Intuit since 2009 (which also owns QuickBooks and TurboTax), there was nothing like it when it was first created.  For the first time, you could automatically pull your personal financial data, from all the financial institutions that you do business with, into one place at the click of a button.  Checking and savings accounts, credit cards, investment accounts, a complete financial picture:  assets and liabilities, including personal and student loans, credit cards, home mortgage and home equity.  You could see your accurate, real-time net worth just by opening the app.

The average person has 15 different financial accounts: checking and savings, credit cards, student loans, investment accounts, and more. To keep your financial future on track, the simplicity of being able to see everything in one place has obvious benefits.  However, there are unique challenges to this space that explain why Mint was the undisputed leader for so long.

When comparing personal finance aggregators, there are many key features to consider:

MintPersonal CapitalYNABMonarch Money
Budgeting toolsYesYesYesYes
Investment trackingYesYesNoNo
Retirement planningNoYesNoNo
Bill RemindersYesYesYesYes
Credit score monitoringNoYesNoNo

Each personal finance aggregator has its own set of features and capabilities, and the right choice for you will depend on your specific financial needs and goals. Mint and Personal Capital are both great options for those who want a comprehensive view of their finances, while YNAB and Monarch are more focused on budgeting.

Mint is one of the most popular personal finance aggregators, offering a wide range of features such as budgeting tools, investment tracking, and bill reminders. Personal Capital is similar to Mint, but also includes retirement planning and credit score monitoring. YNAB (You Need a Budget) is focused on budgeting, unsurprisingly, and is a paid service. Monarch Money also requires a paid subscription, and has on its team some of the original Mint creators from years ago.

Is this safe?

An aggregator like Monarch has to integrate with many different financial institutions.  Some of them are technically advanced, and provide systems for faciliting this integration like APIs.  Getting data from less enlightened instutions requires more radical solutions like "scraping", or extracting data from the institution's own web interface.  Regardless, the aggregator must keep authentication information that allows access to your data across different accounts and different organizations.  The first question people ask when they consider using an aggregator is often, "Is it safe for them to have all my financial passwords?"

This is a legitimate concern, and each person has to decide for themselves if the risk (which is very low) is worth the benefit (which is amazing).  The author clearly has an opinion, which is that there's no better way to keep your eye on the ball, and most people do far riskier things with their passwords.  But in the end, of course, it's up to you.

First, some financial institutions offer a way to use read-only authentication credentials.  This is sometimes called a "token", and is separate from the main password that gives full access to your accounts.  By providing Monarch (or any other aggregator) a read-only login token rather than your primary credentials, you can be assured that nothing bad can happen if the credentials are stolen.  Online banks like Capital One 360 offer this kind of access for aggregators to use, limiting the risk.

Secondly, aggregators like Monarch use 3rd party providers that specialize in secure access to financial institutions.  One such provider is Plaid, which allows software providers to integrate with thousands of banks and other financial instutitions in a developer-friendly way. This integration is secured behind industry-standard encryption protocols, and the standardization provides a level of stability and robustness that protects everyone's data.

Finally, your accounts are protected in other ways.  Both VISA and MasterCard have a zero-liability fraud policy, which means as long as you report fraudulent activity without delay once it's discovered, you will not be held liable for fraudulent charges.  This protects not only your credit cards, but also your debit cards and other accounts where the VISA or MasterCard logos are displayed.  Also, bank accounts are strictly regulated by law, and your liability for fraudulent activity there is also severely limited if you report it promptly.  It would be big news if someone lost a lot of money, or even any money, as a result of using an aggregator.  Although they are a relatively new concept, they have been around for a few years now and you can be sure the negative publicity would be hard to miss if a breach did occur.

Yes, It is This Easy

Monarch provides a birds-eye view of all of your money.  It tracks cash accounts (checking and savings), credit cards, student loans, investment accounts, and assets like real estate and vehicles.  Of course, you don't have to include every account you own, but the more you include the closer you'll be to seeing the total picture of your finances.  Once configured, Monarch will periodically and automatically download your financial data so that you're always seeing accurate information.  There is even a nice mobile app for Android and iOS so you can always know where you stand even while on the go.

Transactions are automatically categorized based on the description as they are downloaded (which you can correct if it's wrong), so you don't have to spend time organizing your information.  There are configurable alerts for various situations that might occur, such as spending more than usual in a category, or having a large transaction occur.  There are secondary features for tracking bill due dates, budgeting, and tracking savings goals.  Mint will even show you your credit score, although it's an estimate and not as accurate as the one you can get from CreditKarma.

These tools also provide charts and graphs for all the common ways to track your financial progress:  net income over time, net worth over time, etc.  Whether you're trying to get out of debt, or trying to accelerate your retirement savings, having a chart you can look at every day or every hour if you want to can really keep you focused on your financial goals.

What's on the Horizon

This field of software is still somewhat new, and the tools we have today are far from perfect. The auxiliary features like budgeting do the job, but are somewhat lackluster.  Because they need to connect with and talk to each of your financial instituations, the failure rate is magnified by the number of accounts you have:  with a couple dozen accounts, it's very common that you might have at least one account that simply isn't compatible and can't be integrated.  There can be communication failures (though it usually does get fixed eventually and go back to realtime data). And of course there's the old adage, "If it's free, then you are the product."  Mint.com is totally free, so it makes money by showing you offers for financial products like credit cards.  Personal Capital makes money by managing your portfolio, so there is some upsell pressure.

There is definitely room for improvement, and it'll be exciting to see if one of these guys, or somebody new, ends up capturing the market.  Although there is high demand for software like this to solve a market need, but interoperability issues and an unclear product-market fit are problems that still remain to be resolved.