Personal Financial Management (PFM) is probably the most misunderstood acronym in Fintech (next to NFC).  A fun exercise is to ask what PFM means to a banker, an analyst or a Fintech consultant. You will be surprised at the variety of answers you get from them. After following PFM for the last three years, my opinion is this – PFM is a mystical rainbow-colored magic Unicorn which is out there – but no one has seen it yet. 🙂

Now lets flip the question and ask the same to Joe or Jane,  a consumer on the street. There is a good chance that you would get a blank stare at the mention of the acronym.  Since we are not totally clear what PFM means, let us ask some questions to clarify this:

  1. Do you budget your finances? If yes, do you use tools like Quicken?
  2. Do you use an online aggregation services like Mint.com to see all your finances in one place?
  3. Do you monitor your income and categorize your expenses to track spend?
  4. Do you set financial goals and follow through it with a help of a tool?
  5. Do you have any tool/service which helps you in planning to make the right financial decision when it comes to life events? (Lets not consider your CPA here).

If the answer from Joe or Jane is yes, then they have been exposed to a Personal Financial Management(PFM) tool or service is some shape or form. The real question now is how valuable do they find this?  Is there one tool or solution which manages to answer all of the above questions without making any compromises?

Problems with existing PFM solutions:

PFM industry today comes in two flavors – direct to consumer and white labeled solutions offered by Financial Institutions.  Some  players in the direct to consumer market are the likes of Quicken, Mint.com, Personal Capital etc.  The white labeled solutions players include Yodlee, Intuit (parent company of Quicken), MoneyDesktop, Meniga and Strands to name a few.  To my knowledge I have seen consumers more exposed to likes of Quicken and Mint since it gives them direct control of managing their financial lives .  The white label solutions do have a stigma that you are locking yourself with the FI which provides them. Some consumers question that approach and prefer not to go that route (What if I have to switch my bank? Do I have to set up all of my accounts again with a new bank?)

FIs would love to have their customers use the white labeled solution as this gives them a nice 360 degree view of the customers finances and what their wallet share is. Some of the FIs also use this to promote their products to these customers based on this aggregated view.

However, the big challenge in this approach is PFM has always been relegated to the role of a second class citizen within the online banking experience (A tab within online banking instead of being the primary landing page). In my opinion, this severely hurts adoption. Due to the nature of the way these white label solutions work , there is definitely some lag (at least a day) in getting the most current information populated within the PFM tab. I have always argued that this is a bad idea and PFM should “be” the online banking experience. Moven has taken this approach and integrated this from the get go on their banking user experience.

Apart from the fact that PFM gets a secondary tab, many FIs come short at providing good PFM integration into their mobile apps.  Jim Bruene from Net Banker writes that Mint is the only Pure PFM Player which provides basic PFM functionality addressing the questions I listed above.  Here some issues with the Pure PFM categorization:

1. Mobile Apps are a great way to have users start using PFM. If you hedge your bets that apps are the holy grail for PFM adoption, then I implore you to look at budgeting and other financial applications of the past (Microsoft Money anyone?).  Apps are just a modality to consume insights about your financial behavior. Like any other technology, they will find their natural demise.  PFM should be focused on data of consumer’s financial behavior and the insights you can derive from it agnostic to the delivery mechanism.

2. Even a Pure Player like Mint does a less than impressive job when it comes to basic functionality like expense categorization.  I have a hard time understanding with all the machine learning, neural networks and intelligent computing available out there, we are still faced with tools struggling to categorize our spending the right way. If Siri and Google Now can interpret our voice and translate them to text (accounting for various languages and accents), isn’t about time that we expect an expense categorization system which works and improves over time?

3. Analyzing overall financial health – Ron Shevlin calls this out his blog where the basics like budgeting, expense categorization and goals will only get you to a certain extent.  The real value of PFM comes in understanding your spending behavior over the long-term and be able to predict your financial future.  Allow me to illustrate – an ideal PFM should have the capability to not just look at your sliding window of income and expense over a limited time period – It should be able to look at this from the point when you started a real job over multiple years. A persons financial health is not just determined by their credit score or current  balance but a holistic view of their savings, earnings, future earning potential and other assets in the mix.

4. Imagine if a PFM can look at your income since you started working and the actual spend and savings you did over the period of time, it should be able to make a pretty good guess about what kind of financial personality you have and provide insights based on that knowledge. Projecting this further, the PFM should be able to tell when you can retire based on your retirement goals. There are PFMs out there which try to do this, but fall short in delivering it. A wealth of information is now available out there – this include the performance of your investment and retirement accounts, your savings, your asset values (depreciating vs appreciating) and the overall earning potential.

5. Here is where we start to move towards the grey area of  financial modeling which can go boom or bust depending upon your assumptions.  A well designed and thought out PFM should be able to interact with the user and make course corrections to reflect any changes to your financial behavior due to unforeseen events (like losing your job, divorce etc).  I tried using the goals feature in Mint. Even with a master’s degree, I cannot figure out how this works. Call me dumb but if I am kept in the dark of how Mint figured out how much  I should save for emergency fund or for retirement without an explanation, I am reluctant to trust that recommendation.

PFM re-imagined:

What would it take to capture consumer financial history over the lifetime? I am looking at the most unlikely place here for inspiration – Healthcare. A person’s health record over time is a trackable collection of data. Microsoft HealthVault tries to solve this problem by allowing an individual or a family to store their health records. Why can’t a PFM solution try to do the same? If a person’s financial interactions can be shared and stored in a vault like system, that would be a treasure trove for PFM analysis. Credit bureaus have a credit file which shows your credit cards/lines and loans but don’t have any information about your other assets or deposits/savings. As newer tools, technologies and players come into the market, dealing with a consumers financial DNA is a big data problem which is begging to be solved.

Will OFX be a standard way to solve this issue?

Maybe. Looking at OFX specs, it seems to me that it is purely conceived from the notion of opening up and solving data interchange issues between FIs. It doesn’t seem to address the issue from an individual’s perspective. Maybe its time the Yodlees, MoneyDesktops, Geezeos and Intuits of the world come up with an open PFXML format to store this unified customer financial data. Ideally a customer should have an option to port their financial history from the vault of one PFM provider to the other similar to transferring our health records. A HIPAA level standard to exchange this information in a secure fashion should also be in place.

Closing thoughts

Most of the PFM solutions today provide some help in managing financial lives of their users. They are very good at solving some of the issues and not generic enough to be adopted for all our needs. What is the point in having Mint  to look at bank accounts/credit cards/loans, use Credit Karma to track credit scores and Sig Fig to monitor my investments? The more tools I need to keep track of various aspects of my financial behavior, the lesser I am inclined and disciplined to stick to the financial resolutions I make.

An ideal PFM should be able to provide the following advice automagically:

1. Based on balances on the asset mix, provide advice on how to rebalance portfolio based on age. Many people think they have a balanced portfolio but end up buying mutual funds and stocks in the same category which skews diversification.

2. Provide advice on optimal number of credit products to own. Display the ratio of credit balance to overall credit limit for the individual to show what a healthy borrowing limit is and when the user is breaching this limit. (Stop nagging about how much they spent on coffee, instead provide more actionable insights).

3. If the user ends up carrying over balance in a card  and has enough money in savings to pay if off, notify them.  (Like Suze Orman advice in real-time).

4. If a user has a mortgage with a higher interest rate, advise them of available  lower rates and refinancing options based on current market conditions.

5. If a customer has a loan and enough savings and disposable income, display the interest they can save by prepaying the loan.

6. Provide financial projections and advise of how to save for college education and how small savings over a period of time will grow when junior is old enough to get into ivy league.

7. Analyze cash flow of user income and expenses and advise how much they can afford to save.

8. Provide ways to promote healthy savings behavior where parts of direct deposits are funneled into named target accounts like “Down payment for Next Home”, “Pay off Mortgage”, “Wedding at Mexico”, “College Fund” etc. Saved Plus allows you to impulsively save when you spend which I think is a neat way to promote healthy savings behavior.

9. When a user wants to spend money on binge purchases, show how that would affect their other savings goals in the long run. (MoneyDesktop has implemented this feature called “Guide Me” in a fantastic way – Video here).

FIs have a great opportunity to win over their customer base by providing relevant money management advice as part of their core offering – After all, that is the primary reason why someone decides to bank with them. Recognizing this and using this to win over customers is a must in the long run to stay in business. PFM players have the great opportunity of redefining money management and taking over the role of next generation of Online Banking.

One thought on “PFM – A mystical rainbow-colored magic Unicorn?

  1. Totally agree with your analysis of the problems, and shortcomings, of the current implementation of PFM. And agree with your recommendations regarding the advice that needs to be provided.

    The issue is: How do we get there from here?

    There are a million things that can be added to PFM to make it more valuable. Where to start? What’s the roadmap?

    And here’s a question that I haven’t seen too many FIs or vendors address: How do we know if the advice we’re providing thru PFM is any good?

    Not looking to engage in any arguments/fights with any friends here, but “adoption” is a useless measure of PFM success.

    If I were at a bank, I’d rather have 20% adoption among a set of clients who were truly benefiting from PFM (and who were paying me for it), and 100% adoption of customers for whom it was a nice to have, and wasn’t paying for it.

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