UPDATE: I revisited this topic in Nov 2018 with a new article
Product Management Concepts for Better Personal Finance.
A decade later many of my practices have continued but I’ve also added a few more you
Maia Garau recently visited eBay as part of our “principal in residence” program and discussed with us the growing field of service design (which she teaches at RISD). My favorite line she quoted was from the Economist which defined a service as “…anything you can’t drop on your foot.”
It got me to thinking about some great end-to-end “services” that I use to manage my finances and yet what’s still missing.
I hate getting bills in the mail and my wife hates how they clutter up our house. So when we were first married I didn’t want to look at the bills and she’d stuff them away out of site–not a good combo for our FICO score.
Then I discovered Paytrust which goes far beyond the other bill payment services available in that they actually receive your bills. When you sign up Paytrust, they give you a personal PO Box in Sioux Falls which you use as your mailing address meaning for example my PG&E (power & gas) bill gets mails to them and not my home. They scan, OCR, and post the bill online as a PDF with all the appropriate metadata (amount due, due date, etc). Bill payment is easy either by EFT or by having Paytrust mail a check on your behalf (meaning I can even pay my gardener and dentist).
There are several benefits to having Paytrust handle your bills this way:
- It’s safer as you don’t have to worry about someone stealing bills out of your mailbox (and you don’t have to worry about organizing and storing them).
- It’s a great papertrail. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve won with Customer Service agents over the years since I know exactly when I paid each bill and for how much.
- They mail you a DVD at the end of each year with all your bills PDF’d for your tax records.
- Whether I’m at work or at home or my wife wants to view the bills–we can do it from anywhere.
You can tell that this service was thought thru E2E from bill receipt, to payment, to auditing later–which sets it apart from the competition. The only drawbacks is that the service costs $12.95/mth (vs. many banks offer pure payment services for free) and Intuit (who bought Paytrust about 5 years ago) hasn’t made any major improvements in a few years–but at least they haven’t messed it up. 🙂
Daily Account Monitoring
As a big Scott Cook fan, I always wanted to love Quicken over the years but just never did. It always felt like work to keep it’s register in sync with all my accounts and payments. It also didn’t help me during the week when I wanted to know just how much money I had at any given moment and what was coming in and going out.
Then a few years ago a board member for Mint visited a class of mine at Berkeley as a guest speaker. I tried the service out the next day and have really been pleased with it ever since. Since it’s a web service, it’s always up-to-date, synced with my accounts and I can access it from anywhere. It alerts you if you have any irregular behavior such as large deposits or withdrawls. It leverages crowd sourcing to learn how to better categorize transactions. However my favorite feature is how it learns over time what you usually spent in a given category and establishes a “budget” for that amount (letting you know if you’re over or under it later).
Finally the Mint iPhone App connects me to this rich set of data on a daily basis in a simple way. Of course it could be improved such as I’d like to be able to dig into changes in my 401K (chart of how it’s trending, which holdings are up/down), be able to re-categorize transactions, and “predict” my cash flow out a couple months based on past data and budgets.
I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad around 2001 and quickly understood the value of regularly assessing our income/expenses and balance sheet. Yet nothing at the time met my needs (Quicken, MS Money, etc) so I looked to Excel to do the work for me in the way that I found most intuitive. It puts all of our monthly income and expenses, assets and liabilities onto one sheet of paper. Simple, visual, straightforward. We update it every 3 months and graph our progress over time.
Download Financial Statement Template
I imagine that perhaps someday, Mint could replace this manual aspect of my E2E experience but just not yet–however it does make filling out the statement way easier.
In summary I have incredible brand loyalty to both Paytrust and Mint due to their well thought out service design (I’m a NPS promoter) and see how powerful a differentiator it can be in what is a crowded field.
What services do you find most useful and why?
With Intuit acquiring Mint they now own two of the services I mentioned above. I hope they do a better job continuing development of Mint than they have done with Paytrust and would love an integration of the two services. If anyone on those teams would like to chat I’ve got a number of ideas… 🙂