Juha Saarinen: Make money visible again, banks


One side-effect of payments going digital and conveniently “frictionless” is that it has become really difficult to keep track of them.

It’s a bit like first going to a wild party and spending up to keep the economy going like the good citizen you are. Tap that watch or smartphone or Paywave card, and money goes out.

Then after a while, the ermahgerd “I spent how much?” Hangover and regrets set in. Lurching between joy and despair like that is not ideal, but it can be difficult to detect which way your finances are heading as the information needed is presented in retrospect. Big amounts you notice, but there’s an endless amount of little payments coming out of your accounts.

If you’re not careful, getting into that situation can come back and bite you hard. Like when it’s time to apply for a mortgage and the bank sends you away with a Profligate’s Walk of Shame instead of a house loan as punishment for too many UberEats deliveries and running an Amazon Prime Video subscription as well as Netflix.

Those tricky little charges are by design, and the norm nowadays. For example, most software is only yours for as long as you can pay the subscription fee for it. To entice you into subscribing for apps, you are promised continual updates and improvements, discounts compared to standalone apps which in turn don’t get new, cool features.

Subscriptions provide a steady income for developers from a captive market, especially if it’s hard to move your data to somewhere that offers a better deal.

A pretty sweet setup, in other words. No wonder that other business sectors want a slice of the as-a-service (read: subscriptions and rentals) payments action to make you spend money that you have, or don’t have.

There’s even a workaround for the many sensible younger people who either don’t want credit cards, or if they do, don’t qualify for them. Buy now, pay later or BNPL providers are popping up everywhere at the moment.

If you’re thinking about using BNPL, don’t. It means you can’t afford what you’re lusting after even if paying for that pricey thing in four or five instalments is tempting.

Paying cash meanwhile is on everyone’s Hate List. It doesn’t work on the Internet, and vendors don’t want the hassle of handling money.

With bank branches closing everywhere, physical money is now slow to realise and use.

That last thing is quite a nice safety feature actually. You can spend what’s in your wallet, or drop that truckload of fifties you rocked up to an Auckland property auction with like a gangsta; spending over and above that however is slow and inconvenient, and you have an incentive to stay within your budget.

Practical cash isn’t however and you pay more for bus fares using coins than with an AT Hop card for example. Which grinds my gears, as we’re talking about a publicly subsidised service that’s meant to be accessible across all of society.

By now you might be asking yourself: “surely there’s a technology solution for this technology problem?”

Why yes, there are plenty of programs to track and ideally, prevent the storms that might be brewing in your finances.

Depending on your levels of time and patience, you could keep a spreadsheet and enter data into it manually. It’s cumbersome and error prone, even with templates.

By accident (okay, someone on Twitter mentioned it), I came across Grocy [grocy.info]. This is a modular Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) application. It works in a similar fashion to ERP software used by larger businesses in that it lets you anticipate and plan for demand.

As the name implies, Grocy was initially aimed at grocery shopping. Supermarket raids take out a good chunk of most people’s budgets and having an app that you can host yourself and help with budgeting and planning is a great idea especially when flatting.

Grocy is free and open source, runs on desktops and mobiles, and has had features such as barcode scanning added over time. Having some technical bent helps with Grocy, which is customisable if you learn how to do it.

Setting up Grocy and using it made me realise that similar apps would be the sort of fintech innovation bank customers would love. Connect them to bank accounts, with strong privacy controls and open standards of course, to get better visibility of outgoings v income, set budgets to control spending, and more. In essence, allow customers to manage their money in an active fashion rather than passive guesswork.

If we are going to dump cash and go fully digital for payments, let’s go fully frictionless for money management as well.

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