From the early 2000s, there has been a push to create personal finance apps to help people take control of their money. Mint.com and You Need a Budget (YNAB) are prime examples of the personal finance apps created to track bank accounts, income, and spending. Newer versions of personal finance apps include Albert. Overall, the personal finance apps provide a similar solution. The general solution aggregates financial information, visualizes the data, and creates alerts based on changes.
The question is, how effective are those personal finance apps in helping people to reach their financial goals?
Mint.com, You Need a Budget, or Albert are useful for tracking financials. Being able to track financials brings the question, does tracking cash flow leads to better financial behavior?
Going through Google scholar to find scholarly articles about the effectiveness of personal finance apps, it's challenging the find any research that supports the idea that tracking your finance leads to better financial behavior. There is a lack of evidence that using a personal finance app over time yields better financial behavior. It's unclear if people who use Mint regularly are better off than those who use YNAB or a spreadsheet.
Another personal finance tool that has passed the scholarly test, that tool is financial coaching. In 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) conducted rigorous research to learn about the benefits of financial coaching through the Financial Coaching Initiative. The CFPB embedded 60 professional financial coaches in host organizations across the USA, from career centers to social services and legal help. The certified financial coaches provided one-on-one sessions to help consumers create a personalized money plan and set money goals. Common topics included budgeting, money management, credit and debit, and savings.
Over the four years of the CFPB program, the professional financial coaches served over 23,000 Americans. The lessons from the program:
It's about the coach – the coach's soft skills play a role in consumer success.
Being a certified financial coach help the coaches to better coach
Financial coaching works. The consumers who worked with a financial coach saved more and improved their credit scores.
Even a one-time meeting with a certified financial coach was good enough to provide better results for many clients.
The CFPB's financial coaching Initiative provides evidence of the power of financial coaching to help consumers make progress toward their financial goals and improve their financial lives.
The CFPB's financial coaching initiative's success should not surprise. Coaching works. It's true for support groups to lose weight, exercise, or substance abuse. The key to unlocking change is connecting a person looking to change with a coach. Financial coaching should be the foundation to help people reach better financial results. Personal finance apps that track financial progress are a helpful tool, but an app cannot replace the human connection when it comes to being an agent of change.