Budgeting, Guy Style: App Zaps Personal Finance's Gender Gap

PowerWalletAdam Levey, a 23-year-old graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is set to begin his stint as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va. New to life outside his parents' financial purview, he's learning how to budget his salary of just over $3,000 a month. He's got major expenses -- a car loan on a 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee and a career starter loan from the Naval Academy -- plus twice-monthly trips to see his girlfriend in New Jersey, which cost $80 on gas alone.

Like many men his age, Levey hasn't been the most conscientious about his money. "I spend money quickly, and I don't think about it," he said. "When you don't have a girlfriend, it costs a lot of money, and when you do, it costs a lot of money. It takes a lot of discipline to manage your finances."

To help him buckle down, he's turned to PowerWallet, a new online money management tool. He likes it because he can see his bank accounts, loans and investments all in one place, plus get bill-pay reminders and spending-limit alerts to keep him from busting his budget.

But what really appealed were the incentives for staying on top of his balance sheet. Every time Levey accepts a coupon offer or sets a new bill-pay alert, he earns "PowerPoints." Earn enough points and he gets cash back, in the form of gift cards or prepaid debit cards. In addition, the site offers deals custom-tailored for Levey: If his spending history shows that he's been dropping big bucks at T.G.I.Friday's, for example, the interface may offer him a discount alternative at Applebee's.

PowerWallet is just one example of a new crop of budgeting tools designed with men in mind. Common wisdom holds that those in Levey's generation are often entitled moochers, sponging off the Bank of Mom and Dad, and that they lack the skills of financial independence. PowerWallet aims to help them change that with strategies that make household accounting into less of a chore and more of a game.

Getting Men to Pay Attention to the Bank Balance

PowerWallet co-founder Howard Dvorkin offers an evolutionary theory for why some young males take a back seat when it comes to household finances.

"The wife tends to grab the checkbook," he said. "And the man goes out and hunts -- I hate to bring it back to caveman days."

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But that atavistic mindset continues to prevail: In 75% of American households, women manage the expenses and pay the bills, according to a Harris Interactive survey. That left an opening for PowerWallet to engage men like Levey, who are starting to abandon those laissez faire tendencies.

Anecdotally, Dvorkin said, there has been a significantly higher user growth rate among men in recent months.

One reason may be PowerWallet's mobile interface, which creates an easier entry point for guys on the go. "The ability to take the finances off the hard drive in the kitchen and move online where they could have access it to 24/7 was a critical point," said Steve Smith, CEO of Mvelopes, an online budgeting tool that focuses on mobile applications. "And that's even further extended with mobile technology."

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the PowerWallet team has also tried to make its user experience as no-frills as possible.

"PowerWallet's mobile site functions exactly like an app without the hassle of searching or downloading anything," said Bob Sullivan, PowerWallet co-founder. "We believe men will find it more appealing, because it's simple and doesn't require a ton of work."

Good Incentives

But ease of access itself isn't enough when it comes to personal finance software. Keeping users engaged requires some incentives. PowerWallet's technique focuses on the "gamification" of money management. When logging in or setting a spending alert earns you "PowerPoints," budgeting starts to feel more interactive and playful. A similar method is alsopromoted by SaveUp, another personal finance management site.

Ditto for personalization and special offers, like the discounts Levey got for Applebee's. By tracking users locations and spending histories, PowerWallet offers "PowerSaver" deals designed to help people to save on the things they're already spending on.

Personalization holds plenty of appeal for women, too, says PowerWallet beta tester Latasha Lawrence. The 26-year-old just graduated from optometry school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is set to do her residency in Bloomfield, N.J. -- an expensive move that has further strained her student budget.

She was aware she was overspending on some things, but she didn't realize just how much -- until she spent a couple of months testing PowerWallet.

"I knew that I was eating out a lot," Lawrence said, "but after seeing [my expenses] all in one place on PowerWallet, it looks excessive." She has changed her tactic and become more conscious of her spending by setting a $200 monthly food budget, cooking more and refrigerating leftovers for a couple of meals.

Now, she's also offered deals tailored to her favorite restaurants -- or equivalent competitors -- to make those eating out more financially palatable.

That sort of service is the whole point, according to Sullivan.

Personal Finance Tools For Mobile and Desktop
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Budgeting, Guy Style: App Zaps Personal Finance's Gender Gap

1. On Mint.com, you can upload your account information and get immediate insight into where your money is going. You can then use that information to start saving more money, like Flannigan did. That ease of use makes it one of the top-rated tools.

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2. Doughhound.com, created by Danny and Jillian Tobias, lets users create a budget and track spending without sharing passwords and other personal information.

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3. Geezeo offers its money-management tools through banks and credit unions. While it stopped working with individual customers, anyone with a bank or credit union who uses the program can take advantage of the platform to set goals and track spending habits.

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4. Yodlee also works with financial institutions to reach customers interested in online money management, but individual consumers can sign up for the service. Users say it's easy to upload their spending data and analyze where their money is going.

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5. Pennyminder is ideal for families with multiple spenders because it allows users to see other family members' spending and jointly manage a household budget. The company now offers its platform to credit unions (not individuals).

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6. You Need a Budget is aimed at people living close to their budget and trying to pay off debt. The tool encourages you to decide where every dollar earned is going on a monthly basis, then helps you make adjustments if you spend too much.

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7. Buxfer's simple design is appealing, as is the fact that users can sign in using a Google or Facebook account. It also has an easy tool for people who share expenses, such as roommates.

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8. Pocketsmith focuses on calendar-based planning, which means it allows you to see how your monthly and annual expenses compare with what you bring in. It also encourages rigorous goal-setting.

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9. Moneydance sells its desktop software for about $50, but provides an extensive free trial. Users say it's easy to use with responsive customer service help.

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10. Your own bank or credit union. About 1 in 4 financial institutions currently offer online personal finance management tools. While the Aite survey found that they don't rate as well with users as independent sites do, banks are improving their offerings all the time, so customers should check up on what their bank currently offers. Aite's survey found that 60 percent of financial institutions that don't currently offer personal finance tools are considered doing so. Banks, says Shevlin, are looking for ways to say, "We can help you," in order to forge stronger relationships with customers.

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Meanwhile, new websites and tools are constantly popping up, including Adaptu, Personal Capital, and a "Can I afford it?" app. Informational-based websites such as LearnVest.com also offer free tools, bootcamps, and advice, as well as access to financial planners (for a fee). And websites such as BudgetsAreSexy.com give away free budgeting templates.

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Flannigan, who also runs the website The Guide to Get Rich, says he'll continue monitoring his money habits online because he can see such a clear benefit. He says, "I've spent less money. It opens up your eyes to how much you're spending in each category and makes it easy to account for everything."

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"You may be over budget in your travel and entertainment bucket," Sullivan observed. "We provide you with information on how to reallocate those funds and services."

Getting people to focus on their banking -- even if it takes luring them with in incentives and deals -- is all the more essential in a down economy.

"Five years ago, people weren't paying attention," Dvorkin said. "If they did, they wouldn't be in the shape they're in right now. People were saying, 'We'll just refinance the house' or 'We'll wait until I get that bonus at work,' but now you're lucky if you have a job. Now they have to pay attention."

And if it takes bells and whistles, so be it.
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