Fin Tech – Financial Technology is everywhere now. From Internet only banks to robo-advisors to automated loan processing to auto-invest, auto-save, the automatic word has prevailed the personal finance world.
Gone are the days when people queued up in banks to deposit or withdraw money, fill up paper forms to open an investment account and wait for hot tips to buy that fateful stock.
With the financial world so much dominated by technology, there are some tools and techniques we should employ to make our personal finance more automated and efficient, thus leaving us more time to pursue real passions.
Here are a few areas of personal finance where I think we cannot avoid the best of automation.
This is a no-brainer, however people still flock to big mortar banks like Chase, Bank of America or Wells Fargo. If you read the reviews of these banks, there are endless complaints about non-explained fees, bad customer service and old style bureaucracy.
On the other hand, I bank with a Credit Union which does not even have branches in my state of residence, and another online savings bank which is linked to the checking account in the Credit Union.
In last two years in US (and same in India), I did not feel the need for a local branch. True, once or twice when I needed to withdraw cash more than the permitted limits in authorized ATMs, I could just go to one of their affiliate Credit Union branches in my city.
Thus moving your banking to completely Internet based and using mobile apps, you are in better control of your money than dealing with the brick-and-mortar banks.
All the internet banks provide goal based savings accounts, the one I use definitely has that feature. It makes it extremely easy to setup savings goals (5 minutes) and let it go automatic every month.
If you still don’t want to do the planning, budgeting etc. for saving money, check out Acorns or Digit, these are two advanced FinTech companies who help you save in the background.
Acorns helps you accumulate the spare change from your everyday purchases and siphons it away to an investment account.
Digit is a bit more sophisticated in that it analyzes your spending pattern from a linked checking account, and saves off what it can. Of course you can set it up in a way you like, but they also guarantee not to cause overdraft.
Before you try out these apps and link your account, please read through reviews and understand their fees. The fees has to be justified compared to the value it will add to managing your finances.
For example, I signed up for Digit but later decided to pull back, as I already know and have set up automated transfers for my savings goals.
There are other similar apps and the following link may help.
Like Acorns is a micro-investing app which pulls money out of your account and forces you to invest, there are robo-advisors for bigger and planned investment.
This can be a completely hands-off approach to investing and let the expert designed algorithms decide your asset allocation and investment product mix.
Here is a good discussion, again from nerdwallet.com.
Moreover, the brokerage companies like Schwab also has robo-advisor options.
What gets tracked, grows. I don’t know who said that, but tracking your Net worth and investments is important.
While you can keep the overall numbers in your head if you check your accounts regularly, there is nothing better than having an algorithm do the data crunching and show your portfolio with all kinds of analysis and charts. It is even better if it can project future growth of Net worth with reasonable assumptions.
This can be done by plain old Excel sheets and I do the same before I could trust the online sites with a consolidated view of my personal finance.
While this is very convenient and tempting to look at all the analysis available, do this if you are comfortable linking all your accounts to one of these services. Below is a detailed review of Personal Capital, but do your own diligence and research.
Real Estate Crowdfunding
This one is my favorite and real innovations are sweeping this field.
While real estate is the most lucrative (and hyped) investment of all, it comes with high degree of everything – risk, reward, hard work, expertise and complexity.
Traditionally real estate portfolio is built by acquiring houses and buildings with part cash and part leverage, and then managing the day to day affairs of keeping a tenant, fixing issues, chasing rent cheques, vetting and evicting tenants etc. You need a lot of knowledge, time, experience and most important of all, a team of real estate agents, lawyers, tax professional, property managers to run a successful business.
Simple investors who have a different passion than real estate (or loves their own job), do not have so much time and risk appetite to run a full fledged business of rentals.
This is where sites like Fundrise, Roofstock, Rich Uncles come in play. They are making it easier for small investors (even non-accredited) to get a flavor of real estate in their portfolios without the heavy lifting of managing rentals and tenants.
However real estate is an ill-liquid investment and may take 7-10 years to get back the principal. Proceed with caution and read the prospectus, investment style and restrictions carefully before diving in.
I have personally invested with Fundrise but less than 10% of my overall portfolio.
The main risk is once invested, you lose control of the principal as you cannot sell on your own. However the convenience outweighs the risks, if you know what you are doing. With Fundrise for example, your portfolio is invested all across the United States in commercial buildings. It is simply not possible to build such a portfolio directly, unless you want to be a full fledged real estate professional.
Similarly Roofstock enables you to actually own a rental property in different states of US but once invested, you own and manage it with the help of certified property managers.
Tread with caution, surely real estate crowdfunding is going to take off, unless it runs into a major scam or something.
With so much automation in the personal finance industry, it is difficult to stay away and not take advantage of these tools. At the same time, it is scary to lose control of your money and investments.
Many people are still skeptical of online finance and not without reason, given the recent data breaches at Equifax and CapitalOne. Another reason for skepticism is due to the perceived loss of control. For example, lot of investors still prefer to hold physical real estate than trust online real estate crowdfunding. It reminds me of the obsession in Asian countries (especially India) of holding physical gold (bars or jewelry), till paper gold ETF came along and created lot more gold investors.
On the contrary, we leave so much control of our lives to experts. When we fly, we leave it to the pilots and the airplane auto-pilot system. When we are sick, we let the doctors take over. When we are educating our child, we send them to good schools.
So why should it be different for personal finance, if FinTech frees you from unnecessary headache and lets you concentrate on your real passions?
Let the experts and machines do the job (for a fee of course) but you have to do your research so as not to run into dubious sites and services.
The new mantra of personal finance – Learn, Automate, Delegate, Track.
Disclaimer – I am not promoting any of the services mentioned in this post nor my opinion should matter in your choice. Do your own due diligence, as I have done in selecting my own set of services according to my needs and risk tolerance.