Love and money: What banks can learn from fintechs’ apps for couples

Conflicts about mismatched budgeting styles or forgotten bills can lead to serious strife in a romantic relationship. A number of fintechs have sprung up in the past few years that go beyond offering traditional joint accounts to get at the root of these problems.

Tension over money matters is common in committed relationships: TD Bank’s sixth annual Love and Money survey found that in 2020, 86% of couples surveyed talk about finances at least once a month, with one in three of those pairs arguing about it. At the same time, attitudes about combining finances are changing and making household budgeting more complex.

“Couples are getting married later in life so they’re more financially established,” said Ramy Serageldin, co-founder and CEO of the budgeting app Honeyfi, which was recently acquired by the debt relief company Strategic Financial Solutions. “The mindset is much more about yours, ours and mine, versus, We’re going to put it all together.”

Apps such as Gather, Hitched, Honeydue, Honeyfi, Twine and Zeta, as well as a new joint banking feature of the challenger bank Qapital, exist as a middle ground for couples between manually entering numbers on a spreadsheet and consulting a financial advisor for help.

These fintechs usually target committed pairs who have co-mingled their finances, whether they are married, engaged or living together. They may offer joint checking or savings accounts, encourage users to save for common goals, aggregate financial accounts with the ability to share (or hide) the details from a partner, and spark communication through messaging tools. The ideas often stem from founders who dealt with friction around money in their own lives — from preparing to have a third child while living in Manhattan, as experienced by Serageldin, to grappling with starkly different incomes, in the case of Zeta co-founder and CEO Aditi Shekar.

Some of this functionality is lacking at most traditional banks, even though joint accounts are standard and budgeting features may exist for individuals.

“As people go through their financial lives, there is this key moment where they are starting a relationship and need to weave their finances together,” said Alex Johnson, director of fintech research at Cornerstone Advisors. “There is no easy onramp in banking right now.”

Banks that do adopt similar features and catch the eye of couples when they first merge their finances have a better shot than niche fintechs at capturing the entire financial relationship, as these customers have children, seek mortgages and prepare for retirement.

One crucial feature many of these apps share is the ability for each user to aggregate their individual financial accounts. That means the app can help them budget, but lets users decide whether they want to divulge individual balances, transactions or nothing at all to their partners. Typically, each member of a couple will download the app separately even though the overall experience is meant to be communal.

“My hypothesis is an increasing number of couples want to maintain separate accounts but have shared conversations about money,” said Johnson. “That’s tricky because it’s not a joint account, but an interface that fits over individual accounts that allows for some level of collaboration and communication.”

For example, with Honeyfi, each member of the couple will link their external financial accounts through Plaid or a direct connection to the financial institution and decide which details to reveal to their partner. The company uses machine learning to categorize transactions, suggest individual and household budgets, predict recurring bills and forecast spending — for example, notifying the users partway through the month if it appears they will come in over or under budget.

Honeyfi also encourages its couples to save for common goals. Although the savings accounts are individual, users can invite their partners to join them in a common objective, and Honeyfi will automate transfers from each user’s linked checking account to their Honeyfi savings accounts. The funds are held with the $1.2 billion-asset NBKC Bank in Overland Park, Kansas.

Zeta divides its functionality among two separate apps: one for budgeting, called Zeta Money Manager, and one that acts as a digital joint account, called Zeta Joint Cards. (Deposits are held by the $3.3 billion-asset LendingClub Bank in Lehi, Utah.) Money Manager lets each member of the couple share data from their connected accounts, monitor spending, receive bill pay reminders and track progress toward meeting common goals. The Bill Reserve feature lets couples automatically set aside a target amount to cover upcoming bills.

Katherine Salisbury and George Friedman, the couple who co-founded Qapital, were inspired to build Qapital’s Dream Team joint banking feature as the complexities around their finances increased, as they raised four children, and they suddenly had less free time.

Dream Team is still in beta testing but, like the other apps, it gives couples an overview of their finances and encourages them to save for common goals. Users can also grant permission to their partners to transfer money between Qapital accounts.

Hitched, a challenger bank built by the bank technology provider Nymbus in its Nymbus Labs division, is gathering initial customers in pre-launch mode before it becomes part of an existing financial institution this summer. It is aimed at newlyweds and consists of a checking and savings account, a debit card that rounds up purchases to the nearest dollar (the difference can go toward date night, for instance) and budgeting and goal-setting features.

Some questions the app is trying to address are, “How can we visualize where our money is going? How can we be more efficient?” said Liz High, executive vice president of strategy and marketing at Nymbus.

Beyond keeping both partners in the loop about household finances, these apps are also trying to boost communication.

“Money is a sensitive subject,” said Johnson. “When you’re talking to your partner it’s easy for criticisms or questions to take a negative turn, and suddenly you’re fighting when you didn’t mean to fight.”

Many of these fintechs integrate memos, comment boxes and notifications into their offerings so couples can ask questions, discuss progress toward a goal or cheer each other on. The idea is that in-person conversations don’t always go smoothly and the app can streamline these interactions — while creating some necessary distance.

“We found in our research that couples see an expense on a joint account, screenshot it, text it to their partner, and be like, What is this?” said Shekar. But with in-app messaging and reminders, “Technology helps take that awkwardness away from having that conversation,” she said. “It’s like Zeta is telling you to do it.”

Besides enabling in-app messaging, Zeta sends weekly and monthly emails to its Money Manager users, which summarize the couple’s finances and provides fodder for what Zeta calls a “money date,” or conversation about money. Joint Cards users can receive notifications for low bill reserves, progress toward shared savings goals and more. To foster a sense of togetherness, Zeta will ask couples for a “team name” when they create their accounts and refer to them by this nickname thereafter.

Qapital is testing several communication methods among its users, including a notation system, similar to Google Docs, and a video screen-sharing capability, to see what works best.

Honeyfi suggests spending challenges to its couples that can either be collaborative, for instance spending less than $50 on entertainment this week, or competitive. The couple can choose their own reward for the winner — say, a weeklong break from washing the dishes.

If, after all these efforts, the relationship sours, some apps have a plan to speedily disentangle the couple’s finances as well.

With Zeta Money Manager an “end relationship” mechanism will instantly sever the user’s visibility into their ex-partner’s accounts.

“The breakup button was the first feature we built,” said Shekar. “We wanted it to be the least of your worries in that situation.”

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