Last summer, my youngest daughter and her friends were chatting about how they had all decided to save money using various financial apps, each designed to painlessly keep the change on purchases and to put the proceeds into an investment account. I recently had the same group of young women back in my home, and asked about their progress. All had seen the apps — which would round purchases up to the nearest dollar and invest the change — amass a couple of hundred dollars in less than a year. And all of them had liquidated the accounts and stopped using the apps the first time they had a cash crunch.
That includes my daughter, who is financially savvy and knows the benefits of long-term savings, but who still felt that “hitting the app” was easier than “heading to the bank” when she needed some cash.
For all the good that financial and investment apps can do — bringing banking to the unbanked and lowering the costs of borrowing, allowing small savers to access the market without allowing commissions to consumer their small trades, and helping individuals find painless, no-brainer ways to save — they also have a down side.
New research from the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University in D.C. shows that the people using mobile payments are more likely to overdraw their accounts, to pay late fees on credit cards and other bills and to take early withdrawals from retirement accounts. The research didn’t show whether the group most prone to these behaviors — millennials — are also likely to act like my daughter and friends, tapping planned long-term savings for short-term wants, but it’s a safe bet that the girls are closer to the rule than the exception.
Previous studies have shown that people who use mobile payments tend to have more assets, income and are more confident and educated in their finances, but the GWU study found that 25 percent of mobile payments users pay fees for credit-card cash advances, compared with 7 percent of those who do not use mobile payments.
Roughly one-quarter of mobile payments users pay late fees, compared with 16 percent of nonusers, with one-in-five mobile payments users paying fees for exceeding their credit limit, compared to about one-in-20 nonusers; one-third of millennials who use mobile payments overdraft their checking account, compared with less than 20 percent of those who never use mobile payments.
Intuitively, there’s a disconnect here. You’d think that mobile payment users would be more in touch with the amount they have on account or where they stand with available credit. It appears, however, that financial self-awareness gets lost in the convenience of tapping and swiping.
Clearly, that was the case with my own kid, who was using an app to set aside money into a diversified investment account, but who tapped that fund — rather than a bank account — in a moment of need, precisely because it was easily accessed compared to other assets, including available cash. Worse yet, for those young app users, the down side of the programs can be costs, which are low in the absolute — as low as a dollar per month for popular investment apps like Acorns and Stash — but that can actually be more costly than just putting the money on account in a bank for the short run.