Illustration via Max Fleishman (Licensed)
Nearly a decade later, the country is still reeling from the aftermath of the Great Recession. Big banks have become synonymous with greed. We share a deep-seated distrust of financial professionals hawking supposedly low-risk, high-return investments. And then there are the massive data breaches, which have become part of everyday life.
It’s time we get over it. Technology has the power to make us vulnerable—but also to revolutionize the way we manage and grow our wealth today. Those who embrace innovations from technology and finance will save, invest, and get rid of debt faster—and with less effort—than any preceding generation. Those who don’t will be left behind.
Not many years ago, personal banking data was essentially locked up by banks. It was hard to even check your transaction history or balance online, never mind pay bills or transfer cash to friends. Then came financial data pioneers like Yodlee and Mint in the early 2000s. These were the first tools to aggregate online financial data and put it in the hands of consumers.
When it comes to purchases, consumers now have the upper hand over retailers and corporations. Previously, this was not a transparent process. All we could do was shop around, trust the recommendations of friends, and hope to get the best deal.
Now, search engines such as Google and Yahoo compile the lowest prices across the Web with a single keyword search. Tools like Honey scour thousands of online discount codes and automatically apply the best one at checkout.
Even companies like Kelly Blue Book and TrueCar have used data and technology to render the stereotypical predatory car dealer extinct. Buyers can quickly research pricing, rebates, and what other buyers are willing to pay, giving them an unprecedented advantage in a historically disadvantaged conversation.
In addition to transparency, financial technology—better known as fintech—has made managing money much easier and cheaper for consumers from all economic backgrounds.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking example is the rise of robo-advisory services.
Consumers have caught on to how they’ve been robbed of their hard-earned retirement funds by high-cost mutual funds. Enter “robo-advisers” like Betterment and Personal Capital. These new services offer competitive returns at a fraction of the cost of a traditional financial adviser. The key: index funds, which have lower costs and historically outperform even the best mutual funds.
Plus, normal investors shouldn’t have to maintain portfolio balances of $250,000-plus to receive quality investment advice. While traditional financial services might charge a 1 percent annual fee on assets under management, robo-advisers charge as little as 0.15 percent.
As financial institutions eliminate physical branches and other overhead costs, consumers will continue to reap the savings.
In recent years, the number of fintech companies creating innovative banking experiences has exploded.
Thanks to the massive amount of readily available data, these online tools make it possible to quickly aggregate a user’s personal financial details. Sophisticated algorithms are then able to recommend a custom, detailed plan within minutes.
For instance, Mint can track a user’s spending, savings, investments, and debts to craft a comprehensive budget. Mint users can easily set and track goals such as saving for a down payment on a home.
Credit Karma pulls data from multiple credit bureaus to provide free credit scores. Users can track credit changes and simulate their future scores based on various hypothetical actions. Even student loan repayment can be streamlined with these services. My company, Student Loan Hero, analyzes users’ real student loan and financial data to recommend repayment plans and find student loan forgiveness options. Our app can even complete and submit consolidation and income-driven repayment applications on their behalf.
The ugly side of digital banking
We shouldn’t fear technology when its capabilities to help us grow our wealth far surpass the risks.
While all of this is well and good, we still can’t ignore the fact that with new technology comes new threats to our personal information.
It seems like there are dozens of new apps released every day. And while the creators of these apps and tools (hopefully) have good intentions, who’s to say that they’re actually helping you make smart financial decisions? To put it simply: How do you know who to trust?
The truth is that virtually all these businesses need to make money somehow. If they give recommendations for a product, it’s very likely they’re being paid to do so.
Plus, between Big Data and consumers’ willingness to share intimate financial information with so many companies, it’s only a matter of time until someone decides to use that data against us.
The point is that we shouldn’t fear technology when its capabilities to help us grow our wealth far surpass the risks. But you, the consumer, have a responsibility to ensure you’re never taking too many shortcuts and view every app, tool, and service with a critical, educated eye.