Exploring personal finance tools

My wife’s debit card got hacked; just noticed it last night. Friendly reminder: routinely check your bank statement. You usually only have 60 days to report a fraudulent charge, but it’s easier to deal with the sooner you recognize it.

This sent me down a multi-hour exploration of personal finance tools to see if there was anything out there that could passively (maybe with some training) categorize account transactions and detect fraud. As in, iPhone notification: “What’s this $1000 you just spent on eBay? You haven’t used eBay in 7 years.”  I’m sure the financial industry has tools they’re not sharing that look for patterns of behavior across accounts, but I thought this being 2013 someone would have some software out there to do this for individuals.

Thinking if anything were out there, this being 2013, it would probably be built into an existing personal finance tool. I found and tried these tools: Mint.com (positioned as Quicken Online, essentially), Gnu Cash, PageOnce, Personal Capital and Wave Personal.

None of them really worked all that great in terms of transaction classification.  A bunch of transactions that were clearly restaurants (just cross-ref with a Yelp database) showed up uncategorized. Re-categorizing transactions was agonizing with all of them, but Gnu Cash was especially agonizing. I expected them to say, for example, “Hey I see you set this one to clothing, do you want me to set all others that match this to clothing also?”  With the online tools I would have thought that they would have at least one other customer in their database who had already categorized something from that vendor and used that data to help me out.

And none of them seemed to do any kind of real-time, push notification categorization.  It was all up to me to login, sort by uncategorized, and then start clicking away.

Of the four tools, I spent the most time with Personal Capital. The checking account management features were weak compared to the others but it had an interesting mutual fund fee analysis tool. It visualized how much I’m spending on mutual fund fees (mostly from my 401k) and what that’s going to cost me over a lifetime. You can tweak with the inputs to see how certain adjustments to your investments would change the fee structure. Informative.

Another thing I decided I “needed” through this was a historical investment performance tool. The data is all there to plot how my investments have been doing over the last couple of years but none of the tools seemed to have the capability.  Most of them didn’t even try; they said I had $0 yesterday. As a tangent I figured out how to export as much data as I could from my 401k as a CSV and pulled together some performance plots in Excel. (Cumbersome, but it’s possible). I also read about the Open Financial Exchange protocol and discovered its really not that hard to extract this data yourself. I’m surprised there aren’t more tools out there.

In the end I cancelled my accounts with all of the online tools. None of the tools solved the fraud problem the way I wanted to deal with it (push notify) and the investment tools I can reload again if I wanted to see them, but I’ll probably pull together my own next time.