Using Technology to Make the Shift to Financial Well-Being

Written by: Bill Capuzzi, CEO | Apex Clearing In the past two decades, technology has changed countless aspects of our lives, including our financial lives. Apps have made it easier to manage bank accounts, debts, budgeting and bills. For many people, especially millennials and younger, these apps have not only given them a better way to get a handle on their day-to-day finances, they’ve opened new avenues for investment, providing access to a world that might otherwise seem too complex and time consuming.However, banking and finance apps are basically disconnected dots in the ecosystem of services people need to manage life and money. Back in the 1990s, large enterprises, like the major consumer banks, began to pull the dots together and today offer online portals and single sign-on for different product areas like checking accounts, lending, saving and investing. These bundled strategies were a first step in what was called financial convergence, offering greater convenience and accessibility, along with new relationship models and pricing concessions. But this initial wave focused primarily at the slick presentation layer, and individual entities, unfortunately, remained siloed at the root data level. With deeper integration, financial firms have an opportunity to go further, to create more meaningful impact in their customers’ lives.Today, convergence has made some important advances, with signs of more to come. Tech-savvy providers are using digital technology to make the siloed products more interoperable, creating intuitive and ergonomic customer experiences. For example, a person’s checking account may have excess cash that can be automatically swept to an investment account; your paycheck can be divided between accounts; or you can easily automate routine bill paying. The customer must set up the rules, but it’s helpful and convenient.But what happens when you don’t know exactly what to do? How can we use technology to deliver advice for the day-to-day financial decisions consumers make, creating better choices and actions that improve people’s financial health? This is the next phase of financial convergence – connected, fluid data overlaid with machine learning to help us move from transactional support (driven by the consumer) to advice (suggested or automated via technology).The financial services industry has left most people in our country underserved because we have not been able to deliver customized advice with the speed, efficiency and low cost necessary. Consider how advisors work with high-net-worth investors today – they offer holistic advice with sophisticated tools and spend a lot of time understanding and advising their clients. If a wealthy client gets a big bonus, they simply reach out to their advisor who will help them decide whether to pay down debt, buy that dream home, or even make a financial gift.Compare that to a young person who receives a $2,500 bonus or windfall and doesn’t have the money to pay for an advisor. Should they keep that as cash on hand for an emergency fund, or pay down student loans? Can they afford to lease a car? Should they try to contribute to an IRA? Every day, mass-market and mass-affluent consumers make financial decisions without understanding their long-term impact and, too often, suffer the consequences of poor choices.The changes we need to make in financial services are analogous to the shift in healthcare from treating the symptom to taking care of the whole person through wellness programs. Large employers like Walmart understand how financial well-being matters to their employees and their business.In 2017, Walmart launched a partnership with Even and PayActiv, two Silicon Valley startups, to provide automated financial planning its employees. Linking data on earnings and checking account history, the tool anticipates the employee’s upcoming expenses, advises on spending decisions and can even arrange access to earned wages before pay dates.Other companies are rethinking their approach to technology, placing a greater emphasis on helping average people optimize their money. Stash is a great example, encouraging small investors to get started with as little as $5, and “learn as they go” with automated saving and investing tools. Smart-Stash, its proprietary algorithm, tracks spending and earning patterns to set aside spare cash when people can afford it. Stash is on the financial wellness path, as is Sofi, which started as a student-loan refinancing company and expanded into a financial community, with a membership model. At Sofi, financial health includes building earning power and offering career services, as well as banking and investing as their customers’ earning power increases.There will always be a place for human advice, as finances can be emotional and complicated. However, that personalized advice is now the province of people who have money – the irony is, the people who need advice most often lack any savings and are living paycheck to paycheck.I think that this is an opportunity and a call to action. Technology is bringing financial wellness to more and more people, which is positive for both businesses and our economy. We are at an important juncture where the financial services industry can elevate its purpose and prosper at the same time. Financial advice, once an advantage available only to the affluent, can someday be available to all, and we will be stronger for it.