By Caroline Odom, University of Georgia
Being in college often means feeling broke.
One student wonders if he will be able to pay his rent. Another questions if he should stay home and cook or go out to eat with his friends. Even students who can rely on the financial safety net of their parents may question their financial situation as personal finances become personal for the first time.
Regardless of the situation, students often feel uncertainty about not knowing how to keep track of income and expenses, and the feeling of disconnect from personal finances can be eased or aggravated by mobile finance apps.
These apps are created to help users understand and control their money, but users who fail to incorporate them into broader plans or budgets are missing the point, said Sophia Anong, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences who has a Ph.D. in family and consumer economics.
“How people use the information matters,” Anong said.
Anong teaches students about money management, insurance and retirement planning in a personal finance class each semester. It is open to all students, so the students who sign up are those who have an interest in learning how to manage money, said Anong.
The class requires its more than 100 students to track their spending using Microsoft Excel and compare that to using a mobile financial app or keeping a financial diary.
Anong’s students prefer Mint, a free personal finance app, that allows users to link the app with their bank accounts to help them track their spending. The app automatically analyzes and categorizes the information, but students do not think much about money because they rely on automation, said Anong.
Sonal Sharma, a fourth-year from Buford, Georgia, studying international affairs, has used Mint in the past.
“I’ll attempt it and then I will just kind of fall off the wagon because honestly I don’t really need to spend anything except for food,” said Sharma. “So, I guess that’s where all my money goes.”
Sharma receives money from her parents to cover those expenses. She is open to trying Mint again when she has a steady income.
Daniel Clark, a fourth-year health and physical education major from Rome, Georgia, primarily uses his bank’s mobile app.
“It tells me my savings and my checking and then … if I click my checking it tells me all my transactions, so it’s like an automatic budget,” Clark said. Clark does not have any goals for monthly spending.
Anong’s students often acknowledge that using a finance app is easier than having to manually track their spending, but Anong said they lose the planning aspect when they rely only on the app.
“Something is showing you how you [are] spending, but then what do you do with that information?” Anong said.
Peer-to-peer payment apps like Venmo and Zelle could also complicate keeping track of money flow. These services allow users to send money to each other from their mobile device when linked with a bank account or credit card.
Students often use these apps to pay friends for dinner or gas, but Anong questions whether students account for these payments when tracking their spending or creating a budget. When transactions automatically happen, they may be forgotten about.
“It’s sort of difficult when you have money sitting there because you basically can only use it to Venmo other people back,” said Jaime Baker, a first-year intended entertainment and media studies major from Fayetteville, New York. She had a Venmo account before starting college.
“But it’s so useful for college because you always owe people money, and people always owe you money,” Baker said.
Users of finance apps who still feel out of touch with their money can consider other methods recommended by Anong, such as using Excel to keep track of finances.
“As much as possible they try to think of everything that they have with respect to money coming in, whether it’s allowance, money, whatever scholarship money and also money coming out [and] what they spend it on,” Anong said.
As users track their financial patterns, they can begin to develop a budget and compare estimated spending to actual spending.
The whole point of budgeting is to not spend more than you plan for, Anong said.
Anong’s class also gives students the option to keep a financial diary instead of using a mobile app.
“On a daily basis for, let’s say, six weeks or eight weeks write down what you did that day, even if you didn’t spend money,” Anong said. This type of financial diary encourages students to reflect on their spending so they can better plan.
Arjun Sinha tracks his finances in an Excel spreadsheet that he maintains for a personal finance course taught by another professor.
Since tracking his finances for the class, Sinha has become more aware of when he spends money, but he does not plan on continuing after he completes the class because of the amount of time it takes.
“In the moment, I don’t think too much to do it right then and there,” Sinha said.
One recommendation from financial educators for people in financial crisis is to use a cash system, said Anong. After setting up a budget and estimating spending for a certain time period, users withdraw that amount of money from their accounts and put it into envelopes for budget categories.
Cash is tangible and better registers in our minds, Anong said. Habits developed in using cash can eventually carry over into using electronic money.
Anong wants students completing her class to have learned about the importance of financial planning, but relying on automation may prevent them from doing that. Students wanting to take control of their personal finances have to find a method that works best for them, she said, and they have to be willing to put in time and effort.
“The key takeaway is budgeting, the planning part of it,” Anong said. “Not the tracking (of) spending, but actually planning on how you want to spend for the coming month.”
Even though financial apps offer convenience, they will not do all the work.
Caroline Odom is journalism major in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.