This is part of our Rockstar Reviews series. Be sure to check out all previous products we’ve reviewed!
Where to find them: Simple.com (Free)
[This week's review is by Kyle, founder of StewardandSlave.com, who's been using Simple for over 8 years now. He stops by to share the ins and outs of it, and wants everyone to know there are options out there if you hate your current bank!]
A Beautiful, Fee-Free Bank With Actual Humans!
My wife Rachel and I are pretty normal Midwesterners in our mid-20s. We’ve been married for almost two years now, and one of the first things we did after tying the knot was combine our finances. I’ve always been a tech geek, trying out all the cool new gadgets and services as soon as I hear about them. Rachel’s much more laid back, waiting for something to catch on before she wastes too much time fiddling around with it. I never thought those differences would matter much when it came to our bank accounts, but I was wrong. I’d been using Simple almost since they were founded in 2009, and she was a longtime customer of a national bank. For me, things like checking my balance, asking questions about transactions, and depositing checks were a breeze, but I could tell that every interaction she had with her bank left her burning with the fury of a thousand suns. On top of the horrible phone app and website, the fees she had to pay every month were just confusing! I asked her a few times why she still banked there, and she always responded with, “What does it matter? Even if I went somewhere else, they’re all the same.” Then I showed her my bank.
My Bank: Simple
Technically, Simple isn't a bank in and of themselves, but rather a partner with (currently) BBVA Compass, a bank that started in 1964 and is now a subsidiary of the second largest bank in Spain. BBVA Compass handles all the actual cash deposits and financial transactions, and Simple handles the debit card, the apps and the customer service. In practice, the experience is seamless. The only time you, as a customer, even need to remember BBVA Compass' name is if you are signing up for a service like Mint or Personal Capital, where they ask for the name of the bank.
How Simple Works
Alright, so here's how Simple works for me and my wife. When you first log into your Simple account, you see this: may choose to continue using the individual accounts as private stashes, since partner A only has access to his own individual and the Shared account, and can’t see anything about partner B’s individual account. Rachel and I have opted to just pretend like the individual accounts don’t exist anymore, pooling all of our money into the Shared account. The Shared accounts work 99% the same way that individual accounts do, so even if that’s not the route you want to go, this review will still give you an idea of what to expect. We’ll come back to this screen in a minute, but first we need to go over the cornerstone of the Simple experience: Goals.
For most people, budgeting sucks. Updating a spreadsheet, checking an app, and doing mental money gymnastics at the coffee shop every morning isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. If you’re one of those people, Simple has something you might like. It’s called Goals, and it’s a 21st-century take on the tried-and-true envelope budgeting system, built right into your checking account.
Think of Goals like, well, goals you want to accomplish with your money. Most of us want to pay our bills, save for fun stuff, and give a little bit to people and places that matter to us. All you’ve got to do with Simple is create a Goal to work toward those things. You can have as many as you want, and there are two types: Save Now and Save Over Time. Rachel and I only use the Save Now type because that’s just what works for us, and it’s exactly what it sounds like; you save money now towards something, and spend it when you need to spend. This is a great way to set up a sinking fund, like replacing your phone every couple of years or paying for your car insurance every 6 months. We have Goals for every line of our budget, so on payday, we just go down the line and refill the Goals that we agreed on refilling. As we go through the month, we spend from these Goals, and when they hit zero, we’re done until the next payday. Easy-peasy! The other type, Save Over Time, is pretty cool if you’re a little more relaxed with your money. Let’s say your friend calls you up and invites you on a road trip in two months, and you think you’ll need about $300 for food, gas, hotels, etc. Suppose you’re not as crazy as Rachel and me, and you don’t have every single dollar squirreled away every paycheck you get. All you need to do to make sure you have the money for the road trip is to set up the time frame and the amount, in our case $300 in 60 days, and Simple will automatically take $5 out of your Safe-to-Spend (the amount of money you have that’s not currently in a Goal for something else) every day and put it toward that road trip. At the end of two months, without even thinking about it, you can go on a weekend getaway without guilt and without running up a credit card. [EDITOR'S NOTE: For good savings and goals apps specifically, check out Qapital or Digit.]
Now, let’s go back to that first page and look at the first few transactions on the Activity part of the screen.
Up at the top of the list, you’ve got a bunch of scheduled activities, like bill payments and such that will be sent out in the time frame you choose. You don’t get a checkbook with Simple, but they will send checks on your behalf to just about anyone you can think of for free. All you have to do is have enough money in your account on the day the check is supposed to go out, and they take care of the rest. No more stamp-licking! I’ve been sending checks to my apartment complex for the entire time we’ve lived here with no problem. The next three are normal transactions, with some awesome tweaks. You can see the normal info, like date, merchant, and amount, but with Simple, you can also add memos, pictures, and even PDFs to transactions. Let’s take that top transaction I did at Meineke. I have a hard time remembering what I’ve had done to our cars and when, so I normally write a little memo about what service was done at what time each time I go. If I wanted, I could also take a picture of the damage I had fixed or attach the PDF receipt from the shop to make things that much easier down the road (no pun intended). Also, see our cute little faces beside each transaction? Shared accounts come with two debit cards, one for each person. Whoever actually makes the purchase has their profile picture show up by the transaction so you can tell at a glance who’s got the leaky wallet. Finally in this area, notice the “spent from” line? If you’ve got your money spread out across different Goals, you can tie these transactions to those amounts, making following a budget a breeze. You don’t have to mess with any extra apps or little envelopes of cash anymore!
Over on the right hand side of that screen, you’ve got access to something that would normally take a different program to show: Trends. Here’s where you can get a bird’s-eye view of your money and how you’re doing in controlling it. I think this area is pretty self-explanatory, but the power comes in when you start digging. Each of those categories can be clicked on, showing you the transactions that make them up, and giving you a better insight to where your money goes day by day. If you click on an individual transaction, you get the following screen in the Trends area. If something doesn’t seem right, you can contact Support directly from that transaction, and it’ll be referenced in the message you send so they can see what’s going on. You also get info like how much you spend on average at that individual merchant and in the category as a whole. This kind of stuff probably won’t see daily use from the majority of Simple’s users, but it’s awesome to see it integrated directly into a checking account, and is great for someone trying to lock down their finances.
Customer service is almost an oxymoron at banks, and Simple knows it. They set out from the beginning with the goal of making customer service their top priority, and in my experience they’ve excelled. I have seen complaints from others online, but I’ve never had anything but pleasant exchanges with their staff.
You can contact them directly through the app, either on your phone or on the web, and the form is as easy as writing a text message. If you’ve got something a little more pressing, you can also call them seven days a week. That’s right, they have actual people answering the phone on Sundays!! Their text response is fast as well, generally answering questions I’ve had within hours, not days. The best part? They actually talk to you like a human, not a robot reading from a script. They’ve also done an amazing job with two details surrounding the security of your account: freezing your card and changing your PIN. At my brick-and-mortar bank, both of those require a trip into a branch and a conversation with a manager. With Simple, I can do them from my phone in about 30 seconds. Lost your card? Load up the app, hit “block card,” and boom—your card is useless. Ah, your 2-year-old just wanted to see if it fit in the wall socket again? No worries, just unblock it from the app, and you’re good to go again!
Downsides to Simple?
The drawbacks to Simple are, for now at least, ubiquitous among all online-only banks. The most obvious one is that there aren’t any branches. The 10% of customer service scenarios that can’t be handled over the phone are a big problem here. For example, when my wife changed her name after we got married, we had to mail our marriage certificate in, wait for them to get it, and then hope the rest of the transition went smoothly (it did). That would’ve taken about ten minutes at a traditional bank, where it took a little over a week with Simple. Also, there's no way to deposit cash which means our budget gets thrown off track whenever we cover the restaurant bill for friends and get paid back in the paper stuff. And for those rare times when I need to write a check for whatever reason (looking at you, The Government!), it’s just not possible if I have to send it in with a form or something else. We still have an account with a local bank solely for the checkbook, which is a bit overkill. And finally, Simple is only open to US residents for now, and only for personal non-business accounts.
Life With Simple
So, I’ve told you all about the bells and whistles, but how does an internet-only bank stack up against the credit union down the road? Honestly, I can’t tell a difference for the most part. You get a Visa debit card, just like with a local (or national) bank, you can set up direct deposit just like with a local bank, you can deposit checks in the app just like with a local bank, you can buy things online just like with a local bank. You can even set it up with Apple Pay (Android Pay is reportedly on the way, but Simple is pretty mum on their timeline), which is probably better than a local bank. Their technology-first approach addresses what millennials want out of a bank, while the foundation of a traditional bank provides the stability that a lot of new startups can’t promise. In day-to-day use, it really is the best of both worlds, with only a few things falling through the cracks, like the ability to write checks at a moment’s notice and depositing cash. Simple’s aim is to provide the best banking product on the market with a cutting-edge app, awesome technology, and world-class customer service.
If you’re in the mood to drop your current bank in favor of something that actually lets you control your money instead of just watching it, Simple might be right up your alley.
Learn more here: Simple.com
Further recommendations: Capital One 360 (great for creating multiple savings accounts!), Chime (includes loads of Fintech app features built in), Brightpeak Savings Rewards (excellent for starter emergency funds or short-term savings).
***** Kyle is the founder of StewardandSlave.com -- a site where he shares his journey along with his wife in paying off over $80,000 in debt as they work to gain a better understanding of financial responsibility from a Christian perspective. _