Level Money is dead, long live Level Money

By way of introduction, my name is Mike, and up until last July I was the person leading customer experience for the Level Money mobile application at Capital One.

Earlier this month, Capital One announced that they will be sun-setting Level Money throughout August, and shutting the service off in September. Over the last 2 years, my team members and I had poured a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the application, and it was a big blow to hear that something we’d worked on so diligently was to unceremoniously enter the app store void.

I’ll be honest, while the news that the app is going away was a bit of a bummer from a professional standpoint, I’d already moved on from the company and was no longer terribly attached to the project other than as a user— I left the Capital One last month to move to Japan with my partner, who is now working on her Master’s degree outside Tokyo, but that’s another story…

However, hearing the news that Level is going away put me in the unenviable situation of needing to search for a new app-of-choice to track my spending. I can only imagine that many Level Money lovers are feeling the same way I am — irritated at the thought of having to vet a bunch of other applications to find a replacement.

Here, I wanted to share my story about how I originally came to join the Level Money project, why it was such a killer app for me, and share some alternatives in hopes that this might help others shorten their search for replacement finance tools.

What follows is a long, drawn out account of how I got into the fintech industry, with some minor travel blogging thrown in for good measure. If you’re just interested in my thoughts on personal finance management tools, you can skip down to the last two sections.

Arriving at the “Daily Burn Rate” approach to spending

I live fairly frugally. In 2013, I was fortunate enough to be earning enough such that without thinking about it, I always spent less than I earned each month. My credit card was setup on auto-pay, and each month I’d glance at my statement just to see that it was within its normal range for my monthly spending; that was the full extent of my money management.

In July of that year (apparently I like to quit jobs in July), I left my first job at a software company in San Mateo, California and bought a one-way ticket to Bali. The idea was to get there and start surfing, and then figure out the rest of a trip around the world from there. I had saved up a chunk of dough to fuel my wanderings, and had come up with a monthly target for my spending. I had pegged my budget to a month because, well hey, that’s how I’d always measured things before.

Once I got out on the road, my financial situation couldn’t have been any more different from how it was prior. I was strapped for cash. Not in the literal sense, but because I didn’t have a great way to control how I was spending, I was perpetually stressed that I would overspend and have to cut my trip short.

With a only a monthly target in mind for my spending it was extremely tough to know whether I could, on any given day, afford a beer with dinner, or a particular excursion or adventure; this worry in turn led to intense austerity and missing out on a lot of fun that I could have afforded if I had had a better system to track my spending. To this day, my one big regret from the year-plus that I spent on the road was that I didn’t enjoy my time in Indonesia, opting instead to constantly fret over my checkbook.

But I am proud that even if it took me a month, I left Bali with a better system in place, and mentally was much better prepared to spend on the things I wanted in my future destinations.

My new system, built to help my last for a year on the road AND still afford to have some fun was as follows:

  1. Each time I would plan travel to a new country, I would earmark funds for big-ticket items I knew I wanted to spend on.
  2. After that, I would take the remainder of that month’s budget and break it down by day.

Given the strength of the dollar to the local currency in question, my monthly target would vary. During the first few days in each new destination, I would evaluate whether my new daily target was do-able (i.e. I could feed myself and keep a roof over my head), and if I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome, I would cut big ticket items in order to increase what I could spend on daily living.

Tracking + Relief

Key to this system was keeping a solid accounting of what I spent each day. I admit I was a bit of a nerd on this account. But while I may be a teetotaler, it was no more complex than jotting down every single purchase as I made them in a notebook that I carried with me.

Because I was tracking my spending daily, against a daily target, it became very easy to know where I stood. In fact, when you’re trying to spend no more than $25 a day, you’ll realize pretty quickly that you can remember everything you’ve purchased up through 5pm.

I didn’t need to think about how I was doing for the month, just how I was doing for the day. I was no longer in the dark, waiting for a nasty surprise when I checked how much cash I had left in my wallet at the end of a week, or dreading logging into my online banking to check my credit card balance.

Most of the time, if I over-spent one day, I could consciously under-spend the next and get myself back on track. When traveling in cheap countries, in my experience at least, it’s usually beer, taxis, and the option of having air conditioning in your hostel that dictate being above or under budget. The goal of course, was to always be under so that when I was hit with an unexpected splurge I wasn’t conflicted about it.

Once I started adhering to this new system, I was so much more relaxed, and finally able to enjoy myself at dinner, because I knew whether I could afford a beer that night (or maybe even two)!

Joining Level Money

Now fast forward two years. I’m in the jungle, house-sitting for some friends on the west coast of Colombia, and thanks to sticking to my new financial tracking system, I was finally able to surf on this trip as much as I had hoped.

One has a lot of time on their hands when living two hours away from the nearest human settlement, so naturally I started thinking that I ought to teach myself how to code. Must have been technological withdrawal, or something. I had flailed on various online learning coding courses in the past, and had arrived at the brilliant idea that this time I would come up with a coding project I could get excited about, and this would help push me through learning my first coding language.

By this time, my notebook for my daily expenses had graduated to a spreadsheet with a fair number of bells and whistles. And while this was awesome (I know, sorry, I’m such a personal-finance nerd), it brought with it the tedious need to enter all of my expenses (most of them cash) into the spreadsheet. This got to be quite arduous, especially I missed a few days and had to recall a week’s worth of spending post-facto.

The lightbulb went on. I would use my future coding skills to build myself a mobile app that would give me the reports I had in my spreadsheet, and allow me to input my purchases into my phone when I made them.

I thought this was such a great idea, I figured I couldn’t have been the first to come up with it. And because I am very lazy, I decided to check around on the app store to make sure nobody had already built this.

Turns out they had! Level Money was sitting right there waiting for me. Well, I got so excited to find the app that I totally forgot about the idea of learning to code (still haven’t!). Better still, the company was headquartered in San Francisco, and as I was soon to be returning, jobless, to San Franciso I thought I’d drop them a line to inquire about employment…

Three months later I joined Capital One on the Level Money team running their customer support operations. Amazing what you can pull off from the jungle with a good satellite internet connection and a few solar cells!

I spent the next two years helping build out the support team, and taking customer feedback and turning it into new features for the app. All the while, our goal was to make a spreadsheet-killer that would give our customers the relief from cash-flow worries that I had found in Bali, without having to do all of the manual data entry I was doing while I traveled.

Level Money Alternatives

I loved Level Money, and I loved it because it provided exactly the same tool I had built for myself, and it improved on it by making it automatic. That said, I’d be the first to admit that it’s wasn’t perfect, and that it wasn’t for everyone.

I can say that with confidence, because I have personally read and replied to thousands of emails from many awesome, dedicated Level Money customers; I understand that financial tools are very situation specific, and that makes building a perfect personal finance tool very difficult, as everyone’s financial situation is unique, and ever changing.

To whit, I found that when my partner got a new job and we had two incomes coming into the household, I no longer needed the granularity of spending visibility and control that I had used Level Money for when I first discovered it.

At that point, I was back to checking our monthly spending once a month, and shifted to focus on what we were spending on, to see where we might be able to cut back on things like eating out, coffee shop visits, etc. And because we were finally saving money for the first time since 2013, I found myself exploring investing focused tools as well.

After two years spent working on Level, I no longer thought it was possible to build a truly one-size-fits-all personal finance and budgeting tool, and that we would need a plethora of apps targeted at various niches.

When I received the email that Level was being shut down, I downloaded all of the best-rated apps on both iOS and Android and started to play around with them. I dove deeper back into Mint and Personal Capital, which I’ve both used for years, looking for a Level alternative. There are lots of cool tools out there, but nothing that did exactly what I was looking for, or was used to, at least.

Finally, I resigned myself to resuscitating my spreadsheet of yore, with plans to export my transactions from Mint each month in a CSV and copy/past them into my spreadsheet. Ugh.

The whole time, I was thinking to myself, “Sweet lord, if someone could just hook up the data feed from Mint or Personal Capital, or any of the litany of apps running on Yodlee or Plaid so I didn’t have to manually push my transactions into this Google Sheet, man, would that be awesome.”

And it was at this moment that my interest in learning to code was rekindled. I thought, “If I can learn enough Python and Google Apps Script, I can probably use a free developer account to pull in my own transactions via Plaid and drop them into a spreadsheet, and then I would be set for life…”.

But remember, I’m very lazy. And to save myself from actually having to go through the first two lessons of a much dreaded Python tutorial for the fifth time, I set out to do some Googling, and friends and soon-to-be former Level Money users, I have been delivered.

The automated, one-size-fits-all personal finance tool does exist. It is called Tiller. And it is good.

Tiller Review

Tiller uses Yodlee to connect your financial institutions and pumps your transaction and balance data into a Google Spreadsheet. That’s it. After two years at Capital One spent trying to build a better spreadsheet, the simplicity of just using a dang spreadsheet is stunning to me.

Tiller is the only software I know of that has harnessed the power that all the PFM applications out there provide to aggregate your transactions from across all your financial accounts, and simultaneously done away with the restrictions of having someone who isn’t you build a user interface for your finances.

Within a few hours, I was effectively able to clone the cash-flow tracking functionality in Level Money in my spreadsheet, as well as build a balance tracking dashboard that is easier for me to read than either Personal Capital’s or Mint’s. Luckily for me, Yodlee supports aggregation for all my financial institutions, including my investment accounts, so I’m excited for what I will be able to do with those in the future.

For those who are not spreadsheet warriors, Tiller also provides a bunch of pre-made spreadsheet templates, many of them with transaction categorization built-in. These were a great place to start building more advanced reports, because it saved me the work of researching and building queries in the spreadsheet that are beyond my present abilities.

Overnight, I became a huge Tiller fan. I still like a few of the data visualizations in Personal Capital (mostly for their asset allocation graph), but Mint is pretty much dead to me.

Using a Google Spreadsheet on my phone isn’t great, but as I am aggregating transactions and not inputting them manually, I don’t really need a mobile view any longer, and I can still check the dashboards I’ve built for myself when I want to.

Categorizing my transactions on Google Sheets on my phone would be brutal, but I prefer to do it on my laptop once every few weeks, and it is ridiculous how much faster I categorize a month’s worth of transactions in a spreadsheet versus Level Money, Mint, Personal Capital or any other application’s UI I have tried to date. Keyboard FTW.

For those who, like me, will be needing a replacement for Level Money come September and are comfortable working with a spreadsheet, I would recommend checking out Tiller.

I’ve built and shared a very rudimentary sample version of my spreadsheet that allows you to quickly calculate a monthly target for your spending, and then tracks your monthly spending against that goal, based on the category you assign to each transaction.

You can check out the template here. To make a copy that you can experiment with, login to your Google account, go to File, and then click “Make a copy…”.

This example has dummy data in it. I wish I earned that much… Have fun!

TL;DR: The Level Money app will be sunset in September 2017. If you liked Level Money and are looking for a replacement, or just want an automated financial transaction feed into a spreadsheet, you might consider checking out Tiller, which will allow you to build similar functionality for yourself in a Google Sheet.

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