Recently while on holiday in Europe, a friend told me about his new bank account, he was getting free euro cash withdrawals and payments with no extra charges at great exchange rate. I’m used to the traditional UK banks, poor mobile integration, slow to pick up on new tech and all manner of charges for anything “out of the ordinary”, like international transfers and cash withdrawals abroad. This was my first introduction to “app based banking”

Monzo App Spending screen
The Monzo App, a bank without a branch.

Not only was he getting a good deal financially (as far as travelling was concerned), his bank provided a smartphone app with all sorts of cool features I’d never seen before like budgeting, splitting your account into different sections and tagging and categorising transactions. And the odd part is, there is no bank… well not in the traditional sense. Everything is done through the app, and there are no physical branches. This really appealed to my techy side so I got the details and did a little more research.

The bank my friend was using was Monzo. Branding themselves the “Bank of the Future”, they’re an FSCS registered bank and are signed up to all the usual banking schemes such as the Current Account Switch Service and Faster Payments system. But the selling point is of course the app. Working on iOS and Android, the Monzo app based banking app goes well beyond the high street banks mobile banking apps in its functionality.

The Monzo App

Let start with the feed. This is what you see on opening the app, and it gives you an overview of your account, you balance, a draggable sparkline tracking your daily spending and detailed transaction data with retailer logos.

The Monzo Feed
The Monzo feed is the main overview page

Clicking through the transactions brings up a detail page where you can categorise, tag and add receipts via your camera. There’s also the option to split payments between multiple Monzo users allowing you to do things like split your bill for dinner. Tagging and categorising allows you to analyse your spending and you can export CSV data if you want to get really nerdy.

The Monzo Transaction Screen
The Monzo Transaction Screen

Notifications

Watch Notifiation
Monzo app based banking notifications can be sent to your smart watch.

Its worth pointing out at this point that as Monzo is a digital bank, they also provide real time notifications on spending. You’ll get a push notification whenever you spend and you can also configure warnings to let you know your spending too quickly. This is useful if like me you tend to lose track of spending when you’ve got other things on your mind.

Spending

You can see your spending summary in each category in the summary screen, as well as updates on your budgets and spending targets. You can also drill down into the certain months or categories for more information (see the first image above). As well as these new features you have all the features you might find on a high street banks mobile banking app. money can be transferred easily between Monzo users or other bank accounts and you can use your Monzo card with Google and Apple Pay. You can also freeze your card from within the app if you ever lose it, although I mostly use android pay and leave the card at home.

Travel with Monzo

As I mentioned earlier, the reason I first got interested in Monzo were the travel benefits. With your Monzo card you can take up to £200 cash out abroad without charges and pay with your card as much as you like, with the Mastercard exchange rate and no commission. Compared to my last experience spending abroad, where I was charged commission, a worse exchange rate and even some additional charged to withdraw cash, travelling with Monzo looked too good to be true.

The Monzo Community

That £200 limit brings us on to another interesting part of Monzo. They came up with the limit after a vote by customers on how to cover the cost of international cash withdrawals that Monzo incurs. Monzo say they are committed to listening to their customers on issues such as this, and so far it seems to be the case. The plan is to build a sustainable bank without the hidden charges of the high street options. I really like this idea, but I think at some point there must be a trade-off between community led decisions and the growth of the Bank, so there may be some rough waters ahead, but the Monzo community and their approach is one of the banks biggest strengths.

Extras

The Monzo app has a bunch of extra features that make it even more useful. You can check out their full list here. One of the coolest, but probably least useful features is the integration with IFTTT, the automation tool I mentioned in another post. You can use Monzo card purchases as IFTTT triggers to initate other actions in IFTTT such as recording transations in a spreadsheet. You can also use IFTTT triggers in other apps to move money into your Monzo savings “pots”, for example, someone on IFTTT set up a trigger with Strava to release money from a pot into their main spending area for every miles they ran or cycled. Fun, but not super useful.

The competition

When I applied for my Monzo account there was a 2 week waiting period. I’m a little impatient, especialy with tech, where everything can be almost instant nowdays, so when I heard a story on the radio about a similar app based bank, this time with no waiting limit, I signed up for that as well to compare the difference.

Starling Bank

The Starling bank App
The Starling Bank App

The second account I looked at was with Starling, another app based UK bank with a lot of the same features as Monzo. You still have real time notifications, savings goals, spending summaries, Apple or Android pay, bill splitting and simple payments and FSCS protection etc….

The main difference with Starling was the fee for taking out money abroad, there isn’t one. You can withdraw as much cash as you like and all spending on the card is on the Mastercard exchange rate with no added fees. This really appealed to me as I do quite a bit of travelling in Europe and the potential savings are huge compared to the high street banks.

Starling has more of a corporate feel than Monzo, with less community involvement. They’ve allready started to add things like Loans and overdrafts. The customer support is still great, I’ve been using the app for a few months and have used the live chat feature a couple of times and find it much better than ringing a helpline. Once I got my Monzo account I started using both and just liked the feel of the Starling app more than Monzo, which was probably just bias due to using it first. Starling also recently released their Joint account, as did Monzo, and I loved the ease of setting this up with my wife (who also uses Starling).

Setting up a Starling Joint account
Seting up a Joint account with another Starling user is really simple. Just Touch phones and select add an account in the app.

Alternatives

I moved from a high street bank to Starling and I dont think I’d ever go back, not until those banks catch up with the technology of Starling and Monzo. The feeling of being in complete control of your money is worth the tiny drawbacks of being a new bank with less financial features, and the technology features more than make up for this.

If you really want to stick with your high street bank, there is still an option for you thanks to the new Open Banking initiative in the UK. This means that you can now allow thrid parties access to your online banking records, and recreate some of the features of Starling and Monzo with data from your current bank. One such app for this is Yolt. Yolt allows you to link all you existing bank accounts to a single app and monitor spending and set budgets. It’s built on open banking APIs that link securley to your bank accounts. The major banks are now required to develop these API and soon they will all be able to link to Yolt so you can track spending accross mutiple accounts. If you’re not ready to move to a digital bank just yet then this could be a good solution if you like the features in the Monzo and Starling apps.

 

Of course Monzo and Starling arent the only players out there and new fintechs are popping up all the time with interesting ideas. If you see anything interesting, feel free to post it in the comments, as I’m always looking for cool new things to try. If you want to know more about the apps, just ask a question and I’ll see if I know the answer 🙂