moneyStrands Review

moneystrands-homemoneyStrands is a fairly new online financial tool marketed mostly to a younger crowd that may be more interested in the social aspect of financial management.  At it’s root, it’s a financial aggregator with a social twist.  It allows you to compare your spending habits with others in definable groups within their community.

*Note: This review of moneyStrands was performed in May, 2009. There have been many updates (and improvements, I’m sure) to the moneyStrands system since that time. I’ll be updating this review to reflect the most current features as soon as possible.

A Brief History of moneyStrands

moneyStrands (I didn’t forget to capitalize the ‘M’ – that’s how their branded name is written) is part of the larger, parent company Strands, Inc.  Strands began their venture capitalizing on their social recommendation technologies and now has three different offerings.  These offerings include moneyStrands (personal finance software), Strands.com (a social media lifestreaming source), and Strands Social Recommender (a sort of business solution).

Through a couple of acquisitions, Strands launched moneyStrands in April, 2008.

A Walkthrough of My Experience with moneyStrands

moneyStrands has a clean website that quickly gives the impression that they are focusing on the late-teen, and 20 year old crowd.  It has a hip feel to it which many will relate to.  The cartoon spokeswomen, Monica, suggested that I download a poster showing how moneyStrands helps her with her finances.  That I did and found a nice little pdf with “5 Quick Steps to Your Smarter Self.”

moneystrands-5-steps1

It maps out 5 steps to using moneyStrands.  These steps are:

  1. Sign up for free
  2. Add accounts
  3. Beef up your profile
  4. Make it yours
  5. Stay in charge on-the-move

One feature of moneyStrands (and the way that they make money) is by recommending certain things to you as it learns about you through your spending, profile, etc.  This pdf also lists the 4 types of recommendations that moneyStrands will give you as you use it:

moneystrands-recommendations1

From this we can see that they are taking much of the same approach as Mint, with the possibility of a little more of a social aspect.

Setting up moneyStrands

After clicking the sign up button, I came to a simple form asking for basic information to set up my account.  A few quick keystrokes and I was in business.

My next screen was a welcome box that gave me the option of either seeing a live demo or adding my accounts.  I chose to see a live demo.  I found this to be a nice feature, allowing me to get a good feel right off the bat of how moneyStrands would perform and how to find my way around the application. Nice job moneyStrands.

After exiting the demo, you’re automatically taken to add your accounts.  Obviously, just like with Mint, they use your online banking username and password to gain access to all your bank information.  As with Mint, I have no reason to believe that moneyStrand hasn’t taken every necessary precaution so as to ensure that your information is secure.  There are, however, some that will feel uneasy about giving someone such access.  If that idea bothers you then moneyStrands may not be for you.

moneystrands-wait

Made nervous by this screen, I timed  it to see how long it actually took to download the bank info.  I didn’t really want to wait a few minutes, but the time was actually a fairly short 60 seconds or so. A pleasant surprise.

While maybe not quite as clean as Mint, moneyStrands still provides a fairly intuitive and easily understandable interface. Along the top of the screen are six tabs: Overview, Details, Analysis, Accounts, Community, and Just For Me.  To give a general idea of what moneyStrands has to offer, I’ll go through each one and highlight what sticks out to me.

moneyStrand’s Overview

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This overview tab shows, as expected, an overview of your financial situation.  Here you can see information about your accounts, budget, alerts, debt to income ratio, “Just For Me,” and reports.

According to moneyStrands, I have a “good” debt to income ratio.  Curious as to how they arrived at this conclusion, I clicked on ‘See Details.’   It showed that I had, among other things, a ‘credit card minimum’ of $200.  Being that I hadn’t downloaded in any information about my credit cards, I was confused as to how they came up with this info.  At first I thought they were automatically categorizing my transactions and doing it incorrectly, but after clicking around for a bit, I realized that I was the one who needed to input the information.  Silly me.

After plugging in my own numbers, the nifty debt to income ratio arrow snapped into place (still hovering over ‘good’ :) ).  The categories of the income and debt are meant to be sortable, but when trying to sort them from greatest to least, it only moved them around in an order that I couldn’t quite figure out.  moneyStrands may have a little bug in this area.

*Update: A senior member of moneyStrands contacted me and said that this small bug is now fixed.  It’s nice to know that they are on top of things and are constantly improving the software.  That’s a good sign.

The overview section looks to be fairly customizable.  It appears that they refer to each section of information as a widget.  They are all able to be moved around, minimized, or closed out altogether.  It reminds me a bit of a personalized iGoogle page. Nice.

In the top right of the screen, you are given a set of icons that feed you the recommendations.  You can also get support, give feedback, change your settings, and logout there.

moneyStrand’s Details Tab

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The details tab of moneyStrands leads you to the lists of transactions for your account.  There is a ‘sidebar’ on the left listing your financial instituitions and your different accounts.  If you click on a certain bank’s tab, a list of the individual accounts will be fanned out. This allows you to see either all of your transactions at one time or only see the transactions for a certain account.

Anxious to see how easy it was to play with and alter my transaction info, I got right to it.  moneyStrands did a pretty good job of auto-categorizing the transactions. Purchases such as those at restaurants, office supply stores, and the movies were correctly categorized.  But there was still a good number that either weren’t categorized or were done so poorly.

I found the process of changing or adding a category to each transaction to be rather cumbersome.  Not because the process was difficult (all you do is click on the category column and pick one from the drop down menu), but rather because there is a bit of a delay between clicks and items showing up to be selected.  For a couple of transactions, it was ok, but I couldn’t imagine having to do it on a regular basis.    The saving grace for this application will be if it remembers (or allows me to save) the categories that come from a certain purchase location.  Otherwise, this step will be far too frustrating for me.

*Update: I just found that you are able to have certain transactions always be noted as a certain category.  Select the transaction and click ‘Categorize’ above.  Then select the category and click ‘Always Use.’  Thank you moneyStrands!

moneystrand-always-categorize

You are also able to rename a transaction and have it always use that new alias to identify that transaction.

Is moneyStrand’s Details section much better that Mints? Not really. In fact, when I pulled up Mint next to moneyStrands, I found that Mint was quite a bit faster at changing categories, altering transactions etc.  This slower spead may not be a deal breaker for everyone, but it definitely was a bit of a turnoff for me.

Inability to Create Your Own Categories

moneystrands-categories

I like to personalize my budget and financial tracking to the way I spend money.  As such, I like to have my own personal categories to track my spending.  So when moneyStrands didn’t allow me to create my own categories, it was a deal breaker.  Granted, they give you a fairly decent amount of categories to choose from, but everyone is different and would benefit greatly from having the flexibility to cater their personal budget to them. This may be something that they will institute in the future.

moneyStrand’s Analysis Tab

moneyStrand’s Analysis tab is simply two graphs that are designed to help you ‘analyze’ your finances.  There is, of course, the ever-present pie graph showing you where your money has gone over the past month or longer depending on the time frame you choose.  You are able (thankfully) to see the transactions that pertain to each section by clicking on ‘Transaction Details’ to the right.

The second graph, I didn’t find particlularly useful. It’s a ‘Balance of Flows’ that is meant to show you the inflow or outflow of your money (and yes, we had some large expenses come out of this particular bank account this month).  I guess the graph shows a decent picture of how you did on your budget that month, but aside from that I didn’t get much out of it.

That’s about all that the Analysis tab has to offer.  I hate to keep comparing it to Mint, but this section again fell short of Mint’s “Trends” area simply because it’s not quite as easy or as quick to get to the data that I want to.

moneyStrand’s Accounts Tab

As mentioned earlier, this gives a very basic, but clear overview of all of your accounts that you’ve set up in moneyStrands. By clicking on ‘See Details’ you are simply taken to the Details tab.  This is also where you can add more accounts when the need arises.

moneystrands-add-accounts4

moneyStrands’ Community Tab

This is clearly where Strands’ expertise is suppose to shine through and what is suppose to make moneyStrands different from the rest. Interestingly enough, I noticed not too long ago that Mint has added a section to their Trends tab called SpendSpace that compares your spending to others just like moneyStrands is doing here.  Which is better? Let’s take a look.

moneystrands-mint-community

The top one is moneyStrands’ community section and the bottom is Mint’s SpendSpace.  You can click the picture to enlarge it.

After playing with it for a bit, it became clear that moneyStrands offers a great deal more in terms of customization and displaying multiple categories at once. In addition, you are able to quickly drill down into the a certain category by clicking on the bars, allowing you to see more detailed comparisons.  It also shows data regarding income, not just your expenses compared to others.

In addition, with moneyStrands you are also able to hone in on who exactly you want to be compared to.  Mint allows you to select a state or city, but moneyStrands allows you to select any number of demographics including age, gender, financial knowledge, etc. Unfortunately, the same small time lag is  still apparent while navigating around this tab as well.

How Concerned Are You About Others’ Spending?

When it comes to comparing your spending habits to others in the ‘community,’ moneyStrands definitely wins over Mint.  But my question is: Really, how concerned are you about seeing what others are spending? Sure it’s nifty and kind of fun – for about 5 mintues.  But past that how does it help me to better manage my finances?  I guess if I’m spending way more than others in my restaurants category, then it might be a bit of a wake up call, but don’t you think that I already know that I’m eating at Red Lobster way too often?

However, there are many that this social aspect will appeal to quite a bit.  For them, I say moneyStrands should provide you with plenty of fun info.

moneyStrands’ Just For Me Tab

moneystrands-justforme

As you can see, this is the are where moneyStrands gets to make their money. Here they have different recommendations for you based upon your spending habits, personal profile, etc.  So far I received one recommendation to buy an American Express credit card, one to buy an Amazon Kindle, and two financial tips (about term life insurance and retirement planning).

I like that this section isn’t intrusive and is found in it’s own tab. From what I can tell, if I want to ignore the sales pitches, I can.

The Budget Widget

Now that I’ve gone through each tab found at the top of moneyStrands, I’m dying to see what their ‘My Budget’ widget has to offer.  From what I’ve seen so far, moneyStrands appears to have the same weakness as Mint in that it is very hands off and that it acts more as a rear view picture of where your money has gone rather than a tool to help you plan for where your money should go.

Unfortunately, I found the budget functionality of moneyStrands to be as close to unhelpful as possible. It follows the same exact method that Mint uses in it’s “budget” section.  The only difference being that moneyStrands is much slower and more painful to actually set up.  In reality, there is very little actual budgeting that even occurs.

The reason that I’m such a fan of YNAB, Mvelopes, and other envelope budgeting systems is because they actually help you to actively create and follow a full blown budget.  You take an active role in allocating every dollar to a certain category and plan for it’s future expense.  The result is a much more effective budget that actually makes a difference in your spending habits.  Both moneyStrands and Mint fall far short of this ideal.

A Small Bug

For some reason, when I was automatically logged off and then logged back into moneyStrands, I noticed that my Debt to Income Ratio indicator (in the overview) had fallen from Good to Severe.  It turns out that the figures that I had put into that widget were erased, showing that I had no income.  Nothing major, but something that I would hope wouldn’t occur frequently.

Update: A senior member of moneyStrands contacted me and said that this small bug is now fixed.  It’s nice to know that they are on top of things and are constantly improving the software.  That’s a good sign.

moneyStrands Mobile

moneystrands-mobilemoneyStrands also has to option of accessing your financial information via a mobile device such as an iPhone.  All you have to do is go to www.moneystrands.com in your mobile browser.

Being that I don’t currently have a phone with that function, the review of it’s mobile technology will have to be saved for another day.  If anyone wants to donate an iPhone, I would certainly consider the offer.

moneyStrands’ Pros

The price is right – moneyStrands is free.  The social aspect of moneyStrands is certainly its main strength and may be appealing to some.  The interface is fairly customizable, allowing you to set it up to see only the information that you want to.  moneyStrands, like Mint, does a great job of trying to do everything for you.  It does a fairly good job of auto-categorization of your transactions and gives you a great snapshot of your financial situation at any given time.

moneyStrands’ Cons

The main setback for moneyStrands is in the weakness of its budgeting capabilities.  It promotes a very hands off approach which doesn’t correlate into an effective money management tool.  It’s great at giving you a snapshot of your finances or an overview of your past spending, but does little to help you to create a planned budget and stick with it.

I’ve often suggested Mint as something that is a great addition to other budgeting software.  The same would go for moneyStrands, however in my opinion, moneyStrands falls short of Mint (aside from the social aspect).  The main reason why I would use Mint rather than moneyStrands is simply because Mint is a bit faster than moneyStrands.  Each task in moneyStrands from dealing with transactions, to inputting data, to simply scrolling on the page seemed to be take an extra fraction of a second.  And after a while, those seconds add up.  By the end, I was a bit frustrated with it.

moneyStrands’ Overall Conclusion

moneyStrands is good at two things: aggregating your financials and allowing you to compare your spending with other, targeted groups.  It does little, however, to help you effectively manage your money.  I prefer a more hands on approach with my finances than moneyStrands currently allows me to do.

In addition, it seems a bit more sluggish than other options in the market (namely Mint).  It’s free, so you’re not out any money and it may be a great tool to be used congruently with other budgeting software.

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