I'm often asked which personal finance software is the best. I strongly recommend YNAB 4, the system I personally use. It is by far the best budgeting system on the market. The software is fantastic and the methodology is extremely effective. You can read the review or Try YNAB 4 with a FREE 34-Day Trial!
**Update: Unfortunately, Wesabe has shut down and is no longer a supported budgeting platform. For you tech-savvy people out there, they’ve released an open source version of their code so you can run a personal copy on your own if you wish. See the details here. I’ve left the previous review of Wesabe below for anyone interested in it.
Wesabe, according to Crunchbase, is “a network site for people who want to share experiences and recommendations about personal financial decisions. The network aggregates and analyzes the community members’ personal financial data, and then starts to show tips and recommendations for users to get the most from our money, leveraging the wisdom of the crowd.” (For more information about the wisdom of crowds, I’d recommend reading The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki).
Wesabe launched in December of 2005 with quite a bit of hoopla. Since then, their traffic is settled down and they’re clocking (according to Compete.com) at about 40k visitors per month.
The initial idea behind Wesabe is very cool, using the wisdom of crowds to help make better financial decisions. Does it work? Is it changing people’s finances? Is this the personal finance software application you’ll need to finally reach your goals? I’ll discuss all of that in regards to Wesabe below.
Getting Started with Wesabe
The initial startup with Wesabe wasn’t too painful at all. I created my account with a few clicks and then got started uploading my bank account information. Wesabe used to require a desktop application to be installed in order to somehow sync bank transactions. It looks like now, you can do it right in the application. The only major downer in the account process was logging in to my Wells Fargo account. I’m going on about 5 minutes and that thing’s still just spinning and spinning, telling me it’s logging in. After about eight minutes I cancelled the connection and tried using my SSN as my login, instead of my actual username. I know that’s been an issue with software before.
Bingo. That was the problem. I do wish Wesabe would have told me sooner (who knows how long I would have had to wait?)
Well, wait. That was a bummer.
So, I had to use the “Other Ways to Add Accounts” link and this was starting to annoy. Am I relegated to the desktop uploader after all? The desktop uploader worked just fine with my SSN and password for authentication. I successfully added my credit card account.
What this basically means is that every time I want to upload my transactions into Wesabe, I start the desktop uploader and hit the Upload All button. Not too bad. Would like the slicker feature to work, but I’m certainly not married to the idea that you need bank downloading to have an effective personal fianance application. I believe sometimes it’s quite the opposite actually. You can see a quick walkthrough of the desktop uploader here:
Alright, so with my credit card account set up in Wesabe, I’m ready to get started.
Woah! Well, I went back to my Accounts tab and all of my accounts were there. Apparently the sync with Wells Fargo had worked? Now I was not just starting to be annoyed, I was annoyed (yet glad it actually worked, as well). Polish points definitely lost there at any rate.
Finally, REALLY Getting Started with Wesabe (Tagging Transactions)
The real work had just begun. This work is just for the setup process, but it brings me to another one of my gripes, and I feel like this whole Wesabe review so far has been me griping. I’m sure that’ll change once I see the wisdom of crowds kick in. Why do all of these sync-happy software solutions download so much historical data? Why can’t I get maybe the last two weeks and then get started? I’m looking here at the transactions in my checking account. They go back to two months! I can’t remember what I bought at Wal-Mart yesterday let alone two months ago. At any rate, I got started tagging as best I could.
Checks are a nightmare. There’s zero information available about the check, so tagging it is useless, except for my health insurance premium, which amount I actually recognize because it’s been that way for months (and I don’t write a ton of checks either). Keep in mind though that this is only a problem when you’re dealing with your first historical transactions. Tagging things every few days or so would mean most checks are memorable (unless you’re writing tons of checks).
Editing a transaction. Edit a transaction and you can rate the merchant (fan, user, or captive), tag it, tag it for only a one-time use (found this feature pretty cool), etc. The tags “stick” for when that transaction comes through again.
Wesabe’s pretty smart about suggesting tags that are useful. I had a transaction showing Line of Credit Interest (it was actually interest income) and Wesabe suggested the tag interest-income. Very cool.
It told me I had purchased something at Costco, San Francisco, but I haven’t been to San Francisco since I was 16. (I ought to go back and see it again). I edited that transaction to just say Costco.
I was relegated to tagging most of check transactions as just “check” and calling it good. No idea what the money was really spent on. I could look back at check images online at Wells Fargo, but seriously, that would take forever. I did notice when I edited a new Check transaction that I just had to tab through the tag field and it tagged it as “check” for me. Nice.
Could tagging be faster? The one thing that’s gotten annoying really quickly with Wesabe’s interface, and Mint’s is also slow like this, stems from the fact that it’s a web interface first, so there’s a lot of clicking going on that wouldn’t be necessary if this were a client-side application. For instance, every time I want to tag a transaction I have to click on the Edit button, and then either tab to or click in the Tags textbox before tagging it. To save the transaction, I have to tab through before I can actually hit Save. Clicking that Edit button again and again and again and again (remember, I have 2 months of data for two accounts to work through) gets extremely tedious very quickly.
One feature I found later on that made this a bit easier (by not having to click Edit so many times) was to click on the untagged transactions. This ended up saving me quite a bit of time (Wesabe should show you that you’re still filtering, either by bolding the selection, or underlining it, or something — just standard UI stuff). There’s still a lot of unnecessary tabbing (a lot) because you’re tabbing through so many options that you rarely use, however, it was faster. Also, if you’re in a textbox and you hit the Enter key, that’s like hitting the Save button. It doesn’t work if you’re not on a textbox, but that tidbit will also shave major time off the task of tagging. One more little trick, hit the Tab button twice after you’re done editing a transaction (when you’re showing all untagged transactions) and you’re automatically editing the Payee of the next transaction! The tagging was becoming faster and faster as I used the system (not because I was growing accustomed to it, but because I was finding faster ways of doing it — there’s a big difference. Some software will never let you become fast at using it because it’s designed poorly).
Note, the tabbing is a bit strange if you’re mouse accidentally hovers over a link, so make sure it’s pushed to the side.
Payees are very sticky. I have multiple accounts at a high-yield savings institution (EmigrantDirect). I send $75 per month to one account for a new car (eventually) and another transaction to the same institution was for $2,800, which was for our emergency fund. If I change the payee from EmigrantDirect to EmigrantDirect-Car Fund then it will also change my EmigrantDirect-EmerFund as well. The workaround here is to not use payees so strictly, but to use one-time tags. Also, another thing to note is that it changes the transactions forward and backward.
Handling Transfers. I thought transfers were handled really well with Wesabe. They just don’t include them at all in spending/saving summaries. You must have the account in Wesabe in order to manage the transfer, but once it’s in there, Wesabe does agood job of detecting legitimate transfers and marking them as such (with a nice looking back and forth arrow-thingy). It picked up that my checking account transfering money to my credit card was a transfer.
Navigation got a bit wonky in trying to tag my transactions. At one point, the bottom navigation dropdown pulled a fast one on me (see the image at left) and then at another point, the bottom navigation dropdown wouldn’t even work. The top one worked fine, and did so consistently. (I also found it very strange that you could navigate to prior months, and then it would just tell you there were no transactions during that period. Well then why show me I can navigate there?)
Tagging becomes faster over time. Even though I only worked through the prior two months of my checking account, the time it took to do August was 1/4 the time it took to do July. The smart-ness of Wesabe in remembering what you tagged certain Payees does most of the work for you. My checking account is very low volume though. My credit card is what gets all of the various transactions at a much higher volume. So here is where I would truly put it to the test.
Working with Accounts in Wesabe
The next thing I wanted to do, after working forever on the tagging (hopefully it will all be done intelligently for me from now on) was figure out how to remove my business accounts from the equation. If you click on the account, click and then click . The business accounts always throw things off because I’ll move money from the main merchant account into the business checking account and all of these fancy aggregators and happy-to-sync-with-my-bank software solutions will see those transfers as income. And they won’t distinguish it from personal income (my actual draw).
Classic example is here with Wesabe:
You see that $46k income? That’s simply a transfer of money from one business account to another. I only wish that were actual earnings! The problem here with what Wesabe did though. I deleted my business accounts completely from the system and it’s still showing them as part of my Spending vs. Earnings summary. What? Am I going to have to manually go through and delete those transactions? How? Where are they? I deleted the accounts! How can I get to them?!
UPDATE: I logged into Wesabe several hours later to continue the review and now note that the Spending vs. Earnings graph is only showing accounts I’ve actually included in Wesabe. It just took a while to delete those accounts apparently.
We’ll work through the various things you can do from the the left-hand side of Wesabe’s interface.
The Accounts Summary gives you a brief overview of your account balances, when they were last updated, a total (your net worth, though it doesn’t include investments of any other sort, so it may more accurately be called your cash position), the Spending vs. Earnings graph that we’ve talked about before, and then two nice pie charts. One shows your spending as broken down into the various tags. You can hover over a slice of the pie chart and see the percentage, a total number, and click through to view the transactions tagged as such. You can also easily change the time span (1 month, 3 months, 6 months, or 1 year — wouldn’t an all time option be nice though?).
The Earnings pie chart I take a bit of issue with, only because Wesabe assumes that every inflow you have is “earnings” when in reality it could be a refund, or even a transfer to another account, the reciprocal transaction having not yet posted (so you can’t call it a transfer and have it excluded).
All Accounts (or Single Account Selection)
When you click All Accounts, or any single account, you’re simply presented with a list of transactions in that account (or those accounts). From this interface you can do all of the tagging. As I mentioned above, tagging goes much quicker if you select to only see the ‘untagged’ transactions, because then you don’t have to hit the Edit transaction button every time.
The Spending Summary gives you a bar chart of your speding, broken down into varioius time frames (Years, Quarters, Months, Weeks, or Days). The screenshot to the left shows it in weeks. Obviously you can see that we spend a lot during the first week of the month (our Mortgage is due on the 1st). The neon green is way bright for me, I don’t know how you feel about it. Would have been nice to have something a bit more toned down.
One nice thing about the high-level bar chart is that you can click and drag it to see more months in either direction. Nice functionality.
You can see below the chart that your tags are listed, from largest to smallest. If you click the dropdown arrow by the tag you’re given two options:
1) Add a spending target – In my case, I chose to set a spending target of $700 for my charity tag. You basically have two options. You can choose to spend “no more than” (maybe for a category such as entertainment, or beer) or “at least”. Since my spending target is charity, I’m going with the “at least” option.
The implementation of this made me say “sweet” out loud. It’s so nice! For display purposes, I set some more spending targets to simply see how they were visually represented:
Alright, I initially set up just the charity tag and saw how the green goal bar was automatically added. Very cool. I was bummed to see that the visual representation is the exact same, even if you’ve overspent, oversaved, underspent, or undersaved on a target. I would’ve thought it would maybe change to red or something like that.
When you hover over a bar that has a spending target, you’re shown a bit more information than normal and this is also nice. I was especially appreciative of the fact that it always shows you how you’re doing so far this month:
One weakness that immediately showed itself was the inability to set spending targets for different time periods. These are automatically monthly. It’s definitely not a dealbreaker though — nice functionality overall.
2) Filter out this tag – One thing you may want to do is exclude savings from your spending report (for whatever reason. I chose to exclude saving for the new car, so I selected ‘Filter out this tag’ and it’s now gone. Actually, I have no idea how to get it back if I’d like to. It’s gone GONE apparently.
Wait, hold the phones. At the top of the graph it says (quite clearly), “Tags to filter from the graph” and there’s my savings-new-car tag. Easily re-included in the graph if I’d like.
I would show you the Earnings Summary, and work with it quite a bit, but it will only give me “So Far This Month” as a timeframe with which to work. If I select a different timeframe, I’m suddenly sent over to the Spending Summary within that timeframe (This sounds very much like a bug in their live version).
UPDATE: the bug was fixed the following day.
Also, I noticed that you can set “Spending” targets in the Earnings Summary as well, even though we’re talking about earnings! It means the same thing, but I’d like for it to be more context-specific (nit-picky, I know).
Top Navigation (Tabs)
At the top of Wesabe you can navigate between Accounts, Tips, Goals and Groups. We’ve already talked extensively about Accounts during the setup and tagging process. However, what we haven’t talked about much at all is what Wesabe touts as one of its greatest assets: its userbase. The “wisdom” of their crowd.
When I click on the Tips tab in Wesabe I’m presented with the following screenshot (which confused me, to be honest):
This is basically just an example. I’d never heard of Peet’s Coffee, and none of my data included a Starbucks purchase However, at the top-right you have a searchbox where you can search your Wesabe transactions for a merchant or category. I searched “Costco” and selected “Costco” in the search results. I was given the following results:
You can see that it shows about $110 is spent per visit at Costco (would be cool if it compared what I spent per visit!), how often people return, and if they recommend it. Wesabeans then can input their advice about Costco. I found a whole slew of comments, and as I got further down the list, the comments became much less relevant to my search of Costco. So obviously Wesabe is prioritizing them based on the fact that you can “Cheer” a Tip.
Actually, hold the phone (again). I’m looking down the list and am seeing that recency plays a role as well, and that cheers don’t matter a ton. One tip has been “cheered” 14 times (the most I see) but it’s actually far down the list. Actual activity is fairly sporadic (a tip every month or two — at least for Costco).
I was disappointed that it appears they start to end up showing a lot of what (to me) appears to be spam. A lot of other sites are pushed and it has the feel that the person is simply making a plug.
My Take on the Wesabe Tips
I have to admit disappointment with the tips functionality. It looks like it basically aggregates spending across different payees in the Wesabe system (Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Wal Mart, Costco, etc.) and shows you how much is spent per visit, how often they visit, and what percentage recommend it. However, the actual tips — the wisdom of crowds — are what you would find on any money saving forum or with a quick Google search. Instead of searching Google, you’re just searching only Wesabe.
The Wesabe Goals section gives a very promising:
“Coming soon to your Goals tab! More tools to help you get to your goals!”
We’ll wait on that.
In the meantime, I thought I’d explore the goals a bit.
First, I decided to and see how that all worked. I decided that I wanted to pay my mortgage early and put in what I thought were some related tags:
mortgage mortgage-payoff payoff-house home-mortgage
My “badge” on my goal was sweet, though I think the whole idea of badges for goals is kind of chintzy (It is cool how they took a flat image and made it look like a badge — but again — is this helping me with my personal finances?).
I attempted to link some spending tags to my goal but when I clicked on my “mortgage” tab, nothing happened. I tried multiple times, refreshed the page, etc. and still no dice. I refreshed again after waiting a few minutes and it actually did work. I was confused that it didn’t show my mortgage payment from August, but apparently it only picks up spending from the month you actually add the goal.
I was kind of bummed that I was the only person with my goal, so I went looking for some others to join. I found it amusing there was a goal to “Make Wesabe Better” (305 people). The most popular goal was, no surprise here, “Pay Off Credit Card Debt” (3,838 people). Exploring a bit further in a specific goal, you can…well, you should be able to see the people that have that goal as well, but when I click on it, it just hangs and hangs. I tried subscribing to the goal (via RSS) and was confused that I was then subscribed to the “Paying It Off” group discussion. I was thinking goals were somehow separate from groups.
Note: I did finally get to see people working on the goal. It loaded after about 5 minutes. I can see why it did. There are 3,838 avatars listed in a not-very-useful way. What’s the point of this? I guess just to get some motivation that people are working on the same goal that I am (not really) working on.
Another annoyance, that weakens this goal aspect, is the fact that you can phrase your goal however you’d like. I looked at goals tagged as ‘credit card’ and there were TONS:
- Pay Off Credit Card Debt
- Pay Off Credit Card Debt (a different goal, but the same name — only with 19 people instead of 3k+)
- Pay Off All My Credit Card Debt
- Pay Off All Of My Credit Card Debt
- Pay Off All Credit Cards
- Pay Off My Credit Cards
Anyway…you get my point. I listed six. There were hundreds just like it (though semantically slightly different).
You can see my walkthrough of the entire Goal section of Wesabe here:
My Take On Goals with Wesabe — the Social Aspect
I may not be the right target for Wesabe. This whole social aspect doesn’t do it for me in the same way it may for others. I don’t feel myself highly motivated to accomplish something just because there are some other strangers with funny avatars that also want to accomplish the same thing. Are Wesabeans (as Wesabe likes to call them) reaching their goals better than other people? Are they reaching their goals because of the social aspect, or because they’re using Wesabe, or maybe just because they’re highly self-motivated? That’s definitely beyond the scope of this goal.
Wesabe also promotes the Group quite a bit — this is separate from the Tips section I discussed above.
You can Browse All Groups (I don’t recommend this, there are TONS from eating frugally to being Dutch). I checked out the Entrepreneurship group and helped a Wesabean re: setting up an LLC.
Gripe: Wesabe automatically subscribes you (via email) to the comments left on a thread once you’ve commented. It’s an easy click to Stop Following, but they should have an opt-in option — not opt-out. Also, when I joined the Entrepreneurship group I was automatically subscribed (again via email) to all new posts in that group! In other words, this automatically happens:
The Entrepreneurship group certainly wasn’t the most active (though it is one of the more popular groups) — there was usually only a new comment or thread every day or so. If this were considered a normal “forum” you would call it a very slow forum. I went off to find a more active group.
I joined Paying It Off, the most popular group (1,381 members) and found the frequency to be about two posts per day. The Make Wesabe Better group (1,165) is definitely the most active — with about 14 new posts or comments per day. I was very pleased to see Marc Hedlund, CEO and co-founder of Wesabe, to be very active in the Group, responding with very thorough posts on features being added, changes, etc. He appears to be a very receptive, customer-focused guy and that’s definitely going to help Wesabe in the long run.
All in all, the Wesabe Groups may be a good stop for you. Different forums have different feels (Mint’s are very much more, “how do I do this” and “why doesn’t this work?” where Wesabe’s are more tactical in nature, with much broader personal finance appeal). Really aggressive savers and such would still likely prefer FatWallet and other similar spots on the web.
(I’m not sure how Wesabe makes money, so calling him customer-focused is maybe the wrong term at the moment).
See some screenshots of the Group area of Wesabe:
Weaknesses with Wesabe
No Envelope Budgeting – The spending limits / saving goals that you can manage through Wesabe aren’t sufficient to really budget effectively. Also, there’s obviously no way to use the envelope budgeting methodology of which, if you’ve ready any of PFSR, you know I’m a huge fan.
No Manual Transactions – You can’t enter a transaction before it’s hit the bank. If you like to stay more on top of your money (especially if you have a lot of volume when it comes to transactions) then you’ll definitely miss this feature. also doesn’t allow for manual transactions — a huge weakness.
UPDATE: They are now in beta with entering manual transactions. This is a great feature and I’m glad it’s goin to be in there.
No Recurring Transactions – This is along the same vein as the manual transactions. It’ll be interesting to see Wesabe roll this out. According to their CEO, Marc Hedlund (regarding both manual and recurring transactions):
I think this is a key part of the upcoming transactions feature. This is way up on our most-requested features list; we’ll do it as soon as possible. Thanks for all the encouragement!
I was pretty happy to see that response, until I realized when it was posted:
There was a comment three months later from Marc:
Thanks for all the great feedback on this. We consider this a fantastic feature and will launch it as soon as possible. Stay tuned.
One year and still nothing doing. That’s not to say that Wesabe hasn’t added a bunch of other features. It’s only saying that Recurring / Manual transactions still aren’t there, having “stayed tuned” for a year. But, if you’re a cup-is-half-full kind of guy, then you could just say that you’re one year closer to having this feature.
It now being September of 2008, I stumbled on a comment Marc left about Wesabe and manual transactions over at Get Rich Slowly on November 18th, 2006 (almost two years ago):
We do, though, plan to add cash tracking and upcoming transactions in the near future, and investment management later.
At this point, I do believe I’m kicking a dead horse.
Please note the note above. This feature is now in beta. Also, after re-reading this section I feel kind of bad for getting on Marc’s case about over-promising. I certainly can understand when other features take precedence.
No Forecasting – I suppose I subscribe to the “on paper, on purpose” idea touted by Dave Ramsey, and when you bundle that with YNAB’s approach of living on last month’s income (where you know what you have to work with), the whole planning thing really starts to take shape. With Wesabe, there’s no way to do that, and I see it as a weakness for people that really want to plan where there money is going and execute on that plan.
Other Wesabe Areas Worthy of Mentioning
Wesabe Blog – the Wesabe blog is updated fairly frequently, with pretty good posts, though I’d be much more apt to read a few other blogs than this one. I was surprised to see it’s using the standard WordPress theme and doesn’t really tie into the Wesabe site at all.
Wesabe Connections – You can connect to Twitter. That’s it for the moment. They also tout connecting to Google Spreadsheets…but that’s kind of a stretch. There’s no real “connection there.
The use of Twitter then implies that you can enter manual transactions. I decided to give it a shot. I followed Wesabe on Twitter and was bummed that Wesabe never followed me back. Which means I can’t send a direct message to them, which means I can’t connect. I’ll have to come back and try again at a later point.
Manage Your Account – big Kudos to Wesabe for allowing the downloading of all of a user’s data in either XML or CSV. That was the eye-catching section of managing my account. Quicken and others hold your data hostage to make you loyal (yeah…really smart guys…loyal is not synonymous with hostage). This is based on Wesabe’s “Data Bill of Rights” — something every similar company should adopt.
Talk to Marc – You can call the CEO, Marc Hedlund, who’s making it a point to listen to customers. Reach him at (800) 511-8544 between 12 PM and 4 PM PST. That type of accessibility — even for a small startup such as Wesabe — is laudible.
Wesabe Tour – I didn’t learn much from taking the Wesabe Tour, but I did learn that it’s weh-saw-bay and this whole time I was saying weh-saw-bee! Also, the person demonstrating Wesabe showed that you could get customized tips based on the merchants you use:
(it’s fuzzy, because it’s a screenshot of a paused YouTube video, but it says “9 tips available”)
I poured through all of my transactions and am not getting a single customized tip. I don’t know if they pulled the feature from there, or maybe that my payees (Wal Mart, Costco, Target) just aren’t popular…?
Wesabe API – Wesabe offers an API so other motivated individuals can develop tools to leverage the Wesabe data. Currently aggregate, anonymous data is not available.
Wesabe Review Conclusion
This has been a long and tough haul, reviewing Wesabe to this much depth. I’ll try and wrap up 4,500+ words into a concise conclusion.
Wesabe is innovating in the area of leveraging the wisdom of crowds to help people make better informed financial decisions. It’s easy to use and can provide value to users in highlighting their spending habits. Where Wesabe falls short is the fact that it does not (and this may be by design) replace a solid personal finance application that has you actively planning and managing your money. Wesabe is geared much more toward a reactive, “what happened” instead of “what will I have happen” approach. I see it as an interesting tool to possibly supplement your core personal finance software.