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How mobile devices can help you control and save money

Published: Friday, Feb. 1 2013 6:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — And there it was at last, the text message Eric Heininger had been waiting for.

His employer had made a direct deposit into his banking account and Mint.com had sent an alert to his phone telling him the money was available. It meant he could fill up the gas in his car and pay some bills.

Heininger, 27, just moved to Chicago, blogs on student loans at theloanvoice.com and is looking for work, so every dollar counts. He is part of a growing number of people who are using Mint.com and other money apps on their phones for instant access to information about their money, net worth, investments, budgets and even bad financial habits.

Mint.com has more than 10 million users with an average of eight financial accounts attached to the program — each account sending information to Mint on the fly. The app provides instant financial feedback, particularly for the two-thirds of Mint users who use the service on their mobile devices.

With instant notification, comparison, compiling and monitoring, consumers are starting to act differently than when financial updating came in the mail once a month. The new feedback makes consumers act almost as if they are using paper money again.

Paper or plastic

Karen Carlson, director of education and creative programs for InCharge Debt Solutions, a nonprofit based in Orlando, Fla., says money apps aren't the biggest change in how people interact with money. The biggest change is the shift in thinking about money as something tangible to thinking about money as something digital, something that is more an idea than something real.

Paying for something used to be a tactile experience — wallets got thinner, bills slipped through fingers, coins rattled and checkbooks had to be balanced in a book.

"Money is now flexible," says Carlson. "It is dynamic. We have overdraft protections so that we really don't need to pay attention, because money will be there even if it is not really there. … In the paper world, we had paper tools. In the digital world, we need digital tools. We need things like budgeting apps where we spend that same time with pencil and paper and a checkbook checking our balance and thinking strategically and negotiating with ourselves about what we need to buy."

She says a phone is different than even the digital monitoring consumers do on a desktop computer. A phone is always with you. It gives real-time alerts.

Vince Maniago, a group product manager at Mint.com in Mountain View, Calif., says if a person lost a wallet it could take them eight hours before they noticed, but a phone would be noticed in less than eight minutes.

"We are more connected to our phones than we are to our head, shoes and underwear," he says. "Phones are like a direct port into our brain."

That immediacy and connection is beginning to change people's financial lives.

Pocketing change

When a person signs up for a money app service like Mint.com, the app collects personal financial information as a part of the service, including the last 90 days of financial information, Maniago says. The program analyzes how money is spent, categorizes it and tracks it. Ninety days after sign-up, spending for things like entertainment, bars and dining out drops for about 80 percent of the people who use Mint.

"Mobile brings it home to people," Maniago says.

Victor Rodriguez in Mesquite, Texas, used Mint.com to solve a mystery. He couldn't figure out where all his money was going. Mint told the recent PR graduate the ugly truth. "A lot of it went to fast food," he says. "It was horrible. I was appalled. I thought, 'Wow! $600 a month!' Now I don't spend as much."

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