Archive for February, 2007

A shift on Pro memberships

February 27, 2007

When Wesabe launched, we announced that we were planning to offer a basic membership for free, and charge $4.99 a month for anyone who had more than three bank or credit card accounts to manage. We have been very clear all along that we do not want to run an ad-supported service, because we believe that you should not have to see ads all over the Web site where you manage your money. Ads are designed to lure you into spending money, and we believe that is inconsistent with our goals for Wesabe.

We’ve had a fantastic response to the site from our users, as I’ve blogged recently. Wesabe is currently tracking $300 million (U.S.) in transactions for our users. We have over 135,000 merchants in our system, and over a million tags applied to those merchants. People are uploading data every minute of every day. We have data from banks and credit cards in 23 countries, and users in 95 countries.

We believe that we are successfully building the resource we wanted to build, as I described last year — a tool to help consumers get more visibility into their economic choices, to create more transparency around prices and satisfaction, and to share knowledge with each other about how to get the most for our money. As a simple example, when we see that every member of Wesabe who tries a restaurant never goes back, we know that restaurant probably isn’t very good. If, instead, our members try a new restaurant and go back every week, that’s probably a great restaurant. Using all of the data we are accumulating to find the best values is a great way of helping people with their money.

We don’t want to put any limits on our ability to collect and find the patterns in that data, and to use that analysis to help people get more for their money. We believe very strongly that the data we’re collecting is enormously powerful for consumers, and that anything we do to limit it will not make sense for the success of the product, nor for Wesabe members.

So while we’d originally announced that we were intending to give free Pro memberships for 2007 to everyone who uploaded in 2006, and that everyone who joined from then on would have to pay for uploading more than three accounts, we’ve decided to remove that limit. As of today and from now on, everyone who joins Wesabe can upload up to 12 bank or credit accounts for free, and use all of the current features of the site for free. (Our stance on ads has not changed — we are still not going to run ads on the site.)

We are still planning to launch Pro memberships, as a way of supporting our business and as a way of providing extended capabilities, in the near future. When we do, we will tie Pro memberships to added features, such as couples’ accounts and SMS integration. To live up to our promise of free Pro accounts for our early members, we’re going to give all users who joined and uploaded data before the end of day tomorrow (midnight, February 28th, 2007, US/Pacific) one free year of Pro membership starting on the date we launch Pro features, rather just for 2007. (So, if we launch Pro features on July 1st, 2007, everyone who joins and uploads by tomorrow will have a free Pro account through June 30th, 2008.)

In the long run, we think that building a tool that allows consumers to find the best values for their money will help people the most. We want to make that path as easy as possible, and we believe that this move will help us do so.

Interview with Katie Spring of USAA

February 27, 2007

Since we’ve gotten a bunch of questions about USAA, particularly about eligibility and its Deposit@Home service, I got in touch with one of the people from USAA who’d commented on an earlier post. Katie Spring is the VP, Public Communications for USAA, and she was kind enough to write up some answers to questions I’ve heard abut USAA. You’ll see that not all of the answers are complete, nor will they satisfy all the people who have asked me about the bank, but I thought they would still be well worth posting. USAA continues to win awards for customer service, and that’s worth paying some attention to. I’ll list my questions with Katie’s answers.

Who is eligible for USAA banking? Did the requirements for USAA Federal Savings Bank recently change, and if so, what is behind the change? What does USAA recommend for people who are not eligible to join? Do you plan to make banking available to more people over time?

“USAA is committed to providing financial security to members of the military and their families. We offer financial planning, insurance, banking, investments, and life insurance. We strive to offer the most competitive prices and the best service — period. Regarding membership in USAA…as you know, we serve a niche market – members of the military and their families. By focusing on this group we can provide the very best service and offerings. If you or your parents served in the military, you’re likely eligible for USAA. And since membership is passed through generations, if your parents had USAA, you’re eligible, too (even if they – or you – didn’t serve). Readers can take less than a minute to check out if they’re eligible to join USAA by visiting usaa.com – it’s very quick and easy.”

What’s driving Deposit@Home, the UPS Store deal, and so on? Are these services primarily used by members stationed overseas, or are they used extensively within the US as well? What has been the reaction to the Deposit@Home service?

“You asked about Deposit@Home. Have you ever had a paper check and thought it was inconvenient to deposit? Well, now USAA members can take those checks, go to usaa.com, scan the check, and your account will be credited in about one minute. Yes, one minute. Try it. Just void the check when you’re done – you don’t need to send it to us – since you’re our member, we trust you!”

It seems like remote accounts (where the account holder does not have a local branch office) are going to become a lot easier to use because of Internet banking — are there other things we can expect to see to make remote banking more convenient? (For instance, one question I get is how to deal with cash deposits for USAA accounts. Have you thought about partnering with Western Union or a similar service to accept cash deposits remotely?)

[No direct answer on this one, but later in the email she mentioned one thing worth noting:]

“Later this year, we’ll roll out our mobile banking program, which will allow members to access accounts from their cell phones and elect to receive cell phone alerts regarding the status of their accounts.”

Was the UPS Store service not used, or was it removed for other reasons? (Assuming I have it right that the service is no longer offered.)

“Regarding QuickPost – the service that allowed members to make deposits at UPS stores – that’s been discontinued and replaced with this even more convenient Deposit@Home.”

What about USAA’s business makes it different than other banks? Do you believe that it’s simply a matter of investing more in better customer service representatives, or does your membership structure enable you to offer a level of service that would be impractical otherwise?

“What makes USAA different from other banks? For starters – it’s more than just a bank. USAA is the only financial partner that’s a true one-stop-shop, where we look at you and your family’s WHOLE financial picture and give you free, objective advice about everything from budgeting to planning for your retirement. While some folks remember us as an auto insurer, today we are much, much more.”

I very much appreciate Katie’s answers — while I didn’t get every question answered, I’m glad to have something definitive on some of these points at least. Since cash deposits remain the most frequent question I get, hopefully my Western Union suggestion will make it to the product developers!

Suze Orman in the New York Times

February 25, 2007

So often, major media publications view personal finance as a niche topic for people who “have problems” with money. I’d much rather see each publication cover personal finance in whatever way is best for their readers. From my experience, we all “have problems” with money, whether we have lots of it or none or anywhere in between.

Today’s New York Times Magazine featured an interview with Suze Orman, about her new book on women and money, and about herself and her own relationship to money. The interviewer was, I thought, very condescending, taking the “niche topic” approach to extremes. It was an interesting read nonetheless — Orman is great at taking control of a conversation, and she certainly did this time. Some excerpts:

Q: As one of the most widely read financial gurus of our time, why would you write a book like “Women and Money,” which is based on the regressive premise that women are birdbrains when it comes to managing money? I would think women are better at saving than men.

A. No, they save and then they give it to their best friends, who need it. They give it to their children, who need it. They give it all away once they’ve saved it.

Q. Isn’t that admirable?

A. That depends on what it leaves them with. It’s not admirable when it leaves them with nothing. I want to change women from savers to investors. […]

Q. Are you married?

A. I’m in a relationship with life. My life is just out there. I’m on the road every day. I love my life.

Q. Meaning what? Do you live with anyone?

A. K.T. is my life partner. K.T. stands for Kathy Travis. We’re going on seven years. I have never been with a man in my whole life. I’m still a 55-year-old virgin.

Q. Would you like to get married to K.T.?

A. Yes. Absolutely. Both of us have millions of dollars in our name. It’s killing me that upon my death, K.T. is going to lose 50 percent of everything I have to estate taxes. Or vice versa. […]

Q. Do you enjoy spending money?

A. Oh, yes. My greatest pleasure is still flying private. I spend between $300,000 to $500,000, depending on my year, on flying private.

The full interview is worth a read. It’s hard to read even such a short piece and come away thinking of personal finance as a niche topic.

Things you might not realize Wesabe can do for you

February 25, 2007

I’ve had a number of people tell me they’re not interested in using Wesabe, but do I know of a tool that….? And I say, yes, Wesabe does that. They think of Wesabe as the web site we provide, when we think of Wesabe as anything we do to help people take control of their money. Seems like it would be worth getting a few of these capabilities into the Brain of Google here on a Sunday night.

  1. You can use Wesabe to convert QIF, OFC, OFX, or QFX (all of which are data formats which your bank or credit card might provide for download) to XML, CSV, or Excel format. First, import your data into Wesabe, then click on your username at the top of any page, then click “Manage your Account.” You’ll see links to download your data in the format you want. (As I’ve said before, we’re going to keep expanding this part of Wesabe until we import and export every format we can.)
  2. You can use Wesabe to convert your bank’s MC/NOT VRY HELPFL 0028472-39 (er, “not very helpful”) names for your expenses to names you can clearly read and use. Some people prefer to track their expenses in Excel or Google Spreadsheet, rather than in a personal finance tool or site. By cleaning the data with Wesabe’s community editing — where any user who edits a merchant name helps every Wesabe user who shops at the same merchant — you can remove a lot of the work you’d have to do cleaning that data by hand in a spreadsheet. (The steps for doing this are the same as converting file formats in #1 above.)
  3. You can use Wesabe to find out how much you can expect to spend at a business. For instance, if you want to try out a new auto shop, you can look up the average amount Wesabe users spend at that shop, and compare it to the average price at other auto shops in your area. You can even use this to build a budget, when you’re estimating new expenses. You can find a Wesabe report on a business by typing the business name into the search box at the top of any page, and hitting the search “Wesabe” button. Note that you don’t need to upload your own data in order to use our search engine. (This capability just got a lot better, since Coda spent several weeks improving our search engine recently.)

We love it when you use the Wesabe site. But we think we’ll do much better giving you whatever tools you need to manage and control your money than we would by trying to lock you into any particular program, interface, approach, or philosophy. Feel free to let us know what more we can do — even if all you want is a way to clean up your data or research businesses or tips. Come on in; we want to help.

Wesabe site is back up

February 24, 2007

The Wesabe site is currently down due to a hard drive failure. [Update: we’re back up, see below for details.] We’ll be back up as soon as we restore data to a new server. Apologies for the inconvenience. We’ll post an update here as soon as we have more information.

Update 2:15p: We’ve found the problem (RAID card failure, if you’re interested), and we expect to be back up in 30 minutes or so.

Update 3:10p: We’re still working on the restore, and expect to be another 15-30 minutes.

Update 3:45p: The machine is back up, but unfortunately the problem caused the hard drives to fail. We’re restoring from backup and we believe no data has been lost. At this point we’re estimating another hour until the backup is restored. Again, our apologies for the downtime and the delay in getting back online.

Update: Ok, we’re back! We recovered from backups, and no data was lost. The search index is still updating itself, so you might see odd results for the next few minutes — but everything else should be fine. Thanks for your patience!

Safeguarding Your Data: The Privacy Wall

February 23, 2007

We deal with a lot of very private data at Wesabe, so security and privacy are our top concerns. One of the ways we protect our users’ privacy is through a technique we’ve dubbed the “privacy wall”. I’ll give a very brief overview of it here, but if you’d like something a bit more technical, along with ways to attack the wall, I’ve posted a longer article over on my personal blog.

The bank and credit card transactions that are uploaded to Wesabe are not directly linked to their owners in our database. A standard database schema would call for having a user_id column in the table holding the bank account information that would link directly to a users table, which would hold your login information, email address, etc. Instead, we use something called a cryptographic hash to link the two tables, so your financial data is only associated with you when you log in. This means that (a) no one at Wesabe can peek at how much you’re spending on shoes, and (b) if our database were to somehow fall into, say, an identity thief’s hands, he would have a hard time getting any information about you other than your email address.

The privacy wall does make support a bit more difficult. If you’re having a problem, we need to get additional information from you so that we can find your data in our system. But that’s a small price to pay to be able to assure our users that their information is completely private.

This technique is general enough that just about any site can use it, so if you have a site that is holding personal data, I’d encourage you to read my more technical post and implement something similar, and let us—and your users!—know about it.

New screencast: Using tag splits

February 21, 2007

One of the most common requests we get at Wesabe is for something called ‘splits’, which allows you to allocate parts of an expense to several categories. For instance, if you got to the grocery store and charge $120.00, of which $40.00 was cash-back, you might want to have that $40.00 show up as ‘cash’ and $80.00 show up as ‘groceries’. We’ve had a splits feature since launch, but since it’s a feature for more meticulous organizers (like me!), we don’t have an explicit user interface for it — instead, it’s a feature of our tagging system. (See this post for more detail.)

To make splits easier to understand, Debbie has put together another of her excellent screencasts on the topic. Check it out!

More QIF and international improvements, plus PayPal fixes and new OFC import

February 21, 2007

We have a quick Wesabe update for people with QIF downloads, non-U.S. currencies, and PayPal accounts, and a new import feature for people with OFC data files.

In general, our QIF importer has been greatly improved. We have very few import failures from QIF files at this point — the only files we know we don’t support are those exported from Quicken. If you see a problem with QIF import, please drop us a line at support@wesabe.com, and we’ll help you out.

Also, for people outside the U.S., if you have to import QIF files, your bank or credit card may not specify the currency format in the QIF file. We’ve added a currency format setting for all accounts, to make sure you can see your accounts in the right format. To change the currency format, go to an account page, hold your mouse over the account name, and click the “Edit” button. You’ll see the currency setting there. We’ll continue to improve the defaults on this — as we get to know the banks better, it will be easier for us to make the defaults right for everyone.

In the past, we had some failures with PayPal QIF files, and we have now resolved all of those issues. If you have a PayPal account, give it a try! We’re psyched about adding PayPal-related features, and want to help people who use PayPal extensively, for eBay purchases or other reasons.

Finally, some banks, particularly outside of the U.S., provide data export in a format called OFC. We’ve added support for OFC imports — you can now upload any OFC file and we’ll import the data without a problem. We’re continuing to work on making any export format work on Wesabe — you upload it, we’ll do everything possible to parse it. Next up is CSV support, which you can expect soon.

You may have noticed a trend with some of these features: we’re all about getting your data into Wesabe in whatever format you have it, and giving it back to you in whatever format you want it. You can expect that to continue. We have every intention of letting you import, store, view, transform, consolidate, export, and remix your financial data however you want. Let us know what you want, and we’ll do it. We completely believe that giving you tools to understand, analyze, and combine your financial data with others’ is the best way to give you control over your money. And that’s what we’re about.

Feedback from happy Wesabeans

February 16, 2007

Pretty much every day of the week, we get email from people telling us how much they love Wesabe. I’ve talked before about why I like being an entrepreneur and what I get out of it, but it’s indescribable how happy it makes us to read these emails. Over the past week or two, I’ve saved up a bunch of great comments from people who are using Wesabe. Here is a a selection of some of the best in just that short time:

“I just created a Wesabe account and I love it.”

“I’m in the process of switching from MS Money to wesabe and I really like the fact that wesabe reduces the amount of time I have to spend on tracking my finances.”

“I’ve loving the hell out of Wesabe; it’s a tool I’ve wanted for literally years!”

“First let me say that as veteran of financial software usage to manage my personal finance, I was looking for years for such service, hence I was thrilled to discover wesabe.”

“Great stuff folks! Really love the community and tips aspects of your site. Keep up the fantastic work!”

“I really like the way Wesabe is going and I would trust you guys with all my financial information (your website makes everything very clear about security and that it is ‘my data’) and I’m sick of Microsoft Money and Quicken so if these features are adding it extremely likely I will become a devoted Wesabe user. Thanks!”

“Impressive product. And I’m not that easily impressed ;)”

“In the age of the ridiculously-long-signature that reads like an addendum to a legal document, or communication that starts with ‘do not respond to this mail’, it adds to the good feeling Wesabe gives me to be able to respond, it’s like I’m communicating with humans. Thanks for all this.”

“I totally love this product! Absolutely brilliant.”

“I’ve recently stopped slogging through the checkbook balancing drill in favor of using Wesabe to review and track expenditures. Huzzah for less manual work!”

“I have recently signed up for your program, and really love the way it’s all laid out.”

“I found wesabe through lifehacker and have started uploading some of my accounts. I’ve found it very interesting and useful.. so congrats!”

“I love Wesabe and recommend to everyone I know trying to learn to live under a budget.”

“First of all thanks for the extremely quick and in-depth reply, it’s great customer service and I’m impressed by getting support from *the developers* directly. Clearly this is something totally new to me when it comes the banking sector!”

Do you get that kind of feedback every day at your job? If not, and if you’re an amazing web application engineer or a graphic/UI designer, you should drop me a line (my first name at our domain) and join us. We’re hiring — we have many more great things to do at Wesabe than we have hands to do them. (Bay Area gourmands will get preference, since a lot of work gets done over yummy lunches.)

There are many fantastic and satisfying jobs in the world, but helping people with the number one stress in their life has to be among the best. To the people who have written us, thank you, both for trying Wesabe and for taking the time to write. We’re doing everything we can to make the site great for you.

Hot new features: Search your accounts, Notes, European QIF, and more…

February 13, 2007

We’ve just launched a bunch of great new stuff on Wesabe. There’s something for everybody.

Search bar

After uploading your accounts, you’ve always been able to see a graph of your spending by week, and a list of transactions, for any merchant or tag you use. This is great for seeing how much you spend at Amazon, say, or for seeing all the spending you’ve tagged ‘restaurant’. But what if you want to explore your spending more, and see the patterns that don’t show up just browsing by tag or merchant?

To help with that, we’ve taken the existing search box — which used to just search public Tips and Goals on Wesabe — and added a new “Search My Accounts” option (which is now the default search). Type your search term in the box at the top and hit ‘Accounts’ to search your personal data for that term. (Hitting ‘Wesabe’ instead will search the public information on the site.) This is great for digging into your spending history — for instance, you can search for all of your transactions that are tagged ‘restaurant’ but not ‘workexpense’ (use a ‘-‘ to remove a word, like this: ‘restaurant -workexpense’). As another example, you can find all of your transactions at a merchant that are not tagged with a tag, which can help you make sure your tags are consistent.

Search Accounts resultsThe search results look just like a page you would get for something you’d tagged — you get the same graph of spending per week on the search term, and the same list of transactions. If you find some area of your finances you want to understand better, this gives you the same view as if you’d been planning for it all along. (Great work, Coda, putting this together!)

Next, we added one of the most common and long-standing requests we’ve gotten: a notes field for each transaction. You can get to it by clicking the “Advanced” link in any transaction edit form. Notes are great for things that you don’t need to track as a tag — everything from a confirmation or tracking number, to something you want to remember about the night out, to notes about what you bought. Tags are great for things that happen more than once, but without a notes field, your tag list can get cluttered with reminders that you only need to use once.

Notes

Brad added notes (he originally argued for them many months ago, and I pushed him off — my mistake), and also added a way to see the note by holding your mouse over the note icon in the transaction list. Great stuff.

I’ve been working hard on our QIF import tools, and I’ve added support for European date formats, as well as Euro and other currency formats, in QIF uploads. (QIF is a very poorly-specified format, so I can’t promise that this will work in all cases, but we track every time a QIF import fails, and I’m working my way through all of those.) Those of you in the UK who have been wondering why your transactions went from December 1st to January 13th all of the sudden can rest easy. 🙂 I also did a bunch of work on CSV import, which is a very frequent request, as well as OFC import, and expect to have the first version of both done soon.

Finally, we’ve been automating more banks, and have gotten some very happy emails from Bank of America (California) users on that front, among others. Jay is working his way through the list, and we have a special surprise coming up soon, which will make automatic importing a lot easier for everyone.

Oh yeah — one more thing…. We’ve started adding specific page titles to every page. Now that’s HIGH TECH. (Well, it also makes bookmarks and history browsing a little easier.)

Thanks again to everyone who has written in with feature requests and suggestions. Many of the best ideas we’ve used have come from you, and we work the hardest on those things we hear from you the most. Keep them coming, and thanks for using Wesabe.