A year with Simple: An honest appraisal

TL;DR

Simple is an online-only bank that challenges the way you think about your money. While the customer service and website are top notch, it’s not the right choice for everyone.

I’m a chronic early adopter. I sign up for betas without really understanding why I’m signing up. I throw myself at new software like a zealot, prostrate before the gods of technology.

So when I heard about an online-only bank that promised to put user experience (UX) at the center of their business model, I couldn’t resist. I signed up to be one of Simple’s earliest customers back in May of 2011. I finally got my invite in August of 2012. I’ve been a Simple customer ever since.

What follows is my experience using Simple as my primary bank over the past year. It’s critical and honest, and I hope it’ll be useful if you’re thinking of making the leap.

The Basics

Simple is not budget software or a financial service. Simple is a bank.  Their hope is that Simple replaces your current bank completely.

After you sign up, you get a debit card with all the normal protections of consumer debit cards. You do not, however, get a credit card, nor will they pester you to get one. Simple embraces the radical idea that you should only spend what you have. Many of their features are aimed at this goal.

Another defining feature of Simple: You don’t have a checking account and a savings account. You have one account. That’s it.

Getting Money Into Simple

There are three ways I get money into Simple:

  1. Direct deposit from my employer
  2. Depositing checks through the Simple app
  3. Transferring money from an external account

For some people, this is where things get real. No, you cannot make a deposit at an ATM or hand a teller a stack of Benjamins.

It’s all online. If that bothers you, stop right here. Simple is not for you.

The Online Experience

simple-dashboard

Let’s be clear: Simple’s online banking — both via a desktop browser or via the native app — is hands down the best I’ve ever seen. Over the last 20 years, I’ve banked heavily with six different institutions, and all of their online banking experiences look ridiculous compared to Simple’s.

  • Transactions are clearly presented.
  • Everything is automatically categorized.
  • You can “tag” transactions to come up with your own clever system.
  • You can also map transactions to see where you physically spend your money. This isn’t particularly useful, but it’s very cool.

Goals

One of Simple’s strongest features is the ability to create Goals.

simple-goals

When you create a Goal, you choose:

  • an amount to save
  • a deadline
  • a starting amount

From that moment on, Simple automatically puts some of your money toward that goal every day.

Goals are a powerful thing. By silently apportioning your money, Simple makes it easy and painless to save up for just about anything, from rent to a down payment for a house.

Safe to Spend

Goals only make sense if you understand another core feature of Simple: Safe to Spend.

safetospend2

Safe to Spend is not your current balance. It’s your current balance minus money put aside for goals and other pending transactions. It’s supposed to represent what you can safely spend at any given moment.

Not So Safe?

At first Safe to Spend seemed downright revolutionary. So obvious. So… well, simple.

But over time, it’s usefulness has become complicated. Here’s why.

For simplicity’s sake (sorry), let’s assume you have $2,000 in your Simple account. And then let’s say you’re trying to save $1,000 over 10 days.

Every day, Simple will automatically take $100 from your Safe to Spend bucket and put it toward your goal.

That makes sense. But there’s a catch.

ackbar

General Ackbar says, “It’s a trap!”

It’s day one of your savings plan. You have $2,000 in your account, but Simple says your Safe to Spend is $1,900. That’s to be expected. Simple has deducted $100 from your Safe to Spend account to help you reach your goal in time.

Cool, so you’re “safe to spend” $1,900. Right?

But if you spend all $1,900, there’s no way you’ll ever reach your goal. You won’t have any money left. 

In other words, your Safe to Spend is not really that safe to spend. It’s a guide, an indication based on that day, that moment.

Lost you? Don’t worry. It takes some modest mental rewiring to make sense of it all.

If you have a lot of Goals set up (and Simple encourages this)  and each of them is taking different chunks of your Safe to Spend money to hit different deadlines, it can be quite difficult knowing just how much to trust Safe to Spend.

Not so simple.

Budgeting with Simple

My wife and I recently decided to get serious about our financials. Initially, I created a budget in Simple by creating a Goal for every budget item: groceries, electricity, dining out, etc.

Here’s the basic process:

  • Grabbed lunch at Chipotle? Deduct it from your Eating Out goal.
  • Had a drink with some friends after work? Pull that from your Going Out goal.
  • Sent a rent check to your landlord through Simple? That’s your Rent goal.

The funny thing about this process is that you’re essentially ignoring Safe to Spend and instead employing the virtual equivalent of Dave Ramsey’s envelope system. Everything comes from a pre-designated bucket. Safe to Spend will almost always be zero.

A splitting headache

I hit a pretty serious snag with this budgeting system. I get paid twice a month. I can’t actually fund all my goals at the beginning of each month, because I don’t have enough money to cover everything. That would take both paychecks. 

Getting paid twice a month means I can't fully "fund" my goals.

Getting paid twice a month means I can’t fully “fund” my goals.

Between paychecks, I’m caught straddling the the shifting sands of my Goals and Safe to Spend. Is there some way out of this quagmire? Probably, but it involves more brainpower than I have.

For Richer or for Poorer

I’ve saved what I consider to be the Achilles Heel of Simple for last. If you’re not interested in sharing your Simple account with a significant other, then this point doesn’t apply to you.

Put bluntly: Simple doesn’t support joint accounts. Put another way, I can’t get a second debit card with my wife’s name on it. That seemingly tiny wrinkle makes managing a budget together very difficult.

Just to be clear: My wife has a Simple account of her own. But until very recently, it was not possible to instantly transfer funds between our accounts.

While it’s clearly good news that Simple has instituted this long-promised feature, I’m not sure it completely solves our dilemma. It means maintaining two buckets of money, two sets of goals and two Safe to Spend amounts. Mind-boggling.

Maybe we’ll figure something out. Ultimately, that’s what Simple has been about for me: rethinking everything about the way I bank.

While this sounds revolutionary, it’s good to remember that revolutions are not panaceas. They often introduce new problems — but hopefully ones that are less troublesome than the previous regime’s.

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  • Anna

    My partner and I are currently trying to get around this feature by linking the account to paypal. Paypal can issue you a debit card and when there are no funds on the paypal account will take from the bank account.

    • Clever idea! Thanks for sharing, Anna.

    • Fred Butson

      Did this work for you?

      • There’s a wrinkle with this PayPal idea: All your transactions in Simple will show up as “PayPal.” (At least they do for me.)

        So while you get the convenience of a joint account, you lose all the payment details in Simple. Might not be a big deal, depending on how you use that information.

        • Fred Butson

          Is there any info on the charge related to the purchase or just the amount?

          • I only see the date, time and “PayPal” for each transaction. No additional info.

      • Anna

        Not in the long run. I have not used Simple since my partner and I truly integrated our finances. For money management (I also hate Mint) I have found Digit to be a spectacular savings tool and Level to be a great spending information tool. I also use Acorns for investment. Once simple implements the functionality of joint accounts it may be an option for me again however with a young credit that is still building there is the drawback of opening a debit account with no possibility of adding on a credit card. I briefly used simple as a savings account which worked however I prefer the Digit structure and Acorn provides me with a diverse portfolio without the fee of a money manager

  • rszero

    Thanks for this! And thank you Anna for the tip below. Might have to try that. Question for Justin Cone: To solve the Safe to spend accuracy issue, could it work and reflect accuracy by setting a goal and then making it’s due date that day so that it factors/deducts right away? For example, say you have $2000 and you say your end of the month goal was to have $1000. Well you already have that 1k so set a goal and make it’s due date today so that it pulls it out right away leaving you with only 1k to calculate for your other goals that you actually need to save up for. I could see this for all monthly expenses. Sad that I would have to hack it to make it functional to spending needs. I’d try it myself but due to the issues I see/hear, I only opened an account up for experimentation and have only transfer $1 into the account. So hard to get a good idea. Also are you and your wife still using Simple? Curious if anything has changed for you guys in regards to your simple bank usuage. Thanks in advance!

  • Andrew

    I’m with you on the twice-monthly pay schedule as it’s a bit of a headache for me, as well. My solution was to write all of my monthly obligations in a notebook (bills + budgeted spending) and then divide by 2. Every paycheck, I transfer those funds into the corresponding goal. While primitive, it helps cope with the shortcomings of the Goals system. This way I can still stay on track without the nuisance of the daily goal drip. Hope that helps!

  • Marcus Edwards

    Yes, I joined because I am tired of monthly fees and overdraft fees. I have a free savings acount at my local credit union and I use this for as a debit card and for billpay. I am so tired of having to pay hundreds of dollars for overdraft fees and with simple, you cannot go over. I’m fine with that.

  • tadblarney

    The real question is – is it worth it?

    Do people really need this much sophistication and complexity in their banking?

    For most, personal banking boils down to a checking + savings account, and transactions. Boom. That’s it.

    Most banks do that.

    Is there a real, pressing market need for the bells and whistles?

    Or is this a niche?

    • Corey Bruyere

      Yes, there is a need. Simple is great for anyone who doesn’t need a bank teller or doesn’t need a brick and mortar location to quickly deposit or withdraw cash. I only use my simple debit card and a credit card for all of my transactions and bills. Simple has changed the way I bank and think about money.

      • Cafe Roaster

        How have you been tracking your credit card spendings with Simple’s Goals? I don’t want to use a third party software like YNAB or what-have-you. Before we got credit cards again, we were using just Simple. Now with CC’s, it’s harder to track category spending.

        • NyhtShade

          Try Mint.. I’m waiting to see how Simple works for me so far, waiting on my first Direct Deposit to hit. I used Mint and Mint Bills when I was with BoA (fees are the main reason I’m leaving. SO Outraged at Overdraft Fees ON TOP of Overdraft Fees) and it really helped with organization with CC and Debit cards. You link accounts (Debit, Credit, Investments, ETC) to it and it gives you a total of what you have available from all accounts.

          • Cafe Roaster

            I loathe Mint. Actually went in to set it up from scratch yesterday and was completely overwhelmed.

        • Corey Bruyere

          I still categorize all my spending in Simple. I only use my credit cards on gas and small emergency spending —- two categories I have in place through Simple and when I pay them off I spend from those categories.

          • Cafe Roaster

            Bummer. We use our CC for everything. Would love to be able to keep using Simple’s Goals, but to do that, we would have to move money out of Goals into a CC Payment Goal in order to stay on top of that. Also, can’t track category spending that way. We’ll go back to YNAB 4, I think.