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I wasn’t mentally prepared to use a Fitbit for money

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February 14th, 2017

Monzo offers a prepaid card and banking app.
Photo by James Vincent

Under capitalism, humans must burn money like calories just in order to stay alive. We’re all dimly aware of this fact, but the ubiquity of the process means that most of us avoid thinking about it (if we’re lucky). Being aware of the continuous flow of money in and out of every aspect of your life would be, I imagine, like noticing the individual atoms in the table top when you sit down for breakfast. Pretty soon you’d go mad.

Which is basically what happened to me when I signed up with a tech-savvy banking startup.

The company in question is Monzo, which says it wants to be the Google or Facebook of banking. Currently, though, it’s just a debit card and a clever app; one that tracks your spending in real time, breaking down purchases by category. Monzo plans to start offering a full bank account later this year, but right now, in its beta phase, it only offers a prepaid card. (This isn’t so bad: I top up using Apple Pay on my phone, which literally takes seconds.) You get quite a few cool features with this, including the ability to freeze and unfreeze your card from within the app and credit card transactions abroad at no extra cost, but right now Monzo is mainly about tracking.

I’ve been in the privileged position of never having to do extreme budgeting in my life, the sort which makes you weigh the needs of eating against heating, and that’s more common in the UK than we like to think. But like anyone who’s lived in London while not earning much (hello, journalism internships!) there have, of course, been times when I’ve had to police my spending. This usually amounted to checking my balance whenever I got cash out and knowing somewhere in the back of my mind that I couldn't afford taxis, fancy toiletries, takeout, or whatever.

With Monzo though it’s a different experience. While my old banking app does track my purchases, it takes days to register transactions. Even then, they’re displayed in a chronological list, too opaque to understand at a glance. With Monzo, though, the feedback is instant and instantly understood; and, like a fitness tracker that focuses ambient awareness of your physical well-being into a beam of constant attention, my new bank has made me a worrier.

“Neat!” I thought, the first time I bought coffee in the morning, watching a notification pop up on my phone, showing the time, vendor, and amount spent.

“Huh!” I mused, after buying lunch that same day, opening the app, and realizing I’d crossed into double-digit spending in less than 24 hours.

“Hm.” I frowned, getting home that evening after an hour in the pub and trip to the supermarket. Did I really spend that much in a day? What does that mean for my spending this month? How am I living?

Munching a sandwich at my desk one day, I gloomily imagined my salary arriving whole at the end of each month. It strode into the next only to be gouged in two great blows: once (rent), twice (bills). Then staggering on. I imagined it — me! — stumbling from coffee shop to supermarket, bleeding credit onto the counters; I headed to the shops at the weekend to get a new winter jacket, only to find the cost was an arm and a leg. In short, I’d become obsessed.

The Monzo app lets you analyze your spending day by day or using different categories.
Photo by James Vincent

The feeling passed, but I’m still unsure about my Monzo app. On the one hand, it’s given me a clearer look at my daily finances than I’ve had in awhile. I’d gotten used to just (beep) dipping my card (beep) onto a scanner (beep) and walking away (beep) with my coffee or groceries or whatever. But that’s dangerous, and stupid. If there’s no weight to our spending, we spend more. That’s why Amazon is always trying to eliminate the checkout, with “one-click” delivery buttons and prototype cashier-free stores. It makes spending money invisible.

On the other hand — and, to adapt a cliche of management speak here — what gets measured, gets worried about. The digital age is one of endless weighing and counting, from human attention to heartbeats; and it’s unquestionably addictive. Numbers keep our interest and offer the guise of objectivity; they let us find our place in the endless conga line of humanity. (“Here I am, just between person 4,786,290 and person 4,786,292!”) They’re also unsatisfying. A 2015 study found that when participants measured an activity like running or reading, they enjoyed it less. I don’t want to have fun spending money, but I don’t want to hate myself for it either.

Monzo is at least aware of the sort of problems digital money can cause, and is trying to shape its app to help those with mental health issues. (One concept it’s exploring is automated checks for spending sprees; designed for people with bipolar disorder who might regret late-night shopping binges.) And, putting my temporary hysteria to one side, I’ve definitely enjoyed using the app. I might have been a bit shocked to get such a clear picture of my spending, but it’s certainly better to know than live in ignorance. As with everything else in the digital world that tries to tempt you with constant tracking, the trick is knowing when to look, and when it’s better to lose track.