How your bank app can save you money


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It seems like only yesterday that the most exciting thing that could happen when you opened your banking app was that you could check your balance. Frequent visits to a bank branch or an ATM became a thing of the past, as everything you needed to know was right there on your phone.

But then something happened a few years ago that made banking apps less sexy - the wave of budget and savings apps that helped people feel more in control of their bank balance. Features like how to track your spending, how to pay off your debt and where to get retailer discounts can all be done through finance apps outside traditional banking channels.

But now banks are catching up and outdoing standalone finance apps at their own game. Here are just some of the new features that you may not realise are already available through your bank.

banking apps

Cash you didn't know you had

It's hard to keep up with government laws about concessions and benefits. Banks can play a role in this because they already have most, if not all, of the information the government needs to validate applications, including contact details and proof of income.

In September 2019, only a few months before the first of the Covid-19 lockdowns, Commonwealth Bank launched a benefits finder on its app. Its purpose is to help connect its customers with unclaimed grants and rebates, such as ASIC's "unclaimed money". The feature couldn't have come at a better time, as it allowed millions of Australians to connect with pandemic-related benefits such as energy rebates, Parents NSW vouchers and Creative Kids vouchers.

To date, more than $481 million has been saved across utility bills and government payments through this feature. The bank is expanding the list, with 400 types of benefits, refunds and rebates connected to the benefits finder.

Cashbacks also used to be the domain of non-bank reward programs and credit cards, but not anymore.

"We have delivered more than $20 million in cashbacks ... as cost of living pressures continue, our customers benefit when they use the CommBank app," says Rochelle Eldridge, CommBank's general manager - shopping, pointing out that 75% of CommBank Rewards have been redeemed to cover grocery, fuel, food delivery, pharmacy and pet food expenses.

Savings on fuel 

The average two-car household spends more than $5100 a year on fuel. With rising petrol costs still on the cards next year and beyond, apps such as MotorMouth and PetrolSpy Australia, are starting to become a permanent fixture on smart phones. But CommBank customers can do away with yet another app on their screen after the bank piloted its Fuel Finder feature in September. 
You have to turn on the "fuel alert" on the app and provide details such as your location and the type of fuel you use. Once that's done, the app will automatically notify you of the cheapest fuel nearby before your next refill.

Goodbye to spreadsheets

Some people have become adept at using an Excel or Google spreadsheet to tally their expenses or manage their budget. But most of us would rather have the insights and analysis done for us, which led to the rise of budget apps.

Banks are inching in on this space. The budgeting feature became standard in their apps this year, and now they're going further. Westpac, for example, has a "top expenses" feature that will help its customers find out where their biggest expenses are, apart from mortgage and car repayments.

The bank is about to launch another feature that will allow customers to "tag" those items that they need to categorise for tax purposes. Tagging items under their category is a well-known feature in social media apps, so it makes sense that it is introduced in banking apps, too.

From old school to new school

While cheques are not as popular today, the occasional cheque in the post can be a hassle, as it forces you to either go to the bank or to an ATM that can process bank cheques. Not anymore. National Australia Bank gives its customers the option to deposit cheques through their phones under its mobile cheque deposit feature.

A NAB customer can simply take a photo of the cheque on their mobile phone and send it through. Once verified, the bank can process the cheque and deposit the funds into their account, saving them the hassle of a visit to a bank branch.

Another old-school item that the bank is taking to the next stage is tax receipts. If you consent to its smart receipts feature, you can do away with paper receipts and instead get them sent to your bank and stored under its receipts feature. This is only available with participating retailers, but it is just a matter of time before smart receipts become ubiquitous as more people move towards paperless transactions.

Reach savings goals faster

Another feature that has proved popular with finance apps is that they allow users to create savings goals. This has now become a standard offering among all the major banks, with customers able to set aside money for their holidays, for buying their first home or for that one-off spend like saving up for a wedding or a big-ticket item.

ANZ has taken this concept to the next level through its newly launched ANZ Plus (which is separate from the classic banking app ANZ and only available on mobile). The new app offers the option to set up as much as 99 savings goals under the one bank account and, in keeping with social media trends, customers can give each of their multiple goals a customised emoji for extra motivation and entertainment.

Cybersecurity has also become a bigger problem as more banking customers do their shopping online, making their personal credit card data vulnerable to hackers and scammers. ANZ Plus adds extra security through a Visa dynamic CVV. This means a different CVV is logged every time a customer does a transaction so that previous credit or debit card data cannot be used because the CVV is constantly updated.

Another upcoming feature from the bank that could help people manage their budget is that ANZ Plus could soon track so-called "hotspot spending locations" so that you can identify how often you frequent those places and whether you could save money by avoiding them.

Mobile takes over

Last year, mobile banking took over internet banking as the preferred way to check an account online. According to the Commonwealth Bank, the number of customers who started using their mobile banking app more than doubled from 3.4 million in 2015 to 6.9 million today. 
As at June this year, it said an active customer logs into  the app an average 36.2 times each month.

Banks are looking to fend off the threat of finance apps by providing the same features, using them as a way to retain their customers. For the bank customer, the advantage is that they don't have to log onto multiple apps to get a picture of their finances. The downside is that it makes it less appealing to switch banks.

Either way, the introduction of these new features will finally help more people answer that frequent question, for good or bad - "Where did my money go?"

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Michelle Baltazar is editor-in-chief of Money magazine and an award-winning journalist, editor and publisher. She has worked at media companies including BRW, Shares Magazine (London) and industry newspaper Financial Standard, and has written about superannuation, wealth management, investment technology and financial advice.