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One of the following two statements is false:

1. Just one in four PFM (personal financial management) users believes that PFM tools have done a good job of helping them understand how other people manage their financial lives.

2. No data exists for FIs or PFM providers to help consumers understand how other people manage their financial lives.

I can assure you that statement #1 is true, because I have the research data to back it up. If you thought statement #2 is true, you are forgiven, but that statement is NOT true.

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The Treasury Department recently launched a new web site called the Finance Data Directory, which brings together (for the first time?), a number of data sources relating to consumers’ financial lives. Included are links to the CFPB’s credit card complaint database (which I’m not a big fan of), the CFPB Credit Card Agreement Database, the FDIC’s Call Reports, Survey of Un/Underbanked, and Summary of Deposits, and a database on Consumer Expenditures.

This last database mentioned above should be utilized by every PFM provider. It provides detailed spending data by category (e.g., food, housing, utilities, apparel, transportation, etc.) at an incredibly granular level. It’s exactly the kind of data that consumers need to understand how their spending compares to others in their age and/or income brackets.

Another dataset worth exploring is the Survey of Consumer Payment Choice Data which provides detailed data on consumers’ credit, debit, and prepaid card usage. Helping consumers make sense of this data, and how it could/should affect their payment decisions is what PFM providers should be doing.

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The Treasury’s efforts appear to be tied to two initiatives: The first is the Data.gov initiative, whose purpose, according to its website is to:

Increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.

The second initiative is the Treasury’s attempt to take a more activist role in helping consumers manage their financial lives.

I participated in a Google+ Hangout recently, coordinated by the National Consumer League, and sponsored by JPMorgan Chase. One of the panelists was Sophie Raseman, the Director of Smart Disclosure in the Treasury’s Office of Consumer Policy. On the Treasury’s web site, Sophie wrote:

“The Finance Data Directory is part of Treasury’s work to promote the development of the next generation of personal finance tools that promote financial capability.”

While the finance data directory has a ton of data that PFM providers should find useful, Sophie said something during the hangout which really resonated with me:

“PFM needs to focus on outcomes.”

I couldn’t agree more. This gets at the heart of what I was trying to communicate in my PFM Is Dead post. Oversight — the ability to know where your money is and where it goes — is useful, but just one of the potential benefits and impacts that PFM can have.

Account aggregation and budget creation/tracking is great, but unless it changes behavior — or in Sophie’s terms, alters outcomes — then the potential impact of PFM is unfulfilled.

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One aspect of the Treasury’s objectives that shouldn’t go unnoticed is its choice of words. Note that the Treasury is looking to promote financial capability. I might be reading more into this than what’s really there, but I believe it was a conscious choice to use the word capability instead of literacy (Sophie’s comment about outcomes supports my belief). 

Too many consumer advocates focus on financial literacy. Knowledge without action, or change in behavior, is useless. 

It will be interesting to see how the Treasury’s efforts in this area unfold.

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