As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous reviews, Instagram has proven to be a surprisingly robust source for discovering new FinTech apps. That happens to be how I first came across the digital banking service Bella — AKA Bella Loves Me. After signing up for their waitlist, I was able to open an account when they officially launched on November 30th and have continued to use it regularly over the past few months.
What first made me interested in Bella was its concept that emphasized random acts of kindness between its members. So, how does this work in practice? Let’s take a look at some of the basics of Bella as well as my experience so far.
What is Bella and How Does it Work?
Regarding the name
To be honest, I was not 100% sure what to call this service at first. On the debit card, it simply says “Bella” and its website seemingly states the company’s name as Bella. Yet, it’s listed in the App Store as “Bella Loves Me” and its official site is BellaLoves.Me. Still, I’m not totally convinced that the addition of the “Loves Me” is much more than a marketing line used to avoid confusion with other Bellas.
After I initially wrote this review, a member of the Bella team reached out to clarify that the full name of the company is indeed Bella Loves Me. In any case, I’ll be sticking to just Bella in this review for simplicity’s sake.
Signing up for Bella and getting started
Like with most digital banking accounts, you’ll need to provide some personal info in order to get started with Bella. This includes entering your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, and more. You’ll also need to e-sign their user agreement. After that, you’ll be ready to proceed in setting up your new account.
Since Bella has a unique user interface (which we’ll get to later), it will walk you through a short tutorial to get you acquainted. At the end of this tour, you’ll have the opportunity to fund your account. This is done by first linking an external account using the secure API plaid. Once an account is linked, you can enter how much you’d like to transfer and confirm your transaction.
Currently, Bella accounts are issued by NBKC Bank. However, NBKC also partners with additional institutions and may sweep funds into other accounts. As a result, Bella says that funds are FDIC insured up to $5 million instead of the regular $250,000. For the record, when I looked up the routing number for my account, it did indeed show up as NBKC Bank.
Navigating the app
Bella’s mobile app offers a unique interface that allows users to either swipe through different “tabs” or enter commands for what they’re looking for. From the home screen, you’ll see tabs for Checking, Savings, and Card as well as one called “Me,” which houses settings and such. Additionally, there’s a heart icon that will take you to the “BellaLovesMe100 Index” (more on that in a bit) followed by balance info.
While you can use any of these links or swipe left or right to travel between panes, there’s also a Tap to Type prompt at the bottom of the screen. Here, you can select from common searches or search for more specific tasks. In some cases, Bella will provide links to your search while other requests will lead to follow-ups. For example, if you type “Deposit,” it will then ask you to enter how much you want to deposit before setting up a transfer for you to confirm.
On the whole, I’ve found that this Tap to Type feature can be pretty useful — especially once you’ve had some practice with it. I also like the aesthetic of the app, including the customization options afforded to users such as the ability to choose a light or dark mode, feed layout, welcome image, and more. However, I’ve also found that the app has a bit of a learning curve due to just how different it is. Unfortunately, for as easy as it attempts to make things, I could see the app proving a bit frustrating for some newcomers.
At its core, Bella is a checking account, complete with a debit card. Because of this, deposits you make to your account will automatically land in your checking account. To be clear, this means you’ll need to have funds in checking before you can move them to Savings or Karma. I suppose this is understandable but I do wish there was an option to choose where you want funds transferred from an external account to end up.
In addition to your Bella checking account, you can also create multiple savings accounts in the app. What’s nice is that funds in any of these Savings accounts will currently earn 0.30% APY. This isn’t an outstanding rate but Bella rightfully notes that it is six times the national average.
Another cool feature in Savings is the ability to customize your account with savings goals. In fact, you can set up recurring transfers to help you automatically set aside funds. Plus, you can nickname your account and even add a featured image to help you visualize what you’re working toward.
Adding to Bella’s fun quirkiness, on top of the normal savings rules you can create, the app also has some unique weather-based ones. Yes, you read that right. Currently, you can arrange to transfer a set amount of money to your savings on days when it’s sunny, raining, snowing in your area (or any other area technically). After selecting your preferred weather condition, you’ll then select a city, and then an amount. You’ll also be able to choose a frequency for the rule along with a start date and end date/end rule. Is this silly? Sure! But it’s also pretty clever and could make saving for a goal, trip, or whatever that much more interesting.
Now we come to the key features that make Bella one-of-a-kind. Beyond your traditional Checking and Savings accounts, users will also have what the app calls a Karma account. Funds placed in this account won’t directly benefit you but will instead be tapped to “pay it forward” to other Bella customers via random acts of kindness. What’s more, as the app assigns your funds to someone else, you’ll be notified that you’ve “picked up [user’s] tab.”
Previously, customers could only keep $20 in their Karma account at any given time. However, it seems that this has since changed and I’m not clear on whether a Karma limit currently exists. In any case, your participation in the Karma account program does not impact your ability to receive Bella Surprises — but, hey, it’s called “karma” for a reason.
By the way, if you’re curious, you can view the aforementioned BellaLovesMe100 Index tab to see recent “acts of love” including Karma transactions and Bella Surprises.
Not only does Bella facilitate the opportunity to delight fellow users by randomly picking up their tab via the Karma account but the company also gets in on the giving with Bella Surprises. When you use your Bella debit card to make a purchase, there’s a chance that you’ll earn some amount of cash back. Again, this is randomized, so you never know what will happen.
More recently, Bella has made an update that allows members to decide how they’d like to see their Surprises used. Now, you can select to have awarded Surprises deposited to your checking balance (the previous default), added to your Karma account, or donated to community initiatives. The choice is truly up to you and can be adjusted at any time in Settings. Moreover, you can also differentiate between Surprises presented by Bella and those that come from other members. For example, you can elect to redistribute acts of love you receive from other users but have your regular Bella Surprises credited to your checking.
Interestingly, while part of me assumed the app would cap surprises at a relatively low dollar amount, it turns out that the actual system is more complicated than that. After diving into Bella’s terms of service documents, I found debit card users can receive between 5% and 200% of their purchase back as a Bella Surprise — with a transaction cap of $2,000! That’s honestly way higher than I would have assumed. Granted, it seems unlikely that they’re regularly comping purchases of that size but the terms do state that surprises are “executed on random transaction types, purchase amounts and times of day (among other things).”
Also of note, Bella’s terms point out that you may receive a Form 1099 if your cashback constitutes taxable income. This differs from cashback credit cards where rewards are typically considered rebates and, thus, not subject to taxation. I suppose getting so much cash back from Bella that it counts as income is a good problem to have… but it’s still a problem either way.
Along with the update that allows members to use their Surprises as they see fit, Bella Loves Me also unveiled a new Karma Score feature. Users are awarded Karma points for various activities, including Paying it Forward, donating to causes, and more. As you accrue more points, you’ll also move up the scale — from Karma Explorer to Karma Hero and eventually Karma Legend.
It’s not 100% clear if these scores really mean anything other than making you feel good. In fact, I’d bet that that’s exactly what it is — although the app does state that users will be “rewarded with special surprises” as they go and enjoy other benefits. In any case, I see this mostly as a gamification of giving. So, while this is a fun and perhaps impactful addition, it’s pretty inconsequential in my opinion (at least for now).
My Experience with Bella
My Surprises and Karma
As luck would have it, I managed to unlock a Bella Surprise the first time I used my card. After making a purchase at Andy’s Frozen Custard for $7.34, I was alerted that I had earned $7.56 back. This amounted to 103% of my original purchase price. Later, I had another user pick up my total tab at a local coffee shop. Funny enough, my most recent Bella Surprise was also at Andy’s — this time amounting to 191% of my purchase!
I have to say, getting that alert right after making my purchase felt pretty dang good and made my already delicious frozen custard taste that much better knowing it was free. Of course, considering that I put $20 in my Karma account and earned just $7.56 back, it wasn’t actually free. Regardless, even armed with this knowledge, it was hard to shake the excitement I got from the experience. Similarly, I also enjoy being informed that I’ve picked up someone’s bill for them. Seeing as I’ve recently made it a goal to be a bit more charitable and giving in my life, it’s fun that Bella facilitates this — even if it’s potentially for more frivolous everyday purchases and not really “important” things per se. Plus, now that I can select where these Surprises go, I have the opportunity to give back even more.
As I mentioned in the main section, Bella’s app is unique and can be a bit tricky to navigate through despite their best intentions. Well, on top of that, I’ve recently experienced some basic connectivity issues with the application as well. For example, last night I was trying to view my transactions but kept getting an error. On a similar note, some functions can feel a bit sluggish at times but work perfectly fine in other instances.
I’m inclined to chalk these issues up to growing pains and continued beta test bug squashing, so I’m hopeful that they’ll be resolved. But, in the meantime, they’re still something to look out for.
Another thing I like about Bella is the debit card design. Beyond the fun rainbow coloring, it’s also made from recycled sea plastic. Between these two elements, it easily stands out in my wallet and also encapsulates the good vibes the banking service gives off.
Missing features and functions
Lastly, while it’s easy to get wrapped up in the fun of Bella, it’s important to point out that it currently lacks some key functionalities for a banking account. For example, as far as I can tell, there is currently no way to deposit checks using the app. This may be an outdated ask, but it’s something that I’d surely use at least once in a while.
When exploring Bella, I couldn’t find any mention of ATM access. This originally led me to assume that you could use your Bella debit card to obtain cash but would likely be charged a fee. However, a rep for Bella Loves Me has since informed me that Bella customers can currently use any ATM and have their fees reimbursed. This is actually a pretty big perk and so I’m glad to have this clarification.
Speaking of fees, while Bella says they have no hidden fees and I haven’t been charged anything, I’m having trouble tracking down an actual fee schedule for them, even after looking at the documents available in the app. Also, I noticed that the app refers to me as a Founding Member. This leads me to wonder if the app will remain free for early adopters but later install monetization mechanisms. To be clear, this is just pure ponderance on my part at this point, but we’ll see.
Final Thoughts on Bella Loves Me
Of all of the digital banking accounts and financial apps I’ve reviewed, Bella Loves Me is definitely one of the most intriguing I’ve come across. Not only does it include a noble and fun hook but also backs that up with a unique app design and user interface. That said, the latter could still use some work and/or getting used to as it can be a bit difficult to navigate at times (even after a recent refresh). Additionally, it would be nice to see some more traditional features — namely mobile check deposit — join the service as well. Regardless of these minor drawbacks, I’ve honestly been really enjoying using the service, keeping up with them on social media, and getting alerts about my Karma recipients.
Overall, with Bella Loves Me still being brand new, it’s understandable that there were some hiccups and ways to improve. Nevertheless, what they’ve built so far is pretty impressive to me and it’s been fun to see the community that’s been growing around the app, especially on platforms such as Instagram. So while I’d have some hesitation about going all-in and making Bella one of my main bank accounts, it’s definitely one I’ll be keeping an eye on throughout 2021 and hopefully beyond.
Also published on Medium.