If you were to snatch my smartphone and scroll through my many pages of applications, you’d probably notice a bit of a trend. Among the various games and standards like YouTube, Instagram, and Timehop, you’d find several personal finance apps ranging from cash back vehicles to budgeting tools. That’s why I’m always excited to learn about new apps to review. Lucky for me, just a few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from someone with Emma asking me to check out them out on the App Store.
Emma is a personal finance app that only recently arrived in America and Canada after originally debuting in the United Kingdom. Across the pond, the app has reportedly racked up more than 100,000 downloads, earning the company investments from European venture capital firms. While you might see the occasional Pound symbol employed in the app’s design elements, it has been thoroughly adapted for the U.S. market.
So what does Emma bring to the personal finance landscape? Let’s take a look at the main features of their free app as well as their paid Emma Pro upgrade.
Using the Emma App
Linking bank accounts and the Accounts tab
Like most personal finance apps, after you sign-up, your next task is to link your various bank accounts. Also like so many other apps, this is accomplished via Plaid — a service that allows Emma to securely access data from your accounts. While checking accounts and credit cards are probably the most helpful to add to Emma, you can also link savings accounts and even investment accounts to the app as well. In fact, the app will break your accounts into three categories:
- Everyday (checking and credit cards)
Tapping each will display the overall balance for all accounts in that category along with a historical chart of your balances over time. Below that you can view individual account balances and tap any given account for recent transactions and other info. Meanwhile, over in the main Feed page at the top you can view your total Cash, Debt, and Investment balances.
App design and navigation
Off the bat, opening Emma reminded me a lot of Clarity Money. If you’re been following my reviews, you’ll know that’s a good thing. The app’s Feed tab features a number of widget-esque sections, all featuring eye-pleasing color schemes. Beyond that, the majority of these widgets are pretty handy.
Starting at the top (well, after the aforementioned balance section) are Recent Transaction cards you can swipe through. This is actually where another Clarity Money comparison comes in: the use of company logos. For the vast majority of my transactions, Emma displayed the merchant logo, making it very easy to spot certain purchases. I truly appreciate this touch both functionally and aesthetically — and it seems Emma feels the same way as they include a way you can submit a business’s Twitter account so that the app can update their logo and name information. To me, this is a clever crowdsourcing idea that yields attractive results for the user experience.
Some of the other helpful tools in the Feed include a spending chart where you can quickly view how your current spending in various categories compares to the prior three months. Another prompts searches for transactions at some of your top merchants. Finally the Subscriptions section may be one of my personal favorites as it shows a list of your current and inactive recurring subscriptions as garnered via your transaction data. In the event Emma missed a recurring subscription and you want to add to the list (or want to remove something from the list), you can do so by tapping that transaction in question and toggling on the “repeating payment” option. To me, this feature is key as it not only warns you about upcoming spending commitments you have but also provides you with a master list of subscriptions, making it less likely that you’ll forget about them. Thumbs up for plugging money leaks!
Tracking your spending and building a budget
There is no shortage of ways to view your past transactions in Emma. This includes viewing recent transactions across all accounts, tapping into specific accounts, and filtering by category, retailer, or by using tags. Plus the home screen features those additional widgets I mentioned that will display your purchase data.
Of course, with all this purchase data, it only makes sense that Emma would offer the ability to build a budget as well. To do this, just tap the Budgets link in the top right corner when you’re in the Analytics tab. Here you’ll see a list of all of your spending categories along with your current spending average for each. At the top your total monthly budget will also be displayed.
One minor gripe I have with Emma’s budget set-up is that it relies on you tapping the plus or minus buttons to increase or decrease your budget in $5 increments. This is simple enough for smaller categories but can get tedious for things like savings goals or rent. And while you can hold down on the plus button to make the number rise quickly, I can’t help but think an override where you could just manually enter a number might be more helpful.
With your budgets in place, Analytics will show how much of your budget you’ve used in any given category. It will also show how much of your total budget you’ve spent for your current pay period. By the way, you can adjust what constitutes a pay period by visiting the main Feed and tapping the pencil icon on the “This Pay Period” widget or going to the More tab and selecting Payday.
Going hand in hand with the budgeting aspect of Emma are alerts and notifications. Here you can elect to receive push notifications when you go over budget, get daily balance updates, and much more. You can opt into or out of several notification options by visiting the More tab, tapping the gear icon in the upper right corner, and proceeding to the aptly named Notifications.
Also located in the More tab is a useful tool that will allow you to view any recent bank fees you’ve been charged. More accurately, Emma will actually allow you to see fees you’ve paid since the “Beginning of time.” Thankfully I’ve since left behind banks that like to charge me fees but I can imagine that this feature might get some big bank customers to think about a change. P.S. if you are thinking about trying an online bank, here’s a look at some I personally use.
Adding some gamification to the app, Emma features a number of Quests that users can conquer by completing various tasks and reaching certain milestones. These include things like setting your payday and building your first budget to reaching streaks of 10, 20, and 50 days of opening the app. Clearly the point of these quests is to encourage you to use the app more but they do provide a different way to learn about various features and functions you may have overlooked. Naturally, if you want to earn every Quest badge, you’ll need to subscribe to Emma Pro (more on that later).
This is a pretty small feature in the app but it’s unique enough that I felt I had to mention it. Under the “More” tab, you’ll find the option to “scramble” your app. As they explain, this option will allow you to show the app to friends and family without sharing more information than you may have wanted to. When turned on, instead of your real balances, seemingly random numbers presented in ¥ will display. Additionally any account numbers will be hidden, replaced with 0s and sequential numbers. Meanwhile the rest of the app’s functions will remain intact.
To exit Scramble, just tap the red bar at the top of the screen. Could someone you’re showing the app to do this by accident? Probably — but I think it’s a clever idea nonetheless.
One of my favorite aspects of Emma so far has been their weekly trivia challenges. These five-question quizzes are typically themed in some way, such as a Stranger Things event when that week Season 3 dropped. If you can correctly answer each of the questions, you’ll be entered into a lottery with a $100 grand prize. Sadly, if miss one question along the way, your quiz journey will end and you’ll have to wait until next week.
Funny enough, it wasn’t until last week that I finally made it through a full quiz (it was Disney themed so I aced it). Despite my success, it would seem I was not the lucky $100 winner. In any case, these trivia challenges are a smart way to bring you back to the app and keep you engaged.
About Emma Pro
While Emma is free to download and offers all of the above features at no cost, there is also a premium in-app upgrade called Emma Pro. After a one-week free trial, Emma Pro costs $5.99 a month, $29.99 for six months, or $49.99 for a year (all paid upfront). Alternatively, you can earn free months of Emma Pro by referring others to the app. For example you can earn one free month when one person joins Emma using your referral link, six months when you make five referrals, and — if you refer 15 people to the app — you can claim Emma Pro free for life.
So what does Emma Pro add? Let’s take a look at each of the bonus features:
Custom budget categories
A feature that’s notably missing from the standard version of Emma joins the Pro line-up: the ability to create custom spending categories. It’s a welcome addition but could be even better. That’s because you can seemingly only create the new categories by visiting the Emma Pro section of app. In other words, you can’t do this on the fly while relabeling a transaction. While this isn’t a huge inconvenience, it’s one area that could be improved.
Another benefit of the Pro version is the ability to export your transaction data from Emma. To do this, simply tap on this option in app and select which e-mail address you’d like your report to be sent to. The e-mail you receive will contain a link to your download that will expire 48 hours after it was sent.
The file you download is an .xlsx you can open in Excel, Google Sheets, or other programs that support XML spreadsheets. Included on the sheet are:
- Transaction ID
- Date of transaction
- Currency (USD, etc.)
- Transaction Type (Purchase, deposit, transfer)
- Additional details
Honestly, I’m not really sure what I would do with such a sheet but I was definitely impressed with how all of this information was presented and how thorough it was. I’ve also heard other people talk about exporting transaction data as a must-have feature. So, for them, I’d give this aspect of Emma Pro a thumbs up.
Just as the name implies, this feature allows you to change what name displays on any given transaction. Again, I don’t personally see a major application for this but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have.
If you don’t want to or can’t link a particular bank account to Emma, this feature will allow you to add a balance and account name manually. These manual accounts will show alongside your linked ones and you can update your balance by tapping it. I could see this coming in handy if you have an extra savings account or even a stash of cash you want to keep track of. However, if you can link an account, I’d definitely recommend that method instead.
For those who want to keep track of things like businesses expenses or just want to get very granular with their purchase categorization, this one is for you. With Emma Pro, you’ll be able to split transactions between as many different categories as you want. Furthermore you can choose to either split the cost evenly or enter the specific amount you want to designate to each category. Of all the Pro-exclusive features, I’d say this is easily among the most helpful and could definitely see using it myself.
Pro icon (iOS only)
As an added bonus for upgrading to Emma Pro, you can show off your fancy paid status by changing your app’s icon from the standard purple to a gold/orange design. Obviously this doesn’t do much in terms of the app’s functionality but I have to admit I didn’t even know that this type of feature was possible. So while I wouldn’t say this is a star perk by any means, props to Emma for the creativity.
Canceling Emma Pro
Whether you want to end your Emma Pro trial before your free week is up or need to take a break for a while, canceling your subscription is mercifully easy. For iOS users like myself, you’ll be able to cancel by visiting your Settings, selecting iTunes & App Store, tapping your Apple ID, and scrolling down to Subscriptions. From there you can not only cancel your current subscription but also view other upgrade options.
Final Thoughts on the Emma App
Overall, I found using Emma to be a really enjoyable experience. Not only did I love the colorful aesthetic and useful widget the app offers but also appreciated the extra fun they bring to the service, such as their weekly quizzes. Plus, the Subscription interface and Bank Fees tool are two standout features I’d say make Emma worth trying on their own.
As for Emma Pro, the features it adds to the app are fairly worthwhile. That said, I wouldn’t say they’re worth $6 a month — or even $3 a month if I’m being completely honest. Those who really want the ability to export their data or create custom categories may disagree but I couldn’t personally justify that cost. Luckily, if you’re a cheapskate like me, the referral route is also available — and 15 referrals for lifetime access is admittedly a pretty good deal.
While Emma might best be described as a budgeting app, I’d prefer the broader “personal finance app” label. This isn’t to say that its budgeting tools miss the mark but I think the way Emma displays your purchase information makes it more useful to money-conscious non-budgeters like myself. For those reasons, I’d say Emma’s stateside arrival has been successful so far and I look forward to seeing what else the app brings down the road.
Also published on Medium.