Charlie Messenger Review: Does the Penguin Really Give Good Money Advice?
No matter who you are, we could all use a little help when it comes to handling our money. This could mean everything from hiring a financial advisor or talking to a savvy friend to using an app or online service to keep an eye on your spending. But what if you could combine the feeling of chatting with a peer with the features offered by many finance apps? That’s the basic idea behind Charlie — a Messenger chatbot (and now a standalone app) built to help you save money and better manage your finances.
So how does this friendly cartoon penguin accomplish such a lofty goal? Let’s take a look at how Charlie works and whether it’s worth striking up a conversation with.
Signing Up for Charlie
Where to find Charlie
When I originally reviewed Charlie, it didn’t have its own app yet. Instead I met Charlie as a Facebook Messenger bot. Of course, if you went to Facebook and searched “Charlie,” you’d probably be more likely to find the profile for your third cousin or middle school bully than the bot. Therefore, those in search of it should try looking for “Hi Charlie” — or you can go directly to their Facebook page. From there you can click/tap the “Sign Up” button to get started.
By the way, since Charlie started off as a Messenger Bot, we’ll take a closer look at that medium before jumping to the newly-released app.
Before you opt into Charlie, Facebook will confirm that the service can access your publically displayed information. This means that Charlie will address you by name. After kicking things off with the “Get Started” chat button, the bot will offer a few prompts you can go through to view how the service works and get some of your questions about security and such answered. Then, when you’re ready to get started for real, you’ll want to connect your accounts.
In order to experience the full benefits of Charlie and explore its features, you’ll want to link your various bank accounts and credit cards. Like oh so many other personal finance tools, this service uses Plaid (which was recently acquired by Visa) to do this securely. To add an account to Charlie, you’ll first need to click the “Connect” prompt that shows during the tutorial or just tell Charlie you’d like to add an account and it’ll send the link again. Then you’ll just need to select your bank or card issuer and log into your online account. Once complete, the bot will be able to view your transaction data but won’t be able to make any transactions.
Interacting with Charlie
Talking to Charlie via Messenger reminds me a bit of chatting with Digit via text. Of course there are a couple of very key differences between the two services. For one, Charlie is free while Digit now charges $5 a month. The other major difference is that, while Digit is able to move money on your behalf, Charlie can only view transactions and make recommendations. With that in mind, what exactly can Charlie do?
One of the standard prompts you can send to Charlie is “Ideas.” Doing so will prompt the service to share a tip or recommendation. In my experience, some of these are personalized while others are fairly generic. This also seems to be one of the main ways the service monetizes, presumably earning affiliate revenue from the other sites and companies it pitches.
To give you an example of the Ideas I’ve encountered, my first suggestion came from Charlie realizing that I spend a fair amount on Starbucks each month. When it then asked if I wanted to hear an idea to save money on this, I was a bit worried it was gonna attempt to sell me on the Starbucks credit card from Chase or just, you know, tell me to buy a Keurig. Instead it suggested that I could purchase discounted gift cards via one of two services: Raise and Cardpool. Personally I hadn’t heard of either service and have yet to vet them for myself but it sounds like a pretty interesting tip. Moreover I was impressed that the links for both led directly to the Starbucks gift card pages on each site instead of just the homepage (yay for deep linking!).
As for the more generic Ideas that Charlie has presented to me, it noted that filling up your gas tank earlier in the week could save you money versus waiting until the end. Somewhat related, Charlie inquired about my car insurance needs. After asking my zip code, it referred me to a site called The Zebra where I could start my search for new quotes. While this site could potentially be helpful (again, I have yet to really explore it in depth), the nearly unsolicited nature of the referral makes me wonder whether future Ideas will really be tailored to my needs or whether they’ll just throw things against the wall until something sticks. That might sound a bit harsh as I do think the Ideas have been fairly good so far, but I could see how they might be a bit annoying in some cases.
Funny enough, soon after I posted my original review, Charlie messaged me to let me know that Spotify was giving away Google Home Minis to Premium subscribers. Sure enough, I followed the link provided and was able to claim one for myself. Now, I’m not sure if I received the message because Charlie could see that I was a Spotify subscriber or whether it was just informing lots of users but it definitely worked out in this case. Therefore I’d say there is some value in this feature even if the individual ideas may be more hit or miss.
Balances and transactions
If you ever want to know how much you have in your accounts or what you’ve recently purchased, you can just ask Charlie. Beyond the standard prompts such as “Balances,” the chatbot is also able to respond to specific questions. Say you want to know how much you spent on Chipotle this month — you can literally just type “How much did I spend at Chipotle?” and Charlie will display your current month’s total followed by a look at the total for the past few months. Charlie also allows you to be more specific (such as “how much did I spend at Chipotle in March?”) or zoom out (how much have I spent on food this month?) when viewing transaction and budget data. Honestly, it’s actually rather nifty.
Dashboard and Budget
Although Charlie is fully contained in Messenger, it does offer some app-like experiences. Case in point: Dashboard. Here you can get an overview for all of your linked accounts. To access this, just type “Dashboard” and Charlie will send you a link.
Charlie also has a Budget widget you can access through a similar method. Here you can plug in your income and savings goals to have it calculate your “Cash to Splash” — AKA disposable income. While I like the idea and look of this feature, I do have to admit I don’t 100% understand how it works. Charlie would allow me to adjust my income but the recurring bills were locked in and I couldn’t figure out how to add more categories. It’s quite possible I’m missing something but, for now, I can’t recommend this as a viable budget generation tool.
For those who like to keep tabs on their spending without having to check-in manually, Charlie offers a number of notification options. By sending “Notifications” and tapping the link, you’ll be able to opt into daily or weekly updates or snooze alerts for a set period of time. You can also choose what types of action alerts you’d like to receive. These include getting alerts when:
- Deposits are made
- Checks clear
- Bank fees are incurred
- Large transactions are made
- Credit card bills come due
- Annual fees are impending
- Interest rates change
- You make credit card payments
- A significant amount of your credit limit is used
- Restaurant tips are applied
- And more
This is a fairly exhaustive and often creative list, all but ensuring you’ll find at least some of these alerts useful.
Subscriptions and bills
Another feature on Charlie I found useful is the subscriptions/bills section. By messaging the service with one of those two words, you’ll be able to access a list of current recurring bills it finds across your accounts. In the event it doesn’t pick up on a subscription, you can manually go through your transactions to note certain bills or, if it accidentally includes a non-bill, you can easily exclude it.
What’s cool is that, for several subscriptions, Charlie will give you some guidance on how to cancel if you’d like. For example, when I tapped “Cut this bill” under my Spotify subscription, it gave me the option to try Billshark or cancel myself. Tapping the latter linked me directly to the relevant page on Spotify’s site that explained exactly how to cancel. Similarly my Adobe subscription also offered a link with cancellation info, although no Billshark promo was present this time around.
Once again, while I can’t yet speak to Billshark’s actual product, it seems like another interesting recommendation from Charlie. More importantly, the relevant links it provides for the DIY methods are sure to save you time when you’re on a bill-cutting binge. All in all, this is a pretty handy little tool.
Lastly, if you’re wondering about some of the companies and services Charlie might recommend to you via its various Ideas, you may want to check out Offers. Currently the brands featured here include Ibotta, Airbnb, Freebird, Steady, and more. Again, this may be helpful for those seeking new apps and tools to try, although none of the offers themselves seem all that special.
Charlie 2.0: The New Hi Charlie App
While Charlie was only available as a Facebook Messenger bot previously, that recently changed. A few months ago, Charlie announced that it would be launching a mobile app — dubbed Charlie 2.0 at the time. Well, earlier this month, the Hi Charlie mobile app arrived on the Apple App Store.
So how does the new app compare to the bot? Let’s take a look.
Moving from Messenger to the app
Once you download the app and go to log in, you’ll be asked if you’ve previously interacted with Charlie. If you have, you can elect to launch Facebook Messenger and allow the Hi Charlie app to access your info. This will save you the time of having to reconnect any accounts you’d already linked. After this is complete, the app will ask you to enter your e-mail address as a way to secure your account.
While it was nice that I didn’t have to start from scratch when moving over to the app, this process did mean I actually had to download the Facebook Messenger app. Prior to this I’d only interacted with Charlie via the desktop site, so it was slightly annoying that I needed to add this step. Still, after that, it was smooth sailing.
Syncing with Messenger (or not)
When I got set up in the Hi Charlie app, I noticed that a number of my messages from Messenger appeared in my chat log. Because of this, I was slightly worried that deleting the Messenger app would cause issues within Charlie. Thankfully that is not the case. However, while the old messages will transfer over, it doesn’t seem as though the app and bot will continue to sync up. That might be slightly frustrating for some users although I’m not sure there isn’t a way around it.
Navigating the Hi Charlie app
The main tab of the Charlie app will look mighty familiar as it’s essentially just the chatbot messages screen. However there is additional navigation not found on the Messenger version.
In the top, left corner of the app, you’ll see a Home icon. Tapping this will launch a sidebar, headlined with a graph comparing your spending in the current month to the prior month. Below that you’ll find account balances and recent transactions. You can also tap “See details” or “See All” under either. Doing so will show this data in the same sidebar, although you can navigate back to the Dashboard by hitting the three-lines icon in the upper left and then selecting “Dashboard.”
Speaking of that three-lines icon, this is also where you can navigate to other features. Somewhat oddly, tapping the option will launch another sidebar — so you can see it, your dashboard, and just a sliver of your chatbot window all at the same time. In any case, here you can access:
- And more
You’ll notice that these are all identical to what you’ll find in the Messenger Bot version of the Dashboard, which seems like a deliberate choice. In essence, the only difference you’ll find between the Messenger bot and the app is the medium you choose.
Thoughts on the Hi Charlie App
Although the Hi Charlie app doesn’t really reinvent the wheel, it does give those (like me) who don’t care much for Facebook Messenger another option. On the whole, the app looks slick and works well — however the stacking sidebars are a bit of a weird choice. And, like I said, it would be cool if your messages from Messenger and the app stayed in sync but, hey, what are you gonna do?
Final Thoughts on Charlie
When I originally reviewed Charlie, it only took me a short time to find a few pros and cons. First of all, I find the Messenger platform the service uses to be both a pro and a con. While I appreciate that I don’t need to download yet another app in order to use Charlie (although that’s now an option), I’m really not a huge fan of Facebook or Messenger. Thus the idea of having to open the site to chat with Charlie does make me less inclined to do so. At the same time, for those who are less Facebook-phobic than I am, using a chatbot to do much of what other apps can is both convenient and creative.
As for what Charlie actually offers, I have to say that I like a lot of the features. While the Ideas are a bit of a mixed bag, if nothing else, the service has already given me a laundry list of reviews for the future! I’ve also been impressed with how intelligent Charlie is, with the bot rarely missing a beat in responding to my random inquiries. It would seem that the architects behind the scenes have done a thorough job with programming a number of prompts to create a better user experience. This attention to detail also shines in some of the examples I provided where Charlie goes the extra mile in directing you exactly where you need to go. Plus the amount of thought that’s clearly gone into the type of notification option Charlie offers is honestly impressive.
Given these initial impressions and the fact that it’s free to use, I’d say it’s worth giving Charlie a chance — either via Messenger or by downloading their new app.
Also published on Medium.