Anthony Johnson, a 29-year-old real estate agent in Miami, Florida, had always kept his money with one of the big banks.
“Overall, it was a decent experience,” he says. “It didn’t become an issue until I became a real estate agent.”
Although he was making money, it wasn’t in the form of a regularly scheduled direct deposit. His bank didn’t like that, so it started slapping him with a $12 monthly fee.
“It’s not like it’s a bunch of money, but it adds up,” Johnson says. “It was like, ‘Why am I paying you guys to hold my money?’”
A Banking App That’s Got Your Back
In October 2018, Johnson downloaded an app called Empower. He was drawn to its bill negotiation feature. Then, one day when he signed in, he saw the announcement about its new fee-free banking products: A 1% cash-back debit card and a savings account with 2% APY (with no minimum balance).
“I’m like, ‘That’s amazing,’” he says.
At the time, the accounts were so new that there was a waitlist to join, so he added his name. But he was so excited to tap into it that he tweeted at Empower asking to skip the line.
Those were the magic words. He gained access to the new mobile-only bank and set up his free checking and savings accounts. Within a few days, he received his pretty new orange debit card in the mail.
Empower App Review: Stop Worrying About Your Money
In addition to Empower’s banking and savings accounts, the app comes chock full of easy-to-use money-management features.
And it’s free.
Actually, Empower technically pays you to use the app, thanks to that cash-back debit card and interest-earning savings account.
Mobile Banking (With Rewards)
For Johnson, mobile banking is one of the most appealing parts of Empower.
That cash-back debit card and high-yield savings account are part of Empower’s new mobile banking accounts. That means you can access your checking and savings in one spot. Plus, each account comes with money-making perks.
When you join Empower banking, you’ll get:
- A debit card that’ll grant you 1% cash back on the first $1,000 worth of purchases with it each month. For each friend you refer, the rate increases to 2% cash back for a month.
- A savings account that yields 2% APY (that’s interest you earn), which increases to 4% for a month when you refer a friend. (Honestly, 4% interest on a savings account is almost unheard of.)
Your account is FDIC-insured for up to $250,000. It’s also totally free with no minimum balance.
Once you download the app, you’ll be able to sign up for Empower banking in less than five minutes.
When you download Empower, you’ll have the option to sign up for that shiny new banking account, or you can stick with what you’ve got. Either way, you’ll be able to use the app’s other features, including a spending tracker.
The smart app registers transactions on your connected accounts and breaks them down by category: bills and utilities, groceries, dining and drinks, personal care, entertainment, etc.
You can even customize categories. If you know you spend way too much money eating out for lunch, create a custom category titled “Lunch.” At first, you might have to manually categorize these transactions, but the app will eventually get the hang of it and do it for you.
From there, you will monitor your spending within each category. You can even set limits. For example, set a limit of $25 a week for lunches out. Once you’re close to that limit, you’ll get a notification from Empower, so you’ll know to pack your lunch for the rest of the week.
The app also tracks your income. From there, it’ll tally what you’ve got left over for savings. It’s a simple calculation, but it helps you establish a budget.
Bill Negotiation and Subscription Cancellations
Empower’s bill negotiation feature was why Johnson initially downloaded the app. He wanted to negotiate his monthly bills and see any sneaky subscriptions lingering on his accounts.
After he connected his accounts, Empower registered his recurring monthly transactions.
First, he was able to tap into its bill negotiation feature, provided by BillShark. It analyzes various deals and promotions and lets you know where you can save. There is no up-front cost, and BillShark charges a 40% fee of the savings it finds for you in the first year — only if it finds savings.
Empower has also partnered with the insurance marketplace Gabi, which helps you shop for the best home and car insurance rates within the Empower app.
Second, Empower checked on his monthly subscriptions. It’ll list them for you, then let you know how to cancel anything you no longer use or want.
Johnson saw that he was paying for an Instacart subscription, which he wasn’t using nearly enough, so he canceled it.
Although Empower won’t give you a full-blown credit analysis, it can help you keep your credit score on track by keeping tabs on your credit utilization — how much of your available credit you’re using at a time.
It’s easy to lose sight of this, especially when you have multiple credit cards to balance.
So Empower will keep track of it and alert you when you’re nearing the 30% danger zone. Then you know you should pay down your credit card balance.
The Pros and Cons of Empower
Sure, Empower offers some powerful financial tools, but let’s roll up our sleeves and get to the nitty gritty: the pros and cons of the app.
- Empower’s banking features are some of the best in the industry. You’ll collect 1% cash back on the first $1,000 worth of debit card purchases a month, and it has that high-yield savings account with 2% APY. The average savings account, as of December 2018, reaps only 0.09% interest, according to Bankrate.
- You’re almost guaranteed to find a way to save money. Between the app’s bill negotiation feature, its subscription and spending trackers, and its personalized loan recommendations, you’ll likely find at least one way to save money. Empower says its average user saves $360 after connecting to the app.
- Empower is an all-in-one app. If you break it down by its features, you could get the same things, but it’d require downloading at least four apps. With Empower, you enter your information once, and it’s all right there — for free.
- Although Empower advertises real-time transaction updates, you might experience delays depending on your banking institution. If you use Empower banking and some others, you’ll see real-time updates. If you’re not in a rush to see play-by-play updates, this shouldn’t be a big deal.
- Empower offers that nice credit tracking feature, but unfortunately it only tracks your credit utilization. You won’t be able to see your credit score or the other factors that make up your credit score right within the app.
- Because Empower is so new, not all of its features have been unveiled yet. For example, you can’t deposit checks through your phone yet. That’s what’s keeping Johnson from moving all his money into the account. As soon as that’s good to go, he plans to use Empower as his primary account.
What Does It Cost to Use Empower?
Empower is totally free to download and use.
The company makes money the same way your bank does (except without charging you fees) and also by partnering with other financial firms, as it does with BillShark and Gabi.
It’s important to note, though, that Empower only makes a recommendation if it’s actually a smart money move for you.
Is Empower Worth a Download?
Johnson says he’d recommend Empower to others. In fact, he is already recommending it to his friends, who are into saving money whenever possible.
“Who doesn’t want 1% cash back?” he asks. “Who doesn’t want 2% on savings?”
For him, the money-management features are just icing on the banking cake.
Carson Kohler ([email protected]) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.
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