Banking

Level Money wants you to think before you spend

April 16, 2014: 2:11 PM ET

A new service tackles budgeting for millennials by emphasizing the view ahead (and not the one in the rearview).

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FORTUNE -- Most financial services apps try to take the friction out of payments and make it easier to spend money.

Level Money doesn't exactly want to turn the clock back, but it wants you to think before you spend. It's aimed squarely at millennials who are overburdened with debt and who, in a digital world, may have lost track of what they can afford to spend without getting into trouble.

"We live in a world where money is no longer tactile," says Jake Fuentes, Level Money's co-founder and CEO. "We've lost the ability to open up our wallet and see how much we have left."

Level Money wants to be a sort of digital "money meter" that you can peek at and see exactly how much cash you have to spend and still remain in the black. It connects with all your spending accounts, be it your credit cards or your main bank account through your debit card, through a partnership with Intuit (INTU), which handles much of the sensitive bank information.

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Using its algorithms, Level Money then figures out your income -- looking at items like direct deposit of paychecks -- and your fixed, recurring expenses – rent, cable and telephone bills, and subscriptions. The difference between the two (assuming it is positive) is your disposable income, which Level Money displays on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. It updates automatically. If you wake up you to a daily available amount of, say, $57, and go out for an $8.45 breakfast, by mid-morning Level will show you have $48.55 left for the day.

It's this kind of real-time, actionable information that some reviewers say sets it apart from budgeting apps like Mint.com, which is owned by Intuit.

Level Money also allows you to set up a targeted amount for savings, either for the long-term or for a specific one-time purchase, and automatically rolls over surplus funds. The app launched in mid-October on iOS and in mid-January on Android and has been downloaded more than 500,000 times. Fuentes won't say how many people actively use it.

Fuentes, who is 27, is smack in the middle of Level Money's 18-to-35 core demographic and says his cohort desperately needs services that bring transparency to their finances. He says many young adults don't have confidence in their own ability to make wise financial decisions and don't feel that traditional financial institutions are on their side.

That said, Level Money itself has plenty of financial industry veterans on its side. Co-founder Frank Yeary, who is executive chairman, was a longtime head of mergers and acquisitions at Citigroup and served as vice-chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. Sandy Weill, the former Citigroup chief who built the bank into a global behemoth, is an investor, as is Blake Grossman, the former CEO of Barclays Global Investors. Other investors include Reed Hundt, the former chair of the Federal Communications Commission, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the blue chip Silicon Valley venture firm, which led Level's $5 million Series A round of financing. In total, the company has raised about $6.5 million.

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"There's an enormous opportunity to help millions of people to get a sense of confidence and control over their personal financial life," says Yeary, who also runs CamberView Partners, a proxy and corporate governance research firm, and serves on the board of Intel.

Level Money grew out of conversations between Yeary and Fuentes that started in 2011. At the time, Fuentes, who had worked for Yeary at Citigroup, was at Visa developing payment systems and working at its Emerging Products group in San Francisco and London. The two brainstormed various ideas, including a full-fledged bank, as well as debt management and investment products. "At some point, we realized it's the everyday decisions that matter," Fuentes says. In June 2012, he left Visa (V) to work full time on Level Money, which is in San Francisco, and employs about a dozen people.

The Level Money app is free, and the company has no revenue. But Yeary and Fuentes believe they will be able to monetize its customer base and expand into a broader range of financial products, for instance by helping customers open the right kind of savings or investment accounts. "We look at ourselves as a next-generation financial institution," says Fuentes.

It's too early to say whether Level Money is helping its customers be wiser about their financial choices, though Fuentes says the company is "seeing some positive trends" as more users seem to be living within their means. Of course, there may be something of a selection bias at work, as Level Money's customers are more likely to be people who care about not getting too deep in the red ink. The main challenge for Level Money may be to find a way to appeal to those who don't realize that overspending is a problem.

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