USAA is launching a standalone app designed to help millennials and other members begin a new habit: saving.
Several studies have shown that millennials are reluctant to put aside funds. Individuals aged 35 and younger had a negative savings rate of 2% in 2014, according to data from Moody's Analytics.
The new app is an effort to combat that trend.
"We are all sort of running on empty here," said Neff Hudson, assistant vice president for emerging channels at the San Antonio-based USAA. "In living paycheck to paycheck, there's no margin for error."
The app, Savings Coach, was built with voice recognition and text-to-speech technology provider Nuance Communications, with whom USAA partners for some of its other apps.
The app crunches financial transaction data to recommend daily amounts of money to put into savings but also layers in atypical features like text and voice command technology and gaming. It moves money into savings after a person completes a challenge like eating-in rather than ordering a pizza, for example.
The app is available to all USAA members that have checking and savings accounts, but is primarily targeted at millennials, a group other savings apps have pursued.
Qapital and Digit are among the apps launched this year to motivate millennials to tuck away small amounts of money into savings accounts based on their day-to-day decisions. What sets Savings Coach apart is its publisher - an institution that offers a medley of products and services - and the way it incorporates voice recognition technology.
Its emergence underscores a trend bank financial services brands are gunning for: an identity that goes deeper than just what products they sell.
"It's no longer enough to give a savings account or product," said Timothy Flacke, executive director of Doorway to Dreams Fund, a nonprofit firm that has created apps with financial services partners to motivate people to save, among other things. "It's 'how do you help us use it?' "
Ben Jackson, a director of Mercator Advisory Group's prepaid advisory service, expects more financial institutions to follow USAA's lead because of the mounting pressures to find ways to differentiate themselves in a largely commoditized industry and respond to startups that offer digital banking services designed to help people meet specific goals.
Let's Play Savings, Round 2
Traditional personal financial management, often tucked away on a tab of a retail bank's website, has long been criticized for lack of use. Mobile apps, however, are seen as newer frontiers to spark consumers' interest in money management because it is usually close by when consumers are shopping.
But the experience has to intrigue people enough to login to what could be perceived as a chore.
"A little variation can pique people's interest," said Flacke. "Because finance has such a sober and staid reputation, there's a lot of opportunity."
Savings Coach, for example, deploys a number of gaming techniques, including rewarding members through points, badges and new levels within the app. The personal assistant, which has a male voice, a visual of an eagle and goes by the name Ace, also negotiates.
Say a member says he doesn't want to save $5 on any given day, Ace may suggest transferring $4. The big idea is to teach financial planning lessons that sound obvious but are a struggle for many: pay yourself first and spend less than you earn.
"It's little mental tricks that make a huge change," said USAA's Hudson.
Greg Pal, vice president of the marketing, strategy and business development and entertainment division at Nuance, says financial progress is made through a series of smaller decisions, just like weight loss. And Pal believes spoken commands - an option within the app -help reinforce the commitment a person makes to the decision to put money into savings.
An early pilot of Savings Coach suggests the experience is working to motivate some. Roughly 800 participating USAA members, aged 18-24, managed to save almost $120,000 in a four-month period.
USAA now plans to promote the app through social media channels and to members who phone the institution to ask for overdraft forgiveness, among other marketing techniques.
Hudson imagines a day when the app incorporates more advanced challenges to appeal to a larger audience. And eventually, there could be an opportunity for other credit unions and banks to license parts of the savings app built with Nuance. USAA's willingness to open up Savings Coach speaks - in part - to the premium the institution is placing on its mission to help lead the charge on financial literacy.
"It's not getting better," said Hudson. "We need to pull out all the stops to help people."