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Amidst an explosion in personal finance apps, this startup wants to bring back the spreadsheet

November 8, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

A little over a year ago, Jennifer Mulder was having trouble getting her clients to perform a laborious but essential task: tracking their own spending.

The founding financial planner of Pathway Financial Services in Los Angeles, Mulder couldn’t seem to find a tool that made the budgeting process simple and easy. Quicken’s software provided a more in-depth and detailed look into personal finances than many of her clients were interested in, and Mint too often confused categories of spending––a client’s Starbucks purchase could show up as an automobile expense. Personal spreadsheets that required expenses to be inputted manually, Mulder noticed, were usually ignored and forgotten about by clients after a few months’ time.

So, she turned to a startup that was both generating some buzz on Twitter and recommended by other financial planners: Tiller Money. An automated way of tracking of an individual’s finances on the familiar platforms of either Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel, Tiller Money was the exact tool Mulder was looking for, allowing users to customize their own spending categories and budget goals without having to experience the hassle of manual data entry.

“It didn’t feel like something that was all that different from what they were already familiar with, and that’s really important when you’re trying to get people to do something new––every hurdle you put in their way makes it that much more likely that they’re not going to actually do it.”

Founded in 2015 by Peter Polson, Tiller Money was originally designed to be an app, but when interviewing prospective customers before the launch, Polson came to the same conclusion as Mulder: there’s comfort in familiarity. Those Polson interviewed didn’t seem interested in an app; they liked their spreadsheets and were unlikely to switch over even if it meant they had to handle date entry on their own.

Polson understood where these people were coming from––after all, he had used them himself throughout most of his life. So, he abandoned the idea of an app and instead embraced the idea of optimizing the spreadsheet.

“What if we could actually take spreadsheets to a whole other level,” Polson remembered thinking. “What if we could automate them with financial feeds from any of your bank accounts and make it easier to use spreadsheets to give you helpful templates.”

In 2020, less than 50% of Americans say they currently have a budget and closely track their spending on expenses like food, housing, and entertainment, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s annual financial literacy survey. That behavior comes in stark contrast to many people’s saving and spending desires: 79% of Americans believe “sticking to a budget and never deviating” is key to financial stability, a Northwestern Mutual study found.

With the Federal Reserve reporting in 2019 that nearly a third of U.S. adults would need to borrow or sell something if faced with an unexpected $400 expense, the economy still in a rather precarious spot, and no stimulus bill on the horizon, carefully tracking what you are spending could very well mean the difference between being able to pay a bill on time and tripping into financial turmoil.

Tiller Money provides customers with pre-built spreadsheet templates that, like other personal finance tools, automatically connect to as many bank accounts and credit cards as a customer desires and categorizes transactions, leaving users with an understanding of whether or not they are spending too much on, say, eating out or retail shopping.

A Tiller Money spreadsheet.
Courtesy of Tiller Money

There’s a foundation template that provides beginners with customizable monthly and yearly budgets, as well as more advanced templates (also customizable) for tracking net worth, savings goals, debt, and more.  

Polson said Tiller Money’s base of active customers has been doubling annually, with the company now having “tens of thousands” of subscribers. Tilley Money is made up of a team of 15, including 10 full-time employees and five contractors, and has only received funding from “a private group of experienced technology investors, primarily centered in the Seattle region,” according to Polson.

And while Tiller Money will initially populate your Google Sheet with spending categories, you can change and delete them as you see fit, allowing customers to pick and choose which expenses should fall under which bucket. “We let people build their own rules,” Polson said. “I could create a rule that says if it’s a gas station and it’s under $15, it’s probably M&M’s and kombucha, so it’s eating out. And, if it’s over $15, it’s filling my tank, so it’s gas.”

Perhaps the most important distinction Polson makes between Tiller Money and competitors such as Mint involves the two companies’ business models. Whereas Mint is a free software platform, Tiller Money charges a uniform, yearly subscription fee of $79. While that hardly may seem like a competitive advantage, Polson insists that is perfect example of how Tiller Money values customers’ privacy more than others in the industry. “As the saying goes, ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,’” Polson said.