Money Management for the Snapchat Generation
Pluto Money is a UCLA-founded startup that combines behavioral science, technology, and design to help millennials and Gen Z manage and save their money. I sat down with Tim Yu (CEO), one of the three co-founders at Pluto, to hear how they are re-imaging personal finance into something that works for today’s youth—fun, simple, actionable, and relevant.
Tim Yu and Susie Kim, co-founders of Pluto Money
Out of time and out of money
It was 10:34pm in Vegas. Tim and Susie, friends from the same entrepreneurship fraternity at UCLA, had bought $70 tickets on a whim due to peer pressure from a group of friends to go to a nightclub party hosted by Kim Kardashian. By the time they arrived, they had already missed the party.
After that night of unfortunate events, Yu and Kim realized that as college students, they needed to make smarter financial decisions. Both graduating from UCLA in 2015, Yu and Kim founded Pluto Money with Dante, a student at Seattle University. Bridging gamification and personal finance, they created a fintech app that helps Gen Zers reach their near-term financial goals.
“We think college is the best time for someone to start making better money habits for when they enter the real world.” Tim Yu, Co-Founder and CEO of Pluto Money
Yu (CEO) and Kim founded Pluto at a 3-day startup bootcamp at UCLA, where they worked on a team to further develop the idea and within 72 hours publicly pitched Pluto in front of a panel of investors and CEOs from Silicon Beach. They’re also alumni of the Startup UCLA Accelerator and Queen City FinTech Incubator programs.
College students really don’t know much about finances
Seven out of 10 college students are financially stressed, according to a national survey. Almost 60 percent said they worry about having enough money to pay for tuition let alone paying for their monthly expenses. In fact, fifty-eight percent are not saving anything. Why exactly is that?
To identify and validate the problem, Kim reached out to hundreds of students at UCLA by making phone calls and reaching out to them on social media. “What we learned is that a lot of people have financial goals, but they don’t realize their goals,” she said. “When you dig a little deeper into it, everyone has goals – whether it is going to Coachella, buying a new laptop or paying off loans.”
Kim also realized that college students had a higher propensity for instant gratification products such as coffee. In addition, Kim felt that popular mobile apps like Venmo makes it easy to carelessly tap a few times and swipe for a purchase, thus making students vulnerable to overspending.
Yu and Kim also had their own experiences mismanaging money as well. After earning a significant income from his internship during his junior year in college, Yu found that he quickly spent most of the money on social outings, leaving little savings in his bank account. On the other hand, Kim had been accepted into her dream arts and language program in Europe but dropped out because she didn’t have financial means to pay for it.
Concepts like “budgeting” and “managing cash flow” stressed them out, and “financial management” just sounded overwhelming, complicated, and boring. “Neither of us had any finance experience,” Kim said. “We set out to build (Pluto Money) to solve our own problems.”
Personal finance can be intimidating for anyone, but Pluto Money aims to make budgeting and saving more fun.
How it works: achieving financial goals, bite-sized
Designed for Gen Z and millennials, Pluto primarily targets college students aged 18-24 who are also using mobile banking, composing a go-to market size of 10M college students with a total addressable market of 70M+ millennials and Gen Z’ers. The app uses behavioral science to analyze spending patterns and saving goals, then creates personalized challenges to help users save more and spend less.
Pluto helps users find the sweet balance between saving and spending. The app starts with spending challenges for 15+ categories such as Fast Food, Uber, and Shopping. Users can adjust weekly/monthly time frames and select their favorite merchants, which the app uses to contextualize weekly challenges. Spend Less challenges helps users make bite-sized changes and be rewarded with savings for bigger goals. For instance, spending less than your weekly average on Uber by choosing the least expensive ride or taking fewer rides can help you put the difference towards Coachella 2019.
The app has a Peer Data Insight feature that allows students to anonymously compare their financial situation, goals, and progress with other students on campus. With a reach of over 2,000 US college campuses, users can see how they measure up to peers across the country.
Pluto Money Interface
As you go about the day, the app automatically tracks, analyzes, and categorizes transactions, keeping you on top of your spending habits.
Saving for goals that matter
Thanks to a flurry of new personal finance apps, managing your money is easier than ever before. The wave of fintech apps are delivering features that take into consideration users lifestyles, life stages and context.
Arguably the most widely used personal finance app, Mint helps users create budgets, track spending, and categorizes it. Acorns, the fastest growing micro-investing app, allows users to invest their spare change from everyday purchases into low-cost ETFs.
When asked about how he views existing financial management apps, Yu believes that those apps are not effective in helping users plan for near-term financial goals. He thinks that apps like Mint are not beginner-friendly and can be daunting. For example, the app suggested he start a retirement fund when he was a second-year college student with no income, Yu says. With Pluto, Yu is confident the app can help users be motivated to save their money for things that actually matter to them through realistic benchmarks and bite-sized goals.
Yu also pointed out that most competitors are focused on the millennial market, which is very different from the Gen Z market that Pluto targets. “We’re starting at the users’ most formative stage—college—which we believe is the best time for them to develop the best financial habits,” Yu states. Given the analogy of Instagram and Snapchat, Instagram has a wider range of users and an older demographic, whereas Snapchat dominates the Gen Z market and have been able grow immensely with the youngest generation. Similarly, Yu aims to make Pluto “the first mover in capturing Gen Z” in the personal finance space.
“We want to grow with the college students as they age,” Yu says.
Keeping it simple and sweet
We’re all familiar with the phrase “broke college student”, and probably all used it once or twice. Yet even though college students may not have jobs that are regular like the workforce, there are many opportunities to have income. With 70% of students work part-time jobs during school, Yu found that college students actually have a lot of money to spend but don’t know how to manage and spend it. The amount of discretionary spending each year continues to surge, reaching a whopping $207 billion in 2016.
Pluto makes money tangible and enjoyable for the “broke” college student. Simple challenges can help users reach real results and long-term behavior changes. Maybe, just maybe you can finally keep to your New Year’s financial resolutions. “We’re not just a saving app,” Yu says. “We’re a personal finance app that goes beyond just reaching your financial goals.”
As of today, Pluto tracks over $120M in transactions, with college students composing over 80% of their user-base. The company’s core product is a free-service, but they plan on offering a Pluto premium product in the future. Built on a subscription model, Pluto premium would offer more advanced features that go beyond the base product for advanced users or those who have already graduated college and have more complicated finances. Pluto is currently raising their seed round and is also rolling out new features such as a Pluto savings account this year.