Apps encourage millennials to round up spending to trim down college debt

Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press

What if every time you ordered a spicy tuna roll or tried a new drink, you could set aside an extra dollar or so to put toward your student loan debt?

It’s a strategy that might work for many millennials. A new app, for example, allows Fifth Third banking customers to link their debit cards to student loans held by more than 30 major loan servicing firms.

You could agree to round up that $8.35 for lunch to $9 on your debit card and throw an extra 65 cents toward your student loans. Or round up the purchase to $9.35 and throw a dollar toward your debt.

Sure, anyone can put extra change and loose bills in a jar at night, count it up each month, take it to the bank and then write an extra check toward student loan debt. But who’s going to feel great doing that drudge work?

When it comes to banking, Fifth Third said, millennials want a product that’s “positive, approachable and celebrates their wins.”

The bank said its research indicates that millennials want an app to make them “feel better while saving them money.”

Smart finance apps are all about offering immediate solutions that fit easily into a consumer’s lifestyle and makes the most of that mobile moment.

“It’s budget friendly,” said Nick Sky, 29, a founder of ChangEd, an app that was introduced this year to help borrowers throw their spare change at student loan debt.

The ChangEd symbol is a little squirrel – you know, squirrel away that cash to pay off your college debt.

“We’re solving our own problem, and we’re really passionate about helping people,” Sky said.

Sky, who graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a degree in business and entrepreneurial studies in 2013, said he has more than $60,000 in student loan debt that he’s dealing with now. He borrowed far less than that but the debt has built over time as interest piled up.

Sky said the three team leaders of the Chicago-based startup owe more than $100,000 in student loan debt in total.

Many savings-related apps exist, but the new twist is having apps that target a specific challenge, such as student loan debt.

Keeping money in an ultra-low rate savings account won’t cut it. But Sky said putting extra cash toward a student loan is like finding a way to get a guaranteed rate of 6 percent to 8 percent. Pay off some debt and interest isn’t building at high rates any more.

Here’s a look at some of the apps and rewards for paying off student loan debt:

MOMENTUM

Fifth Third rolled out what it calls the Fifth Third Momentum app to help its customers round up extra payments for student loan debt.

To get started, Fifth Third bank customers can download the Android or Apple app and enter the name of the institution servicing the student loan.

Once the loan is connected to a Fifth Third debit card, customers can choose to round up their debit card purchases to the next dollar or add one dollar to every purchase.

You cannot use the app to make extra random payments, say another $30 or $40 here and there. It’s only a tool for rounding up those debit card purchases. But Fifth Third said that once $5 in payments for those student loans is accumulated, the money is automatically sent to the student loan account at the end of the week.

The app allows a college grad’s family members to use it, too. They can sign up their own Fifth Third debit cards to pay down the student loan debt.

The one concern I’d have with such a program, of course, is that many times, consumers can trigger overdraft charges because they have problems managing how much money they have in their checking accounts.

So if you end up using that debit card far more often than usual, you would need to pay more attention to your balance.

Typically, a $37 overdraft fee is charged for customers who authorize overdrafts for ATM and debit card transactions. Fifth Third can charge up to five overdrafts per day if you do not keep track of your balance.

But the good news is that Fifth Third said that if a round-up transaction results in an overdraft, an overdraft fee will not be assessed.

So, one example: If you spend $120 on a pair of boots and the $120 puts you in overdraft, you owe the overdraft fee.

But if you buy a pair of shoes for $119.25 and the 75 cents round-up would put you into overdraft, the amount would stay in your account, and you would not owe the overdraft fee.

On the plus side, it’s possible to pay down your debt more quickly.

Fifth Third estimates that customers who round up $25 a month using this app could pay off a 20-year student loan three years sooner and pay 8 percent less overall by avoiding extra interest that would have accumulated. The numbers are based on a loan amount of $37,172 with a fixed interest rate of 6.8 percent.

Someone who is on a 10-year repayment plan, though, would see a savings of about 2.3 percent, according to Mark Kantrowtiz, publisher and vice president of strategy for Cappex.com.

Kantrowitz said that in general, borrowers should aim to try to repay their student loans within 10 years to aim for bigger savings in interest.

UPROMISE

A loyalty program called Upromise by SallieMae offers cashback rewards that can be used toward paying down eligible student loans.

You’d need to sign up for the free account and make purchases at specific retailers, travel sites and online stores. You’d need to register your credit card to secure some points. But if you don’t want to register your credit card, it’s possible to shop online at Upromise.com and still earn points.

Only the borrower can link Upromise and student loan accounts. Not all student loans are eligible. See Upromise.com/loanlink for details. Upromise account balances of $10 or more will be automatically transferred on a monthly basis to the linked student loan account.

OTHER MOBILE APPS AND OPTIONS

Several lenders and loan servicing companies offer mobile apps that can help you manage student loan payments.

Sallie Mae has a mobile app – available for iPhone and Android – to help customers manage their accounts and make payments from smartphones. It is possible to make extra payments via this app, too. The app even allows you to make payments using Siri or an Apple Watch. App users can sign up for alerts about when their student loan payment is due, when a payment has posted or if a payment is past due.

ChangEd works with the round-up system on purchases. There is an iOS App at the App Store but not an Android version yet.

Sky said about 3,000 people so far have signed up to use ChangEd – which is able to connect to accounts at a wide group of banks and credit unions. More than $20,000 has been sent out to cover student loan debt so far this year.

The extra pennies and dollars that you round up get transferred to an FDIC-insured ChangEd account. ChangEd charges a $1 fee each month that’s taken out of the balance that has built up to pay off student loan debt. Once $100 is accumulated in change, ChangEd sends a payment for your loans.

“Obviously, it’s your money until we send the payments,” he said. But most consumers are willing to wait and direct that money for student loan debt.”

One of the key features, he said, is a personal dashboard that shows borrowers how much they’re cutting into their debt and how much closer they are to paying off those student loans.

“College grads in their 20s and 30s shouldn’t be sacrificing a cup of coffee to make loan payments,” ChangEd states on its website.

“We say, buy that latte and let us round up your change and apply it to your loans! It’s a win-win.”

 

Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at stompor@freepress.com.