Using a credit card rewards app for 4 months made a huge difference in how I view my spending

Áine Cain/Business InsiderI need to start paying more attention to my personal finance so I can live a fancy life.

I’m not great with money.

It’s not like I’m a big spender. I don’t really splurge and my payments are timely. But I’m pretty clueless and careless when it comes to personal finance — especially things like credit card rewards programs.

I recently tried out Birch, a free service based in Gainesville, Florida that’s meant to help people make sense of perplexing credit card reward programs.

“I had a really terrible experience finding a good resource when trying to make sense of credit cards and their reward programs. I felt that a lot of the blog and credit card sites were just sets of confusing tables and lacked any sort of personalisation,” Birch founder Alex Cohen told Business Insider. “I think I’m similar to most people in that I get overloaded with credit card offers in my email and see the ads constantly on TV. So a few years ago when I was in the market for a new credit card, I really had no idea where to even begin looking. The tools that were out there to help me find a new card felt really biased and just spammy. I even went as far as putting together Excel spreadsheets to compare my personal spending to the rewards on each card so I could figure out what the true value of those cards were.”

So, Cohen set about creating a service that would help people make sense of credit card programs. The first version — then called Swipe — went live in 2010.

Today, the service has slightly over 3,000 users and employs a full-time team of five people. Birch has raised a total of $150,000 through angel investors and an accelerator.

After using the app for over four months in the hopes of learning a little more about navigating the confusing, treacherous path to credit card rewards, I realised my favourite part of the app has nothing whatsoever to do with credit cards — and that I had no idea where my money goes.

But first, here’s how Birch works: You enter your bank account information and Birch analyses your spending habits. Then it recommends different credit cards that will allow you to rack up more points. Birch breaks down your rewards by month. For example, for the past 12 months, I might have earned $1,142.77 in rewards had I been using Chase’s Sapphire Reserve, which the app selected as my most advantageous match based on my spending habits.

The app also includes features that allow users to set spending goals, track spending on a calendar, and receive notifications about missed rewards via Facebook Messenger and text. It categorizes missed rewards and detects and tracks subscriptions.

In case I didn’t want to go with Sapphire, the app provided me with two backup options: Chase’s Southwest Premier and American Express’s Platinum Delta Skymiles. Birch isn’t compensated for its recommendations.

My takeaway from watching Birch calculate rewards is that they really add up. As of right now, I’m missing out on $1,142.77 worth of rewards. If I switched to Sapphire, Birch tells me I’d experience a 1211% increase in my yearly credit card rewards.

Since Birch tracks your spending in order to find the cards that best suit you, I quickly realised it was having an impact on the way I manage my money, completely aside from cards and rewards: For the first time ever, I started checking my spending regularly.

The service presents your spending habits in a very simple and visual format, breaking it into broad categories illustrated in a graph. There are a good number of services that do this, like Mint and Personal Capital, but I like Birch’s clear layout and graphics.

Screen Shot 2016 11 08 at 11.17.58 AMÁine CainHere’s a look at my spending for the month of November so far.

Once I started looking, I couldn’t stop. Using the app, I can quickly scan all the stupid stuff I’ve bought in a colourful, easy-to-read graph, or a straightforward list of purchases. Two trends that recurred throughout the report were pizza and bagels. Seeing it in a purple percentage gave me the guilt trip I needed to cut back on my random poppyseed bagel runs. I do all my spending on my credit card. Having just graduated from college, I’m not looking to go crazy and start applying for multiple cards.

The app imports historical data from about a year back, so I’m able to check my spending trends over the past month, three months, or twelve months. I even found out that I’ve been making considerably fewer purchases lately. I may be a bagel addict, but at least I’m somewhat responsible.

Even though I signed up to learn more about credit card rewards, honestly, I don’t think I’ll be swapping out my card anytime soon. I’m pretty happy with my current card, a Go Far Rewards Visa from Wells Fargo, which I got thanks to the convenience of an ATM and general presence on my college campus. Maybe this sounds too conservative or stagnant, but I am just starting out and I’m not looking to run into a lot of debt opening multiple cards. I’d rather delay messing around with my finances too much until I’m a bit more established.

Today, I check Birch weekly to review my purchases and make sure I’m on track. I came for the credit cards reward feature, but I’m staying for the easy-to-digest spending reports.

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