I Tried the ‘Joy’ App and It Totally Changed the Way I Think About Spending

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Updated on Monday, January 29, 2018

What makes you happy? In the final quarter of 2017, amid growing interest in a growing field of a study called behavioral economics, financial services company Happy Money — formerly known as Payoff — released the Joy app to help you answer that question. At least, when it comes to your spending decisions.

What is Joy?

Joy is a personal finance app that uses psychology and financial behavior to help change the way you think about, spend and save money. The Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company behind Joy claims it will help “drive awareness of how spending is connected to happiness, and to encourage people to build savings.” In other words, it may help you find the joy in handling your finances.

Joy has joined the ranks of many, many other fintech apps designed to help you keep track of your money. The app was released by Happy Money in November 2017 as one of its three core products: Joy (the app), Payoff (the loan) and soon-to-be-released Happy Money Score (a Happy Money rating).

“I think it really resonates for people. People care about happiness and want to understand how to use their money to be more happy,” said Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D., Joy’s scientific advisor and co-author of “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.”

In the book, she and researcher Michael Norton lay out the following five research-based principles on how to find financial happiness:

  1. Buy experiences — People gain more happiness from buying experiences than material things.
  2. Invest in others — People seem to derive more happiness on average when they use their money to benefit others, rather than themselves.
  3. Buy now, consume later — People derive happiness when they pay in advance for something they will consume later because the brain feels like it’s “free.”
  4. Make it a treat — People gain more happiness when they spend money on a “treat.”
  5. Buy time — People derive happiness when they buy time. For example, buying their way out of their a task, like cleaning the bathroom.

After finding out how handling your finances affects your well-being, Happy Money’s team of psychologists, data scientists, neuroscientists, tech experts and financial professionals came together to create the Joy App to give people a tool to track how their spending makes them feel.

Joy has two core functions:

  1. Rate your spending — After you connect your bank accounts and credit cards, the app has you rate each transaction you’ve made with a happy face or sad face.
  2. Save money with Joy Savings — Each day you open the app, you’ll be reminded to save an amount of money that Joy’s algorithm has found “safe” for you to save — called a Daily Save — to an FDIC-insured Joy Savings account.

Rating your purchases is intended to help you better recognize what kinds of purchases bring you happiness, so you can focus on making more of those and fewer purchases you’d rate with a sad face. Over time, theoretically, you’d develop a habit of making more spending decisions that make you happy as a result.

The free savings account is supposed to help you make a habit out of saving money. The app prompts you daily to save money, but doesn’t save the money for you automatically.

Dunn says that’s because you create a different association with saving money when something happens automatically than when you are involved in making it happen.

“People figure out what they themselves are like in part by observing their own behavior,” said Dunn. “It seems very plausible to me that if you engage in this habit, you will start to see yourself as the kind of person who cares about and is capable of saving money.”

The MagnifyMoney Joy review

I’m personally intrigued by ideas about how human psychology tends to influence our financial decisions.

I’m also part of the camp that isn’t always thrilled to glance back at their recent spending decisions. You know the feeling: you make a few ‘guilty’ purchases then just avoid checking up on your checking account balance or reviewing your recent transactions (which one should do because it’s sort of key to properly managing one’s finances).

That being said, I was curious about what many reading this are probably wondering now: How exactly will downloading yet another app to track my spending habits make me any happier about my spending? Or, at the very least, motivated enough to keep tracking them after a spending binge.

So, I decided to try out Joy for myself to see if the app would do what it claims.
The following is my account of how the Joy app — featuring very bright colors and a chatty robot — forced me to get face-to-face with my spending habits and and decide if they (really) made me “happy,” or, um … not so happy. Unfortunately, the app didn’t really help me save much money, but we’ll get to that later on.

What I liked about Joy:

It forces you to review your spending
I liked that the app asked me to rate whether or not my recent transactions were “happy” or “sad” spends each time I opened it up. After a few days of doing this, it started to affect my real-time spending decisions. Since I knew I’d have to decide how I felt about my spending decisions afterward, the thought began to cross my mind before I swiped my cards. For example, since I know I made a “sad” spend last time I ordered food at a restaurant I knew I couldn’t finish and ultimately wasted, I thought about my ability to actually eat the food I planned to order rather than what my tummy was saying when placing my brunch order.

Set reminders to review your spends and check your Joy Savings
I thought it was nice to be able to set a reminder prompting me at the same time each day to go over my spends and make a daily save. I set a reminder for a time at the end of the day when I’m usually relaxing, so I’d have a few minutes to think about how each of my transactions made me feel.

Since the daily safe-to-save amount can differ from day to day and isn’t automatically transferred, it was helpful for me to set a reminder to check on my Joy Savings account and decide whether or not to transfer the suggested amount.

See changes over time
A cool feature of the app is its ability to show you how you’ve been doing over time. I just had to ask my money coach a question to see details like how much I’ve spent this month versus last month, how my happy spends compare with sad spends or how I’m doing with my savings habits compared with other people with my money personality, among other stats.

Savings aren’t automatic
Because the savings aren’t automatic, there was no danger of using funds I thought I had in my checking account and accidentally overdrafting. I only keep a low balance in my main checking account and make transfers if I need to, so it’s especially important to me to avoid overdraft and NSF fees. If you keep a low balance and use an app that automatically transfers money for you, you may be thrown off if you don’t stay on top of what’s going in and out of your account.

Saving out of sight
The Joy Savings account is separate from my checking and saving accounts, so I don’t see how much money is in the account when I check my bank balances. To me, it’s like that money doesn’t even exist, so it’s a nice surprise when I do see the balance in my Joy Savings account. Because the daily save amount is a small amount that’s “safe to save,” I don’t miss the money in my main checking account at all — I don’t even notice the money’s gone.

Saving does feel good
It feels great to hit “save” each time I check the app. I have all of my other saving automated, so I don’t have to take action to save the money and I almost never see the funds. By making saving a daily action, I feel like the kind of person who actively saves money, instead of the kind of person who has to try really, really hard not to spend — or even look at — her savings.

I’m saving more money
I thought I was already saving as much as I reasonably could since I have a budget and make my saving automatic. So I didn’t expect the algorithm to calculate much of anything. I keep less than $100 in a main spending account. So it often calculated daily saves of $2 or less. Having to save money from my spending account was, for me, just extra saving, but it showed me I could actually collect a little bit more if I tried.

What I didn’t like about Joy:

Unclear how to utilize my ‘money personality’
I enjoyed taking the personality quiz, but outside of knowing I was a “free spirit” and setting me up with an AI robot to chat with, I don’t get much of any sense about how my money personality applied to my use of the app’s spending and saving features. For example, my designated personality type didn’t seem to affect the amount of money the algorithm calculated for me to save or how my happy and sad spends were split up, so while it’s nice to know, I didn’t see much opportunity to apply the knowledge within the app.

The app is only available on iOS
As of this writing, the Joy app is only available on iOS, so only those with Apple products are able to download and use the app. That was fine news for me since I have an iPhone, but anyone who doesn’t have an iPhone or iPad isn’t able to try out Joy.

My experience with customer service
I had a negative experience with customer service when I first tried to use Joy Savings. I misunderstood the instructions and accidentally linked the wrong account to my Joy Savings account. I connected it with an emergency savings account instead of my main checking account. I thought I’d easily be able to change the linked account within the app. I was wrong.

I searched the app and I asked my money coach, but didn’t see anything related to unlinking the account. So I went online to search for a solution and found out I’d have to email [email protected] for help. I sent an email asking for assistance on Dec. 19 and got a reply from a customer service representative saying they’d reach out to an engineer and let me know when they were ready to re-link my new account. So, I waited for an email.

When I didn’t receive any correspondence by Dec. 26, I emailed the same representative back. Nothing. I emailed again, including the original [email protected], asking, “Any word yet on fixing my Joy Savings account?” Again, I didn’t get a reply back. I sent another email nearly a month after I had sent the initial request. At this point, the wrong account was still linked to my Joy Savings account and I still had no way of fixing the issue on my own.

By mid-January, I was in the middle of writing this review, so I was able to enlist the help of the company’s press representatives in resolving my Joy Savings mistake. When I informed them of the difficulty I was having with customer service, they acted promptly and were able to unlink the wrong account within a couple of hours. I linked the correct account and finally got to start making a daily save on Jan. 19 … a full month after I initially asked for help.

Ironically, I finally got an email back from the service representative who was supposed to help me, whom I emailed four times by now — on Jan. 22. He said my conversation had been lost in the queue. I sent a final email letting the representative know my issue had already been addressed, but thanking him for working on it. I hope he gets it.

Cannot change Joy Savings account in app
As of this writing, you are unable to change the account linked to your Joy Savings from within the app. A company spokesperson said the Joy app is still in its soft launch stage, and the company will soon introduce new features like having more control over connected accounts and settings.

Who the App is Best For

If you are new to personal finance, it may benefit you to use Joy to get a sense of your spending habits. The Joy app seems to be best for those who:

  • Aren’t into budgeting
  • Want to develop a habit of reviewing their transactions
  • Want to be more conscious of their spending habits and/or
  • Have a difficult time finding money to save in their budget

How to use the Joy app:

Create your account

Before you can use Joy, you’ll need to create an account using your phone number. The app will send a specific code to your phone, which you’ll need to enter to start using Joy. You should see a gif and a message welcoming you to Joy pop up on the screen for a few seconds.

Sign up for Joy.
When the gif disappears, you’ll begin a text-bubble chat with Joy. You’ll be confronted with a questionnaire designed as a text-bubble conversation.

You’ll then be asked for basic sign-up information like your name, annual income and whether you rent or own where you live. You’ll be able to respond to most of the questions with pre-made responses, almost like a multiple-choice test.

Get your money personality

Next, Joy will tell you about yourself. Joy will ask you five questions and use the responses you give to help you discover your “money personality.” There are a 12 different money personalities in total. Chris Courtney, Ph.D, Happy Money’s senior director of science, says your personality is directly responsible for how you spend your money. You can continue on to the questions, or, if you’re curious, ask Joy why it needs to know that.

Knowing your money personality upfront is also supposed to help personalize your experience with the app. Joy’s creators claim this helps you feel less judgmental toward the process compared with other existing budgeting apps that employ a cookie-cutter approach to their users’ finances.

“By taking the time to get to know each person and giving them some information and context regarding their own personality, it kind of expresses to someone we don’t expect everyone to be the same,” said Dunn.

Joy says I’m a free spirit with my finances. In my opinion, that’s fairly accurate. I’m almost never on time (just ask my editor) and I do very much hate categorizing my budget. I don’t last long with budgeting apps that make you have spending categories because my habits don’t always fall into easy-to-estimate budgeting groups. I’d much rather pay my bills and allocate my savings to end up with chunk of money I know is safe to spend, which is why I already have my bills and saving automated. Well done, science.

Get your money coach

Having your money personality also helps Joy set you up with an artificially intelligent robot dubbed your personalized money coach. You’ll meet your money coach next. There are four coaches in total — Dash, Gem, Ava and Atom. My coach is Gem.

Your money coach’s interaction with you depends heavily on your money personality. Courtney says to think of the coach like a personal trainer at a gym.

“Some people will respond well to an intense and challenging approach, while others will want small goals with a lot of positive affirmation,” said Courtney.

Everything about the way your coach interacts with you — presenting goals, celebrating victories, encouraging you to do better, punctuation, emojis, and slang — stems from your money personality. It’s supposed to make you feel more comfortable when dealing with a financial advisor, as opposed to being judged.

“People feel happier when they are with others who are similar to themselves,” said Dunn. “It creates a sense of well-being and comfort when you are interacting with people who speak like you do.”

You can start a chat with your coach whenever you want. The topics and responses are somewhat limited, but give you all the information you need to use the app. Your coach can give you stats about how you are doing with your spending or saving, for example, or how others, such as those with your money personality, are doing.


Add your credit cards and bank accounts

Of course, you’ll need to connect your bank accounts and credit cards to Joy so it can track your finances. You’ll see the option to link spending accounts on the spending side of the Joy app. You can add bank accounts and your credit cards. The app will use the linked accounts to pull up transactions for you to rate.

I was able to link all of my accounts easily and the app was able to bring up my recent transactions within a few minutes.

Review your recent spends.

Once your accounts are all set up, you can begin rating your spends. You’ll be asked to rate each of your recent transactions with either a happy, smiling face or a sad, frowning face in response to “how do you feel about your spends?” You’ll rate transactions in batches of ten, then, if there are more to be rated, you can continue until you’re through with your recent transactions.

Don’t overthink this part. I did, so I’m warning you. Take the $13 I spent at Zaxby’s fast-food restaurant the other day, for example. I felt conflicted when I had to rate the transaction because I thought, “Um … both?”

I was visiting my hometown in Georgia, and I really, really missed eating Zaxby’s since I live in New York now and there is no Zaxby’s up here. The food tasted magical. But, I’ve become a bit more concerned with my health since I was in college, eating Zaxby’s every week so I did sort of feel bad (physically and emotionally) after eating fast food.

So, what would I put? A happy face because the Wings-N-Things meal I’d ordered was tasty and satisfying? Or a sad face because I spent money on something that wasn’t a very healthy eating or spending choice (since my mom had “free” food made for me at home). Honestly, I didn’t need to spend the money. But, it’d been nearly two full years since I’d had Zaxby’s! I couldn’t decide. I was frustrated there weren’t more faces. Maybe a [shrug] emoji?

Dunn says the app only gives you two choices on purpose. It makes it easier for you, with everything going on in your daily life, to extract useful information.

“If every time you spent $15 you had to reflect on 17 different aspects of the emotional experience, you wouldn’t do it,” said Dunn. “This is kind of asking people to go, ‘okay what’s your overall ledger?’ You can suck up a lot of the variability in a wide range of emotions with the happy face and sad face.”

I eventually rated the spend “happy.” But, now that I know spending money on food that’s not great for my health makes me feel bad, I avoid it like the plague.

Set up your Joy Savings Account.

When your accounts are all linked, you can set up your Joy Savings account. You’ll chat with your coach to get an explanation of how Joy Savings works.

First, you’ll link an account to fund your savings account. The algorithm will use to calculate an amount you’re able to save each day, so it should be the checking account you use for most of your spending.

Each day you open Joy Savings, you should see your “Daily Save” and the option to go ahead and transfer the money to your Joy Savings account, or choose to pass on saving today. Whenever you decide you want your money, you can request to transfer the amount you’d like from your Joy Savings account to your checking account. The deposit should clear within 1 to 3 business days.