Alexander Fung: Helping parents raise money smart kids

By Sheryl Smolkin

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Today I’m interviewing Alexander Fung for savewithspp.com. In 2015 Alexander graduated from the Goodman School of Business at Brock University where he studied corporate and personal finance. He has worked as an analyst at Scotiabank and Fidelity Investments Canada. But first and foremost, he is an entrepreneur and app developer whose mission in life is to help parents raise money smart kids.

His app Dollarwise was awarded third place at the Canadian Personal Finance Conference and second place at the International Payment Conference, both held in Toronto.

Thanks for talking to me today Alexander.

Hi, Sheryl, thanks a lot for having me.

Q: You participated in The Founders Institute Program from January to June 2016. Can you tell me about the program and what you learned?
A: The Founder Institute is the world’s largest pre-seed accelerator in the world based in Silicon Valley. The purpose is to validate business ideas and then actually launch a product that helps provide some value to users. I was one of 17 people who graduated in the Toronto cohort out of about 65 companies that entered.

Q: Why do you think that parents often don’t teach their children good money habits?
A: Honestly, it’s a bit of a taboo topic. I know that as I was growing up my mom and dad hardly ever talked to me about money. Theythink kids should just be focused on school and that’s it, but in reality money is crucial in every person’s life – whether you’re saving for a wedding, saving for a vacation or buying presents for parents and family members. Money is such an essential subject to understand.

Q: Why did you decide to develop a tool to help parents and their children improve financial literacy?
A: When I was eight years old. I decided to use my cash allowances to buy myself a video game without my parents’ permission. When they found out, they were absolutely furious. What I learned from that experience was that I made an irrational decision and I should’ve talked to them about it before making the purchase. So, that event really motivated me to study finance and work in the industry.

Q: Let’s say traditionally parents give kids a cash allowance, and require that the money be used in a specific way, i.e. 25% for charity; 50% for expenses like bus fares and lunches; and 25% for fun. In your view, why isn’t this simple approach good enough?
A. The problem with a cash allowance is that it’s really hard to track. For example, a parent says, “Hey John you can’t spend more than $20 on transportation.” But the kid might not comply and parents can’t keep them accountable.

Also, when you use cash allowance sometimes kids lose the money and it’s gone. When it’s misplaced, it’s gone forever really. Whereas if you use a debit card and you lose it, you can call your bank and they can lock it and your money is safe. So it’s that accountability and keeping track of kids’ behaviors that money can’t really provide.

Q: Tell me about Dollarwise and how exactly it works.
A: Dollarwise helps parents to teach their kids good money habits using a debit card and a mobile app. But unlike a traditional bank we want to make it fun and educational. We’re in discussions right now with institutions that have parents and families as clients and/or members, and we want to help them to provide more value to their clients.

Q: But how does Dollarwise itself work? What does it do?
A: It’s an application where parents are able to set up their assigned list of chores for kids to complete, and they can assign dollar values. When the kids open the app they see the list, they can complete tasks, and when their parents verify that the job’s well done, the money can be transferred into the child’s account. The application also allows children to set saving and spending goals for themselves, see where their money goes and see rules established by their parents.

Q: What’s the value proposition for families?
A: Parents are able to save time, build better relationships, and avoid costly mistakes that the kids may make. When I was growing up I got a cash allowance at infrequent intervals and I usually spent it right away.

Q: So let me get this straight then. The parents can enter data about how much they are going to pay for tasks assigned to the child and  how money can be spent. Then the child can go into the same app, and see what their parents want them to do and check off a task once they have done it. Is that correct?
A: Yes. And when the task has been properly completed the real money actually goes into the child’s bank account from the parents’ account.

Q: What’s the value proposition for financial institutions here?
A: We believe Dollarwise will help institutions attract and retain clients at a lower cost.

Q: How does the program help both children and their parents set goals and track how the child spends money?
A:  Let’s say John sees a pair of shoes that he wants at Footlocker, but he doesn’t have enough money. Typically what he would do is keep nagging his parents until they give him money to buy his shoes. Or he can set a goal using the Dollarwise application that records what he is saving for, how much it will cost and how much he is planning to save each week. And his parents are able to open the application to see his goals and monitor how he is doing.

Q: You’ve noted on the website that the children are recognized for having good and consistent behavior with your unique badge and star system. How does that work?
A: Parents can customize some of the badges the app will award based on their children’s individual goals and achievements.

Q: What kind of tools does each child require to use the app?
A: Actually all they need is a debit card. They don’t necessarily need a phone. When they get home they can always log on to the computer or their iPad to see their progress. But parents  usually have phones so they can set the goals, set restrictions and send money to their kids’ accounts.

Q: What kind of debit card are they going to get? Will they get a debit card from a specific financial institution?
A: Absolutely. The original plan was to issue our own debit card, but we learned it is too expensive and doesn’t make economic sense. Institutions will just issue their own debit cards to the kids and to the parents.

Q: Have you tested the program with parents and kids? How do they react?
A: Within six months we’ve tested our app on over 300 parents and kids. After our fourth revision feedback has been a lot more positive. They absolutely love it. Some parents told me that their kids have  asked them if they could do additional chores around the house so they can earn more money to save and buy something they actually want instead of begging their parents for more money  to buy stuff.

Q: If a parent wanted to purchase a program today where could they buy it?
A: Right now we are in the testing phase. If they wanted to sign up they could go to our website at Dollarwise.co and just hit the “subscribe button,” give us their name and email, and someone on our team will follow-up with them.

Q: But if you don’t actually have a relationship with a financial institution yet, how can you issue debit cards?
A: Right now we’re testing the prototype. So they can’t use the application right now, but they get the prototype and they can see how it looks and how it feels.

Q: How much are you going to charge parents?
A: It will be free for parents and kids. Financial institutions will pay us for a white label version of the app to which their own branding can be added.

Well, that sounds really interesting. I wish you luck. Thanks for talking to me today, Andrew.

Thank you so much Sheryl.
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This is an edited transcript of a podcast interview recorded in December 2016.

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