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iPhone app and debit card from Simple aim to streamline consumer finance

Considering the amount of time your wallet and your iPhone spend sitting right next to each other, is it any wonder that banks and payment services are making iOS job #1 for their mobile strategies?

Big banks like Citi and Chase have capable iPhone apps for handling your money on the go, with features like photo check deposit and quick payments. There are also pure mobile payment plays like Dwolla, Venmo and PayPal with sophisticated iPhone apps to handle sending money to friends and businesses. (PayPal recently acquired Card.io which makes an API for app developers to capture credit cards via the iPhone camera, rather than with a dongle or hardware sled.)

The latest entry in the race to replace your traditional banking experience with something new and better comes from Simple, which puts a sophisticated web front end and sleek app atop a traditional debit card. Simple has just come out of beta for public account invitations, after several months of private testing. Founding CTO Alex Payne (formerly of Twitter) has also announced that he's stepping away from Simple to focus on other technology interests.

Simple aims to provide a (wait for it...) simpler take on managing your money, whether it's from your computer or on the go. It's not a bank, exactly; it's a customer service firm that works with wholesale banks to provide a checking account and matching Visa debit card. You use the card just like any debit card, and you can get cash (fee-free) from any ATM in the Allpoint network. Unlike Mint, it doesn't aggregate your fiscal data from lots of accounts; it shows you just the one account, but with greater detail and responsiveness.

With a debit card, unlike credit cards, you can't spend more than you've got -- which makes them a great choice for tight budgets. Traditional debit cards still leave a window for you to get overdrawn, however, if you've got pending transactions that haven't hit your account yet. Simple helps your fiscal transparency by showing your "Safe to Spend" funds number, which incorporates your unreconciled transactions and docks your available cash as appropriate.

The integrated Simple iPhone app provides immediate feedback and approval on your transactions as they're made; in fact, you can't sign up for a Simple account if you don't have an iOS device. You can use an iPad or iPod touch, as long as you also have a cellphone that accepts SMS text messages. The app is protected by a simple PIN code, rather than the username/password pair common for banking apps.

Since your card transactions are immediately reflected in the app, you can do a lot of easy tracking and tagging to keep track of your money. The app and the website offer powerful search tools so you can figure out where and when you did your spending; the site also includes Gmail-style keyboard shortcuts for power users.

One feature that's not ready at launch is check depositing via the iPhone camera. Right now, to add funds to your account you use direct deposit, EFT from your current bank, or mailed deposits. As for sending money out, you can direct payments to companies or individuals right from the iPhone app, but you'll need their full mailing address as Simple defaults to sending a check if it can't do an electronic transfer.

I've only had my Simple account for a few days (card unboxing gallery above -- it's very nicely packaged, in a linen bag) and I'm not sure how much utility I'll get out of it. For anyone with a moderately complicated financial life, such as a joint account with a spouse or multiple sources of income, Simple may be too simple to gain much traction. For basic banking and debit transactions, however, it might be just the ticket. I'm going to try using my Simple card instead of cash for daily spending so I can get a better sense of how much money is going into coffee and sundries (and how much I could be saving for a new MacBook Air instead).

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