Monzo vs Starling – A Personal View

Monzo vs Starling – A Personal View

I’m going to look at a few differences (and similarities), between the two biggest “challenger” banks in the UK. Monzo and Starling.

I’ll be upfront with you….. I put all of my spending through an American Express card or a “points/cashback” credit card. I genuinely have no idea why everyone doesn’t do this. Providing you pay off the card each month (and don’t use it to spread payments), it is hands down the best way to get something for nothing.

With that being said, there are many features of both Starling and Monzo that focus on the daily usage side of things. Analysing your spend, showing your potential future balances, and generally giving you more visibility over where your money is going.

If you struggle with keeping on top of your finances, these features will be a life saver for you. Personally, I’ve always kept my finances on a short leash, so I know where everything is going, and where I can cut back.

So this mini review/comparison is not going to solely focus on the feature sets (as I don’t use all of them). Instead, I’ll focus on the communities around both banks, the company itself, and my personal experience of using both of them.

Please note, this is only my experience, and I’d encourage anyone to open an account with both banks (it’s free), so you can make your own mind up.

Mondo becomes Monzo

I joined Monzo back in 2016, when it was actually called Mondo. After a trademark dispute though, they had to change their name. I was a little surprised that they could be so slack with something as important as a name – How did it not come up before now? But I get that these things can happen.

That was the bad feeling – The good feeling was how they handled it. Something that is a common theme with Monzo. They asked their community of fans for suggestions (with a few caveats, like it had to begin with “M” to preserve their branding). After 12,000 odd recommendations, they decided on Monzo, and the rebranding was born.

Back then, Monzo was a pre-paid card, with a heavy focus on fee free foreign spend (something that would later come back to bite them in the bum).

I used the card sporadically, just to try it out. I’m a fan of technology, and new ways of doing things, and I felt Monzo would pave the way for banks across the UK to revolutionise their digital offering.

However, I didn’t use the card enough to form a strong opinion one way or the other. As I used my AMEX in most places, and I wasn’t going to add a lot of money onto a pre paid card, I put the card in a draw and forgot about it.

The Current Account is Born

Fast forward to the end of 2017, and Monzo has just launched their fully fledged current account. I’m informed that my pre paid card will stop working (which I hadn’t used for over a year), and I needed to upgrade to the current account for free. The upgrade process was as easy as ever, and I did it for the hell of it.

It’s around this time that I joined the infamous Monzo Community Forum.

It’s very hard to explain the feeling I get from this forum. On the one hand, it’s an endless resource, with many users who are interested in the FinTech movement, and provide valuable insights into Monzo, and other services.

On the other hand……. There are a lot of Monzo investors (Monzo crowdsourced funding in early 2017, so there are a lot of people who would gain financially if Monzo does as well as everyone hopes).

The downside to this, is that the forum can sometimes become too blinkered – Obvious issues go unchallenged, mistakes are forgotten very quickly, and any criticisms can be shut down quite quickly.

In a nutshell, it isn’t as balanced as I’d like it to be, but perhaps I expect too much considering it’s a Monzo forum……

The other negative for me, is that there are thread after thread about how great Monzo is – New users will join, and post about Monzo being the best thing ever, whilst others will chime in with more anecdotes about how Monzo will save the world.

It just all feels a little painful at times, and it’s one of the reasons I opened a Starling account. There is a very bad feeling towards Starling on the Monzo forum – A lot of Monzo users do not like Starling, and are very vocal in putting them down.

Feeling a little disconnected from Monzo, and wanting to try something new, I opened a Starling account.

Starling – The next step

The account was as easy to open as Monzo – A couple of photos of ID, and a video of yourself saying “I want to open an account” – Or words to that effect, and I was in.

You’re possibly wondering why I even bother with these accounts if I don’t put my daily spending through there, and that’s a fair question. There is no simple answer, but I like to do my banking on the go, and I find the older banks have very poor mobile apps.

I also like new technology, and I class these banks in that category.

My initial experience of Starling was good – Very good. The card arrived promptly, there were no issues at all, and the online Starling Forum wasn’t a negative place to be!

I’ve always enjoyed being part of an online community – A place to talk with other users who share the same interests as you is a fascinating thing. The only downside to the Starling forum was the lack of users – It was a much quieter place, and the Starling staff were not as active on there.

Starling at this point, had always had the edge on Monzo when it came to being an actual current account. They had their accounts open long before Monzo, they had ApplePay (a very big sore point for the Monzo users at the time), and development seemed to be good.

I felt happy with my mental switch from Monzo to Starling, and whilst I would actively tell people to try both, I almost wanted to back the right bank mentally…..

I’m not going to go through the main features of Starling – But I was happy with payee management (something Monzo did very poorly), and the fact you could add a personalised photo to a “Goal”, which is a ring fenced set of funds was a nice touch.

All in all, I felt like Starling would be my choice moving forward – So much so that I had the desire to actually defend them on the Monzo forum, and call out some of the suspect Monzo policies. Perhaps I was trying to convince myself, or perhaps I’d secretly had enough of the petty remarks and sickening “sucky up” posts from some of the people.

Either way, it didn’t achieve a lot, and if anything, I probably became part of the problem, rather than any sort of solution. It did cement my opinion that the Monzo forum was one of it’s best assets, and, one of it’s worst.

Keeping pace with both Monzo and Starling

It was around this time that I was actively looking at both forums, and trying to see which bank was edging ahead.

Starling had put a lot of time and effort into launching their business account offering (something Monzo have shown no interest in), and their current account had stayed pretty static.

Monzo on the other hand were releasing little updates all the time – All of them focussed on their current account. It was generating a lot of buzz on the Monzo forum, but it still didn’t matter much to me.

As I’ve said, anything that analyses my spend, and helps with organising things in my account (based on what I spend), is irrelevant.

What I want from a current account is an easy way to pay people (adding a new payee), and a nice quick user interface. Starling still did this better, so I was still content with my mental decision.

I even took Starling on a family holiday to Lanzarote – I paid for everything I could on card (which was everything apart from the Volcano), and it worked perfectly. The instant notifications of how much you spend (in both £ and €) is really nice, and it “just worked” – I really had no complaints at all.

However….. There was this nagging feeling that Starling were papering over the cracks. Some of the forum posts were dismissive of issues, and the general responses from staff felt a little like an old fashioned bank, rather than someone trying to do things differently.

Monzo on the other hand, pride themselves on their transparency (sometimes to a fault), and their staff on the Monzo forum have always been excellent communicators.

Customer Service

It’s funny – I’ve probably had to interact with different banks customer service teams only a handful of times in my entire life – None of them have stood out particularly, except perhaps First Direct, who have always been very good.

Yet somehow, “customer service” is the main topic on both the Monzo and Starling forums. With the ease of use of the in app chats, it seems people contact the CS teams far more than they would a legacy bank.

95% of people rave about Monzo’s support, and to be honest, I’ve tried it out on a number of occasions and have always found it top notch. I even had a GIF exchange with one of them – It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Starling on the other hand….. They are a little more reserved in how they come across, and they aren’t helped by the atrocious chat system they use. The few times I’ve contacted them, I’ve been met with very average support, and a quick look on the forum shows I’m not alone here.

It’s something they are aware of, and actively looking to remedy – But if you’ve got 2 years down the line and your Customer Service is still poor….. Perhaps it’s not high on your list of things to sort.

Maybe they presumed that a slick mobile app and a “new way” of banking was going to be enough – Sadly, the forum posts show otherwise, and there seem to be daily occurrences of people having a poor showing with their customer service.

I’ve heard a few bad reports about Monzo as well, but I’ve never experienced it, and with 5 times more customers, and only a fraction of the reports of bad CS…… I’d say they were doing very well in this department.

Does the card work?

It sounds obvious? Of course it works…… right?

Well, not exactly. I’ll not go into the ins and outs of debit card processing, but it’s not quite as simple as you think.

Both Starling and Monzo issue a Mastercard Debit Card – The only difference is who ends up processing the transactions.

Starling use a company called GPS (who many other FinTech banks use) – They are generally OK, but seem to experience outages/issues far more than any other card processing company I’ve come across.

I don’t think I’d even thought about my debit card failing before – It’s certainly never happened to me, and the few times I can think it has happened….. It’s made National news. You just expect it to work!

Monzo initially used GPS, but ended up building their own service to process transactions, due to the continued failings they were experiencing.

If Starling could turn back time, I’m sure they’d wish they had done the same thing. But they stuck with GPS, and they are still getting outages and issues which affect their entire customer base.

Funnily enough, one of the reasons I gave Monzo another chance was down to one of these issue, which affected me directly.

I don’t typically use a debit card a lot (as in, the physical card). Most of my shopping is done online, or if it’s in person, it’s through ApplePay on my phone, my AMEX or as a last resort, my debit card (generally contactless).

Well, I can’t think of many places where all of those options aren’t taken, but Northampton General Hospital takes the prize here.

My partner and I were in for our 20 week scan (the gender scan!) and we had to buy the photos before we went in. The card machine attached to the photo box was pretty old, and only took the good old chip and pin. Thinking nothing of it, I put my Starling card in, entered the PIN, and…… nope. Incorrect PIN.

Fine, must have been me – Tried again….. Nope….. Incorrect PIN.

Hmm….. maybe I didn’t actually know my PIN, I couldn’t remember ever having to use it on my Starling card (I checked the app afterwards, and found I WAS using the right PIN).

Strange, either way, my Nationwide debit card worked fine, and I didn’t give it much thought (imagine if that was the only card I’d had on me though? My wife would have killed me!)

Fast forward to the evening, and I’m browsing the Starling forum like all normal people do, and I notice that others have had issues with their cards that day. I get issues happen, no one is perfect, and I’m happy to give start ups more leeway than established businesses.

But the support…… What support? Nothing was mentioned on the forum, the in app chat didn’t have a clue, and I was left feeling a little aggravated that I couldn’t get an answer.

It was the following day that one of the Starling team came online to issue a sweeping statement about cards possibly not working – Nothing was concrete, and there didn’t seem to solution yet.

I was astounded by this….. It wasn’t just me either – Others had the same issue, and the response time was woeful.

So yeah, the main issue was GPS (the card processor that Monzo moved away from), but the Starling support just compounded a very bad situation.

Back to where it all began!

After the shambles with Starling support, I decided to give more of my attention to Monzo – I’ll reiterate, that isn’t actually an awful lot of attention in the first place – Certainly not compared with other users.

But I’d make sure I sent bank transfers from them, used the card as a last resort, pay off the Amex from it, and so on.

It would never be my daily spending account, but could it be my daily banking account?

Pros and Cons

Monzo Pros

• A huge community of users, with interactive staff mean that issues get resolved quickly.

• The forum users in general are very good at helping, and I can’t imagine another forum where people are so understanding.

• The app feels “lighter” and more responsive than any other banking app.

• The development speed since they ended their pre paid card has been phenomenal.

• Integration with IFTTT “could” lead to future features which would otherwise be impossible.

• In house card processor.

• They take note of what users want, and try to develop the popular features.

• Customer service is excellent.

Monzo Cons

• The forum can be a hostile place – With a minority of users making it feel more like a cult, than a bank.

• The management and interface of Payees is poor (supposedly being worked on).

• Controversial decision around overdrafts, have left some wondering if they are more like a typical bank than they would let you believe.

• Bizarre explanations to questions at times – Example, Monzo don’t allow personalised photos on your “Pots”, due to the fact Monzo doesn’t want people uploading dodgy images…… Yet you can upload ANY profile picture (double standards?)

• The marketplace is developing very slowly.

• Currently have very few ways to generate income – Overdrafts being the main way at the moment, which stands against what Monzo are trying to achieve.

• 2 key instances where Monzo didn’t think ahead – The name, and the oversees fees policy (which had to be changed due to abuse, an unexpected number of users signing up and the cost Monzo incurred)

Starling Pros

• Feel very bank like, and there is a little more reassurance in that at times.

• They have always been first to market with their products – Current Accounts, Joint Accounts, Business Accounts.

• The online forum is a great resource, with less “off topic” threads, and easier access to answers (which are otherwise drowned out on the Monzo forum).

• The “banking” side of things is better – Payee management is very good (custom photos, multiple accounts per payee, better interface).

• Starling sell their business banking services, which bring in income, and in turn allow them to offer interest on savings, fee free withdrawals abroad, and hopefully keep costs down moving forward.

Starling Cons

• Customer service is average to poor at the best of times.

• The card has too many issues to be used as a daily card, and I would be concerned if it was the only card I had.

• Development of the actual current account has been poor, as more focus has been on the business accounts, and now, joint accounts.

• They feel very bank like….. and whilst there is reassurance in that, there is also an underwhelming feeling at times.

• Due to the lack of other features they offer, I am worried they will get swallowed up by a legacy bank whose digital offering will be very similar.

Conclusion

As I said from the off, this was never about drilling into each feature, and analysing how the 2 compare on paper. There are a lot of things I don’t use. Overdrafts for example – I don’t have one with either, but there is a lot of chatter on the Monzo forum about how poor they do it, compared with the ease of use of Starling.

For what I use a bank for, most of the indicators point to Starling as the one for me. However, with the recent outages, the poor CS, and the stagnant current account development, I’m giving more and more of my time to Monzo.

Neither are perfect, although if I used my current account for daily spend, I’d be very happy with how much Monzo have developed over the past few months.

I feel that with the user base Monzo have, their willingness to integrate into their customers, and how far they’ve come in such a short time….. I will echo the words of their co founder and say “It really is theirs to lose” from here.

On a personal note, the eventual winner for me will be the one who really nails joint accounts (both are still very much in their early “beta” stages), and the one who can successfully build a “young persons” account for my kids.

Whoever gets there first (as long as it’s done well), will likely get the full switch for me and my family.

But the good thing is….. You can always switch to another bank, or open a new account whenever you want, and I’d encourage absolutely anyone in the UK, to open both a Starling and Monzo account to try them out for yourself – You really cant go wrong.

Thanks for reading, if you have any question, post them in the comments.

Nick

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