This post is sponsored by Starling Bank, but all views are my own.
Reviewing the Starling Bank current account was a relief. My main thought was: ‘why can’t all banking be like this?’.
So all hail Anne Boden, the first woman to found a British bank, who set out to make banking better for everyone.
More about Starling Bank
What is Starling Bank?
Starling Bank is a nippy newcomer to the banking world, launched in 2014. All accounts are run digitally via the Starling app, rather than using a branch network.
I reviewed the current account, but Starling also offers joint accounts, multi currency accounts, business and sole trader accounts, bank cards for children and some lending products.
Now, I’ve got a fistful of current accounts opened with the big high street banks at different times and for different purposes (interest, work expenses, cashback on bills). I got my first bank account way back in 1984, when NatWest was still National Westminster. At the time, I was gutted to be too old for the NatWest Piggy Account with the money boxes, fobbed off with an ‘On Line Account’ that wasn’t. The ads featured a strange snood-wearing female, and I was given a black plastic folder for my statements, striped with electric blue, acid yellow and fuchsia pink.
Trouble is, I fear that for many of the big established banks, banking practices haven’t actually changed too much since then.
None of the other accounts I’ve tried have made banking as quick and easy as Starling.
Anne Boden had the great advantage of designing a bank from scratch, harnessing the latest technology, rather than being bogged down by the legacy IT systems that have derailed assorted big banks in recent years.
Take opening an account. It took me 10 minutes dead from downloading the Starling app to be done and dusted. All on my phone: no forms, no schlepping to a branch.
I just had to answer a few questions, set up security features, take a photo of my driving licence or passport and swear blind I’d read assorted terms and conditions. The comedy moment was recording a clip of myself reading out a four digit code. I do hope it was reviewed by an algorithm rather than a human, given I looked like Father Jack but with glasses, first thing on a Saturday morning.
I was a tad disappointed when it said my details were being checked, and the average review time was 13 (!) hours, but in the end I was up and running on the app way before that.
I could have used the account straight away, via Apple Pay or Google Pay, but my debit card zipped through the post only two days later. Plus, it’s a vibrant teal colour, which is easy to spot in my overcrowded wallet.
Starling Bank’s app features
Starling Bank has all the serious stuff you’d expect from a bank: it’s got a proper banking licence, has security features coming out of its ears and all accounts are protected up to £85,000 by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.
As a frugal blogger, I appreciate that there are no fees for the ordinary personal account and no charges for cash withdrawals, deposits or spending overseas. So if you’re planning post-covid trips abroad, a Starling account will help keep your costs down. The business accounts don’t have monthly fees either.
Starling also brings together a whole assortment of useful features familiar from other fintech apps and tech-friendly banks, such as:
- instant notifications of any spending on its card
- choosing your own PIN on the app, rather than being sent one you can’t remember and having to trek to a cash machine to change it
- paying in cheques for up to £500 just by snapping a photo
- ability to ‘lock’ lost cards on the app and ‘unlock’ them when found, without having to cancel them completely and order replacements
The spending notifications really appeal, forcing me to face up to my purchases, otherwise all-too-easily ignored in a wave of contactless transactions. You’re also more likely to spot unfamiliar and potentially fraudulent payments.
Like budgeting apps, Starling automatically tots up your spending in different categories, such as Groceries, Bills and Transport, and makes it easy to change categories for different transactions.
Previous post: top 10 tips for keeping a spending diary
Like savings apps and some other banks, you can set up financial goals and ’round ups’ with Starling, where transactions are ’rounded up’ to the nearest pound, and the change is automatically added to your savings pot.
With Starling, you don’t need a separate bill splitting app. Instead, Starling lets you split transactions equally between up to 5 people, or in custom amounts. It provides a link, avoiding the hassle of account numbers and sort codes, and lets you send it straight from the app via assorted messaging services.
Like pocket money apps, Starling offers bank cards for your kids. You can set up a Kite card with only a few taps, then load or withdraw money via the app, get real-time spending notifications, and set limits on where the cards are used. For example, if you don’t want your child using the card online, or in cash machines, you can say so. Certain transactions, such as at gambling sites, escort services and video arcades, are automatically blocked.
Kite cards cost £2 a month per card. Sure, I’d rather they were free, but this compares well with competing bank cards for kids such as Go Henry (£2.99 a month per card) and RoosterMoney’s Rooster Card (£24.99 for one card, £19.99 a year for additional cards). Starling doesn’t sneak in any 50p charges for additional transfers or cash machine withdrawals either.
Extras I particularly appreciated with Starling Bank
I’ve reeled off a long list of features that normally you’d need a phone full of apps to provide.
But what really impressed me was when Starling Bank took features further, and dealt with any issues.
Here’s an example. When my debit card showed up, in a glamorous thick envelope like a wedding invitation, I just shoved it in my bag. Tried to use it when taking the kids bowling – no joy. Assumed I probably needed to activate it in a cash machine with my PIN, so tried that. Still no joy: ‘contact your bank’. But at that moment I also got a notification from Starling, explaining I needed to activate my card in the app, while politely not saying ‘doh, fool, read the instructions that came with the card’. So I opened the app, clicked to activate, and was instantly able to use my card then and there. Check out the screen grab above – literally a minute between the card being refused at 12.49 and then withdrawing cash at 12.50.
Same thing when I used my Starling Bank card to order an online supermarket delivery from Morrisons. A message appeared onscreen saying I needed authorisation from my bank, which made my heart sink, due to past experience of rejected credit card payments and lengthy phone calls sorting it out.
But no. I immediately got a notification on my mobile from Starling, clicked through to the Starling app and its security features, then with one tap I confirmed the payment. Super quick, very easy.
Here’s another example. I was wracking my brains about a transaction to ‘The Jugged Hare’, in my list of payments. When I clicked on the payment in the app, it showed me not only the time, date and amount, but the spending category, address and even a little map of where I’d spent it, which jogged my memory. I don’t get that with Yolt.
I also admire the way Starling Bank, as a recent start up, can turn on a dime without having to fight through thousands of layers of management.
Take Starling Bank’s reaction to the pandemic, as described in Anne Boden’s book, ‘Banking on it: How I disrupted an industry‘.
Within ten days it launched an additional bank card for customers, linked to their account, so if they were sheltering or self-isolating they could give the card and its PIN to someone they trusted to go shopping. Crucially, the card could only spend money the account holder moved into a ‘Connected Space’, capped at a maximum of £200.
I also admire Starling’s commitment to assorted ethical and environmental goals, meaning you can open an account with a clear conscience.
For example, its debit cards are made from recycled plastic, its banking is paperless and Starling plants a tree for every person you refer, via a partnership with Trillion Trees.
As an organisation, Starling pays the Living Wage to employees (not just the minimum wage), aspires to be an inclusive workplace, has signed up to the Women in Finance Charter, uses 100% renewable energy in its London, Southampton and Dublin offices and 90% of its cloud spend with AWS is via a carbon neutral data centre.
Starling doesn’t invest in environmentally or socially damaging industries including fossil fuels, tobacco and arms.
However, while Starling itself does not invest in fossil fuel companies, the Qatari Investment Authority (QIA) holds a minority stake in the bank. QIA is a way for the state of Qatar to reduce its reliance on oil and gas, and also invests in companies such as supermarkets, airports and department stores.
Importantly for customers, Starling is committed to transparency, fairness and inclusion – which includes avoiding hidden and rip off fees and using plain language.
What’s not so good
There’s a lot to like about Starling Bank, but it won’t be right for everyone:
- Starling is a digital only bank – it’s all online and on your phone. If you prefer banking in branches, it isn’t for you
- Customer support is all by phone, email or live chat via the app, rather than being able to talk to branch staff face to face. Does mean help is available 24/7 though
- No cheque book, if you do still need to send cheques
- Can only connect up to a limited list of accounts via Open Banking, such as my PensionBee pension and Wealthify investments. As I can’t see all my account balances in one place, it can’t yet replace my favourite budgeting app
- No cashback on purchases or bill direct debits, teeny tiny interest of 0.05% a year on credit balances and no cash switching bribes
Starling Bank review summary
Using a Starling Bank current account has been like a breath of fresh air. It feels like Starling Bank has really focused on making banking better for its customers – and now has 2.4 million accounts to prove it.
Many of the helpful features pioneered by Starling have since been picked up by other banks and fintechs. The app packs in loads of functions that otherwise you’d need a phone full of apps to provide.
Sure, I have minor niggles about the lack of financial incentives, such as cashback, higher interest or switching bribes. Starling doesn’t shower customers with free money, but that could help explain why the bank broke even for the month of October 2020 and has recorded a profit every month since then, unlike many loss-making fintechs.
Overall, my Starling account has definitely made banking quicker and easier for me, and my husband is fed up with hearing how good it is.
Click here to find out more or open an account.
Now – over to you. Would you consider using a Starling account? If you already have one, how have you found it?