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BanksI want to talk about bank accounts and how they relate to EnvelopeBudget.

By far, the majority of questions I get are related to bank accounts. Most often I get one of the following type of questions:

I’ll address each question, but first a general word about automatic transaction importing…

EnvelopeBudget.com uses OFX Direct Connect to connect to banks. OFX stands for Open Financial Exchange. Basically it is a technical specification created by Microsoft, Intuit, & CheckFree to standardize the way banks and application exchange data.

Unfortunately this standard hasn’t been very open as the name suggests. Building support for it was the most challenging effort of this whole project. There is not much documentation on how it works so it was a lot of trial an error playing around with my credit union’s OFX support as well as American Express – both of which have excellent OFX support.

Now on to the common questions.

I’m getting an error trying to connect to my bank. What’s going on?

This is a loaded question and 99.9% of the time the answer is “I don’t know”. Generally a bank will give an error message. If so, I will display the error message at the top of the page. If not, there is not much else I can do.

I really wish I had a better answer for this. There are a number of possible scenarios:

  1. Does your bank still support OFX dirt connect?
  2. Did they change their OFX server credentials?
  3. Do they require you to enable OFX direct connect on your account?

These are all questions I can’t answer and it is really hard to find answers because banks don’t seem to share this information freely. Even if you call support, most support people have no idea what OFX direct connect is. Some may be familiar with it if you say “direct connect for Quicken” but they don’t know OFX server credentials needed to connect.

I’m getting error 15500. What should I do?

According to Microsoft OFX documentation, error 15500 means “Invalid Signon”. Basically you are being connected to the OFX server, but your username/account number and or password/pin is incorrect.

Your OFX login information may not be the same as your bank’s online banking login information. Also, some banks require you to enable OFX Direct Connect before you can begin using it. Some larger banks require a fee to enable this feature – generally around $10.00 per month.

The first step to resolve this issue is to call your bank. Ask what you need to do to enable “direct connect for Quicken” (if you say EnvelopeBudget.com they likely won’t know what you are talking about and say they don’t support other 3rd party applications).
You can also try other applications that use OFX Direct Connect such as GnuCash (free) or a trial version of Quicken or Quickbooks to see if you are getting the same error. If you are getting the same error in Quicken for example, then you can confidently call your bank and tell them it is not working for you.

Do you have plans to support my local bank/credit union?

Adding support for new banks is largely out of my control. If a bank supports OFX direct connect, I can add their credentials if I can find them. But these credential are hard to find. Intuit has a nice list I’m sure, but they seem to guard it closely.

I got my original list of OFX credentials from a script somebody wrote to scrape them from Microsoft Money’s website. Microsoft Money is no longer around though.

The only other resource I have is a site called OFX Home. It has a directory of banks and their credentials. So if you bank is in this directory, there is a good chance EnvelopeBudget supports it. Otherwise I don’t have a way to find their OFX server information.

I can connect with Mint.com. Why can’t you connect to my bank?

I like Mint. It is a beautiful design and has a lot of great features. But I think it automates too much of your budget so you don’t actually change behavior. Mint uses a service called Yodlee to connect to banks and import transactions. Yodlee collects your username and password to your web login as well as your security questions and answers. They use this information to log in as you and then download transactions. This is generally called “screen scraping”.

It’s a nice service and very difficult to maintain I’m sure. But they are also very pricey. It is a nice work-around for banks that don’t support OFX, but also has its issues:

  • If a bank changes it’s web interface it breaks their service.
  • It is more of a security liability to have that much access to someone’s bank account.
  • Even thought my credit union supports OFX, they still screen scrape. For some reason something they do triggers me to get locked out of my account and I can’t log in again until I call my credit union. I ultimately had to cancel Mint because I was tired being locked out of my account every week.

I certainly have the ability to do this, but it would require that I collect your account login and all your security questions and answers in order to build a custom importer for your bank. So far no one has wanted to give me this information. Most members opt to find a bank that supports OFX instead.

My bank was downloading transactions fine all last week, today it is not. What happened?

This is another tough one and the answer is also “I don’t know”. This happens to me on occasion as well. Generally when it happens I see if I can log in to my bank and download transactions manually. Usually I go to my bank’s web log in screen and find the site is down for maintenance. So my best advice is to wait an hour and try again.

If you made it this far in the email, congratulations! You know more about bank connectivity than 99% of the population.

Bank StatementSupport questions I get most often revolve around importing transactions from bank accounts.

“I use X Bank. It is not on your list of supported banks, when will you support it?”

“I use Y Bank. It is on your list of supported banks, but I can’t connect.”

Let’s talk about banks for a bit.

Getting my transactions to automatically import was my biggest priority, and my greatest challenge when I developed this software.

There is only one company I know of that provides a service to aggregate bank transactions for you. 4 years ago it was too expensive to consider, I’m looking into it again at the moment. I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

There is only one free method to connect to banks and pull in transactions. That is using OFX Direct Connect. OFX is an acronym for Open Financial Exchange. It is a standard for connecting to and communicating with banks.

Unfortunately there is not much documentation or information out there on how to make use of this technology standard. That is why it was such a challenge to develop initially.

Also, not every bank supports OFX. I assume that it is likewise a challenge for banks to develop and maintain an OFX server. I would also assume that most that do have probably outsourced it to a company that already has a solution they could implement.

The banks that do support OFX Direct Connect do not always share their OFX connection settings publicly. I get all mine from a free service called OFX Home.

To add to the frustration, some large banks such as Wells Fargo, Bank of America, etc like to charge their customers $10.00 per month to use this feature.

Also, many banks require you to call and enable this feature — whether it is free or not.

I am fortunate to bank with a credit union (America First Credit Union) that supports OFX and supports it very well. It just works when you open an account. I also use American Express cards which gives free OFX Direct Connect access enabled as soon as you open an account.

I had a well known high interest savings account that I closed because they did not support OFX.

I will always be on the lookout for new technologies that provide better or easier ways to import transactions from banks. But in the past four years, nothing much has changed and so I’m not getting my hopes up.