Full Time Apple Card

Looking back at the history of unexpected products, Apple Card is probably one of the most controversial from Apple—a company known for their gadgets and apps. But if you think of Apple not as a hardware or software company, but rather one that sells you experiences, an iPhone-integrated and a beautifully crafted titanium credit card makes a whole lot of sense. 

Most reviews I read are quite superficial and don’t offer much substance and in-depth experience coverage, so I thought I’d share my personal take on it with hopefully more specifics. I applied for an Apple Card primarily to see how much better the experience of spending money can be with all of its neat features. So I spent a month using the Apple Card full-time and going through seemingly most of its use cases.

If months of advertising hype have not brought up expectations, nothing primes them like a great first impression. From the very beginning, I was impressed how short the application process was. From opening the Wallet app to getting my card issued in my Apple Pay, it took no longer than 5 minutes. Within two days, the physical titanium card arrived in the most luxurious cardboard package I’ve ever seen. Activation simply required me to tap my iPhone to the NFC chip on the package. It was absolutely the fastest and most tempting credit card signup process ever designed. This expedited process seems to have bitten me later (more below), I can’t deny the appeal of a low-friction application process.

Image by @ChanceHMiller from 9to5Mac because I forgot to take screenshots.

The primary way you manage the card sits right in the Wallet app. At the top, a virtual card dynamically changes its gradient palette of colors depending on your spending in their respective color-coded categories. Below that, a simple bar chart shows your monthly and weekly spending. A list of transactions populate the rest of the interface.

Image by Business Wire

One of my favorite features is the ability to see the proper name, logo, and map location of the transactions. The transaction view gives you everything you need to identify the transaction and do retrospection, such as how much money you’ve spent here in the past. In case you still cannot recall, there’s a button to call the vendor and a button to pull up the Maps place sheet. I wouldn’t call this a groundbreaking innovation, as most banks have somewhat similar data if you request for it, but it is hands-down the best implemented and most pretty looking. 

In the month of using the Apple Card full-time, I had to pay a variety of vendors from my music school to random online shops. Some businesses like Amazon or iTunes don’t have map locations attached, but for the most part, the Wallet app seems to be able to reliably identify the vendor locations even if the purchase was made on their online storefronts.

Don’t judge my frequent Bambu visits.

(There is an annoying bug where purchases made on the Apple Watch lack the location info. After some research, it seems like this is not an issue in the soon-to-be-released watchOS 6 + iOS 13. They probably didn’t bother to fix these. Some people also reported that if you don’t give the Wallet app “always allow” permission to check your location, physical card purchases won’t have locations attached either. That’s good to know.)

Beside location, automatic category assignment is also something I wanted try using more. My Chase card also has this data, but the key difference between the Apple Card and Chase is all in the design. With Chase, I have to log in to the Chase app (which takes around 4 seconds to open for some reason), tap on my credit card, tap on “See all transactions,” tap on “Spending summary,” and then get only an /annual/ spending breakdown by category for some inexplicable reason. Now compare this to the Wallet app, which is one tap away after you open the app:

I believe that tracking my outbound money is more important than setting a budget. But money can be spent in a variety of media, which is why services like Mint never worked for me. When I pay for a group meal, I typically get my friends’ shares back to my Venmo or Apple Cash card. I don’t want the entire bill showing up on Mint as one fat meal that I gorged on myself. What if I took out $200 and spent it on 13 different transactions? Correcting that transaction on Mint will make me lose my hair. I’d rather just manually track my spending. And that’s exactly what I have been doing with Next. 

Next is an app with a super simple interface that allows me to track an expense in just a few seconds. I chose a dozen of icons to represent the different categories I want to keep track of. Whenever I need to log a transaction, I just open the app, tap on an icon, and enter a number. Optionally, I can write the description if needed. Most of the time for things like gas, a number will do. This app is by no means perfect but it is the best for tracking how much money I actually spend irregardless of how they look on paper. Everything else out there trips over things like business expenses, cash payments, group meals, etc. None of the automated solutions actually saved me time.

I kind of hoped that Apple would top my manual system. But that hope was quickly destroyed. For one, you cannot even customize the pre-defined categories or reassign a transaction. And even if Apple agrees with my “issue report” that Yunnan Sourcing is not a food vendor but a shopping destination for loose-leaf tea, you are still limited to the 7 built-in categories that essentially mirror Apple Maps’ classification scheme: 

  1. Food & Drinks
  2. Shopping
  3. Travel
  4. Services
  5. Fun
  6. Health
  7. Transportation

I struggled originally to understand why there isn’t even a Groceries or Gas category. Maps definitely knows the difference. If one of the card’s primary features is to help its users understand their spending pattern, shouldn’t they also know how much they spent eating out vs. buying groceries to cook at home?

I thought that maybe if I use my Apple Card for literally everything from rent to Netflix, I’d be able to get at least a bird’s-eye view of my net outbound. But the reality in this country quickly set in: some places just don’t treat credit card nicely. If I use a credit card to pay my utility company, I’ll have to swallow some BS processing fee of up to $3. That’s an entire taco. Other things like my apartment rent portal just flat out don’t take credit card. Furthermore, an expense tracker tied to a credit card still doesn’t solve my cash and group expense problems. 

But here’s another way to look at this.

  • Average resolving (not paid off) credit card debt in America is $6,829 in 2018 with an average of $1,141 in interests paid per year. 
  • Most Americans don’t have a budget or track their spending(2013 Gallup Poll). 
  • The best credit card customers are those who carry a debt and pay interests.

Suddenly, the limited categories makes a whole lot of sense when you compare it to, well, no tracking at all. For most Americans, it gives them easy-to-access insights just two taps away as opposed to something burried under layers of menus that, as limited as it is, maybe is the first expense tracking they actually will use. For that reason, I’m optimistic that customizable categories are very likely to happen down the road as Apple iterates to add more use cases. 

One heavily promoted feature that I fortunately haven’t needed to use is the payment vs. interest calculator. Apple designed this fitness progress-like ring that shows you how much is the minimum, how much you need to pay to cover one category, how much to reduce interest payments, and how much the full payment is. This super transparent interests vs. payment simulator seems right at odds with the interests of banks. 

Perhaps like the Apple Watch, they are going after some “life-changing stories” here. Owning an Apple Watch won’t make a meaningful difference for most people who just use it to look at notifications and time, but for some, it’s life-saving. Likewise, you might argue that owning an Apple Card could motivate some people to get out of debt or develop a better view into their spending habits. But I’m not so sure whether these two are truly comparable.

In a vacuum, the financial success of Apple Card, like all credit cards, depend on people’s failures to pay. But all of its features are working against this success metric. But if I look at the ecosystem of Apple devices, the success of Apple Card will drive the success of Apple Pay, iPhone, Apple services, and most importantly brand loyalty. To Apple, the more people get out of debt and take advantage of these features, the better their brand image becomes. Then what about Goldman Sachs? 

On one hand, this might be the least profitable credit card business. You have the Daily Cash Back feature that gets issued to you before you even pay off the balance. And since this is real money that can be spent via Apple Pay or transferred to a bank account, GS can’t count on their customers to never redeem their “points.” What’s given back every day is immediately deducted from the balance sheet. And if Apple Card users are actually paying less interests on top of reaping their cash rewards on a daily basis, what is GS going to gain from this other than an internship experience in consumer credit? However, Apple customers are also known to spend more money online and in general more profitable advertising targets. Maybe these factors somehow correlate to even more debt and interests for GS. 

I don’t have answers, just questions. Questions that can only be answered with internal data that I don’t have. If you know somebody who understands the industry, I’d love to hear your take and learn something new. 

Speaking of Daily Cash Back, I didn’t expect to care much for it originally. After all, I can reap far more benefits by redeeming my Chase Sapphire Reserve points to spend on travel, which can be up to 4.5% of my original spending. But, as I briefly touched on above, the magic of real money dispensed daily creates a much more tangible sense of gratification. 

Daily Cash Back isn’t much—some days I get a few quarters, and some days a couple of dollars. But Apple made sure to design the entire Wallet experience to remind you of your daily and weekly earnings. Each increase to the number next to the dollar sign in my Apple Cash card feels so much more real than the points many taps away from becoming real value. My Chase Ultimate Rewards points could be worth 15x more than what I have in my Apple Cash card right now, but I’m much more pleased by the visible daily free contribution to my piggy bank. For many others who never use their credit card points, this type of seductive design might bring a greater sense of perceived value at less cost.

Using the physical card itself is unremarkable. The Apple part of the experience only comes after you pass the card to the waiter. Somewhere in the back room the waiter swipes your card, and immediately a notification with the amount, business information, and time shows up on your phone. Right the way, you can make sure that nobody is screwing with the numbers. Although I’ve never had that happen to me, it’s nice to have this instant peace of mind. Because some restaurants go back and re-enter the amount with your tips added, your phone will reflect the modified amount at a later time. Again, you can make sure that you aren’t being overcharged for tips. 

Apple also really wants you to use Apple Pay. With 3% cash back on all purchases from Apple and a growing list of vendors (Uber, Uber Eats, Duane Reade, and Walgreens for now), 2% on all purchases via Apple Pay, and 1% via the physical card and virtual card number, it’s a no brainer that you should use Apple Pay whenever you can. 

But Apple Pay also has one of the slowest adoptions in the states. In particular, the cultural legacy of paying at restaurants remains untouched. 

I’ve always hated the waiting time between signaling to your waiter that you wanted the check and finally getting your card returned. At busy times, this turnaround can take as long as 20 minutes. I’ve learned to give my card right the way when the bill comes to save time, but there is much to be envied elsewhere in the world. In China, a lot of restaurants have adopted using QR code to deliver both menu ordering and payment experience right inside WeChat. Some restaurants even have per-table QR codes so orders arrive at the right table without any human bookkeeping. I also heard great things about contactless payments in the UK. 

In the US, the cultural hurdle stands tall and strong. Even if a restaurant supports Apple Pay, it just feels weird to push for it. Imagine that I just wrapped up a nice social dinner and it’s time to pay. Everybody is pulling their credit cards out (to split) and the waiter is handing us a paper bill. And then this dude at the table goes: “do you take Apple Pay?” Oh that stare, it hurts. What is the waiter supposed to do, lug their terminal over (if that’s even possible) or invite me to the cashier’s counter? I did it once, for science, in case you are wondering, and it was ridiculous.

Outside of restaurants, gas stations in the US also generally don’t take Apple Pay at the pump. The cheapest gas stations sometimes don’t even take credit cards. And oh boy it is hard to find a gas station that takes Apple Pay. I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable taking out my debit card at a pump; something about the environment just makes me feel unsafe. With the Apple Card experiment, I tried looking for pumps that take Apple Pay and it’s unnecessarily hard. Apple Maps would show “Accepts Apple Pay,” but in reality, that’s just at the counter inside. I would feel even less safe to leave my car unattended let alone the added inconvenience. 

When customer service is great, it’s great.

One of these days, I had the “luck” to dispute a charge. Some parking ticket machine in Berkeley incorrectly maximized my parking time and charged me for a grand total of $20. Great, I thought, time to use the super easy chat feature. 

A quick tap brings me to an iMessage chat with Apple, and a pre-populated message brings me to an Goldman Sachs “Apple Card Specialist,” whatever that means. The chat agent informed me that since the transaction is still pending, I should come back once it’s posted. Dutifully I did come back and reported the issue again. Just in a few words, the agent submitted my charge dispute. And almost as soon as I received a confirmation email that Apple Card Support is looking into this dispute, I got another one that informed me that the dispute has been resolved in my favor. Two notifications showed up to inform me that the dispute was updated and my 20-cent daily cash was charged back. The entire process took no longer than 10 minutes. I’m sure your mileage will vary depending on the type of dispute, but the ease of getting in touch with a human (or a robot that sounds more human than any bot I’ve chatted with) was delightful. 

But when it’s bad, it’s really bad.

A small incident of a $4.99 “unknown charge” by iTunes goes a long way to show the deficiencies behind this card’s customer support infrastructure. The charge just showed up one morning and I had no idea why. As easy as it was to resolve a dispute for a third party, if you are disputing a charge by Apple, be prepared to be kicked around like a soccer ball between Goldman Sachs and Apple support. Here’s how my chat went that morning:

Me: What is this $4.99 charge, I have no receipt and my purchase history shows nothing.

Apple Agent 1: Great, let me transfer you to Goldman Sachs.

GS Agent 1: let me transfer you to Apple since this is an iTunes charge, they can clarify that for you.

Me: I got charged $4.99 to my Apple Card, and…

Apple Agent 2: Ah! Apple Card, got ya! Let me transfer you to an Apple Card Specialist at Goldman Sachs.

Me: … hi Goldman Sachs agent, it’s me again, so I have this problem with an iTunes charge.

GS Agent 2: iTunes, got it! Would you like to be transferred?

Me: No.

Apple Agent 3: hi, this is Apple, how can I help you?

My reaction was just “WTF!” I have never had a more frustrating service since my infuriating moving month with IKEA, and that is a low bar. This is just a prettied-up, millennial-ized version of interdepartmental phone transfer reincarnated in iMessage! Although the 3rd Apple agent finally owned the problem and resolved it for me, my patience was being thoroughly tested. My 2 takeaways from this incident:

  1. Apple Card is still new and the customer departments at Apple and GS are still learning how to work together. 
  2. You can’t deliver a world-class customer service by having two companies with two silos of information about their customers. 

I hope the bad customer service stories ended there. My second incident began with a seemingly small detail (spoiler: it was worse). On Friday last week, I placed two work-related orders totaling around $4K. The first charge of about $1.3K went through just fine, but the second and larger purchase of $2.6K just refused to come through. At first, Newegg.com froze my “guest account” over repeated attempts. Then it was clear to me that Apple Card was the culprit. Very quickly, an iMessage agent was looking into my case. Mid-conversation, they suddenly asked me for my “previous address” where I lived—extremely creepy. Why? Apple Card only has my current apartment as its billing address, why would it need my prior one? And here is how it went:

I’m sure you’d agree that openly ignoring my question on why my private information is needed is incongruent with the value of privacy this product supposedly offers. I could blame this all on Goldman Sachs, but I also think Apple could’ve had a more heavy-handed control of the customer experience. After all, it would be more Apple-like if they completely owned the customer experience and relegating GS to a mere credit infrastructure. 

Little did I know that the true annoyance started after this. The agent that asked me for my previous address also prompted suspended my account “for review.” Perhaps my sudden spike of purchases alarmed GS. No problem, I had this problem with Chase when I bought an airplane ticket with them for the first time and all they had to do was sending me a text to confirm. But with GS, I got stuck in a limbo. Later that night I asked for an ETA to no avail. My account was simply “under review,” they said. In the meanwhile, new spending was blocked. It was problematic because I wasn’t sure how long this was going to take or whether I should change the payment method on my recurring charges. I appreciate the security precautions, but what about a correction course by the legitimate card holder?

The next day, I was determined to get an answer. After the chat agents consistently gave me the “under review with no course of correction” answers, I picked up the phone. The friendly lady on the other side informed me that they just needed a copy of my bank statement, so here it started:

Me: ok, how do I send it in.

Phone Agent 1: just iMessage us and send it in.

iMessage Agent 1: OK, bank statement is great, but what’s your prior address?

Me: didn’t the other agent record it? Here it is.

iMessage Agent 1: can’t validate your address, somebody will notify you when they review your account.

Me: why, I lived there tho. 

iMessage Agent 1: we just need to verify additional information.

Me: ok, let’s do that now?

iMessage Agent 1: Nope. We need to further investigate.

Me: *explains why the lack of timeline sucks*

iMessage Agent 1: OK, when you are free, call (the number that I just called).

Me: *calls that number*

Phone Agent 2: yea did you send a PDF of your bank statement? It has to be PDF though, not an image. (Funnily iMessage Agent 1 specifically asked for a screenshot. Great interdepartmental communication). 

Me: I did, it didn’t work.

Phone Agent 2: OK, I tried to verify too but it’s not working, why don’t you iMessage them again and see if they can unlock your account while the investigation is going on?

Me: *back to chat*

iMessage Agent 2: what’s up?

Me: *regurgitates all of the above information.*

iMessage Agent 2: bank statement screenshot

Me: but they said a PDF.

iMessage Agent 2: nah I like screenshots.

Me: fine, here you go.

iMessage Agent 2: your billing address doesn’t match though. 

Me: because I used a different address for this bank. Any other way to verify?

iMessage Agent 2: utility bill.

And finally, it was resolved. Although I summarized much of the actual conversation with a dose of humor, I can assure you that I did not make any of this up! The same people at GS told me literally contradictory information. The departmental siloes and opacity at GS were staggeringly bad and utterly frustrating. It makes me wonder: did nobody at Apple have to dogfood this experience? Or did they all have some sort of special flags so they don’t get treated like this? This entire ordeal would have just been a simple confirmation notification (which the Wallet app supposedly sends but none came my way). At the very least, if somebody at GS owned the problem and took more initiative to ask for my bank statement or utility bill in the first place, it would have saved everybody’s time.

Some folks online seem to have had even worse experiences. A few chalk it up to the expedited sign-up process, which lacks much of the verification info required by other banks. Whatever it is, Apple dropped the ball here. If you are going to deliver a truly private and superior credit card experience “Created by Apple, not a bank,” as they advertise, own the entire experience and make the bank invisible. I hate to use the “if Steve Jobs were still at Apple” argument, but if Steve Jobs were still at Apple, he would probably have reduced GS into an infrastructure provider like AWS is for iCloud that is as far away from end-users as they should be. 

I do want to wrap up this lengthy review and half-rant on a positive note. The customer service is a hit or miss, and I can’t say whether this is going to improve without some drastic reforms. However, Apple Card is overall a much simpler and more delightful experience than most other cards out there. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that this is a Goldman Sachs credit card with an Apple-designed and Apple-exclusive front-end. It’s a solid quality-of-life type of upgrade, much like everything else that revolves around the iPhone. Get it for the experience design, get something else for more points.

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