Saturday, February 7, 2009

Personal finance in a "refreshing" new light

Like mission control for your money, Mint finally puts all of your financial information in one place. And did I mention it’s free?

In less than an hour I was able to link with my sixteen cash, investment and loan accounts to Mint. In just a couple of hours I had classified my previous 90 days of transactions into spending and budget categories.

After that initial investment of time, Mint.com has proved again and again to be well worth the effort. I spend about ten minutes a week classifying the receipts when I put them in the checkbook ledger, and I’ve been able to stick with it.

Once all of my spending was coded into categories, I was able to set up a budget. I could even compare to similar mint.com users (anonymously) with others in my geographic area. Now when I approach my budget cap I receive a (optional) text message to my mobile phone and an email warning.


Three months later, I’ve twice slashed my food budget in half without making a conscious effort to do so. Just knowing what we’re spending helps control costs. Thinking of ordering desert? If you’re an iPhone user, you can take a look at your ‘dining out’ budget on the spot and see if you’re in a place for that splurge.

Mint also continues to get better all the time. Thanks Mint, for adding asset trackers this past week. For those of us whose assets are tied up in real estate equity, cars or concert posters, it’s nice to open Mint.com and see a positive number at the bottom of the sidebar under “net worth.”

Mint.com also offers a feature for those of us that may need to reevaluate our financial choices. The free software is free for a reason. There’s some sponsorship to Mint.com. It’s nicely confined to an extra tab and not forced on you via popups or offensive emails. It looks at your spending and savings habits and suggests products that may be a better fit. Some of these I’m even considering switching to.

Mint's interface is so easy to understand and easy to read that yesterday, when my fourth grader came home and said she'd learned about "good and bad kinds of interest" in math class we opened up Mint for clearer examples of interest at work for and against our family's budget.

If Mint.com is reading, I do have a few suggestions for improvement. However they are so minor that I hesitate to mention here for fear anyone may be discouraged from trying Mint.com for themselves.

In the “spend space” I would like to see an “all spending” category added. I want to see historically how I’ve reduced my spending month-to-month since joining Mint. I know I have, but the charts are psychologically rewarding.

I’d love to see an application that downloaded the value of the stack of savings bonds I have stashed in a safe deposit box. I know that the treasury offers an app online to valuate class EE bonds with the serial numbers. It would be great to be able to store my bond info there too. But don’t bother if I’m the only person who still has bonds.

Who wouldn't love to see an online bill paying option come to Mint one day? I go to mint to see when my credit card bill is due and how much I should pay towards it. It would be really nice to pay it from there.

I recommend Mint.com without reservation, especially for those like me who’ve struggled with maintaining their household budget or tracking their spending. We all know we should—-but it’s easier said than done. Give it a shot—you have nothing to loose. I’m feeling Minty. Are you?

Note: Mint isn't the only player in this business. Wesabe is similar. My review of Wesabe will be on its way to Prosper Lending Review shortly.

Jessica Ward is a freelance writer based in the Seattle area.

11 comments:

Rick said...

To use Mint would not you have to give them your account numbers and passwords to access all your accounts? This is what puts me off.

JessicaW said...

Yes, you do put your passwords in there. It's a little creepy, but Mint has more security features and protections than my bank's online banking program does, so I decided to take the risk. According to the mint.com Web site, they don't see or store that password information.

Also, you don't register with your name. Only an email address, so a potential identity thief won't have your name, mother's maiden name, birthdate etc that you may need to make transactions on your accounts.

Needless to say, there's a lot of protections that have your back. You can read more on Mint's privacy policy here: http://www.mint.com/privacy/

With the increased transparency you'll have a better idea than ever of what's going on in your account. I'm finding that myself--any transaction I don't recognize is suspect (whereas before I didn't even read my statements).

It may not be right for everyone, but my personal experience is that I'm in far better control with mint than even the remote chance of my sitting down with a stack of reciepts and statements an actually reconciling regularly.

Thanks for reading!
Jessica

Tom said...

Nice review. I've used Wesabe but not tried Mint. I wonder what the significant differences are.

JessicaW said...

Tom... shh... I don't want to give away all of the features before I review Wasabe officially, but my first thought is the best description for the difference would be culture.

Mint has a more "misson control" feel to it, and Wasabe feels more like Twitter and Facebook. Mint fits me better becuase I'm more private about that sort of thing. I don't want someone's message about "Try Target instead of H&M" popping into what I essentially use a my checkbook ledger.

That being said, a lot of people are really far more comfortable with some personality into their financial matters.

I'm looking forward to playing with Wasabe more as I prepare my review, but at present I'm a little bit limited as my primary bank isn't Wasabe-compliant. I'll put my other accounts in there and play with it though.

LondonRapsterinResidence said...

Jessica
One of the things I wanted to ask you is whether you think providers like MINT are doing enough for you from a liability management perspective. I completely agree that by consolidating your financial position and being disciplined about maintaining it you can gain a lot of benefit, but obviously besides controlling your input to output ratio, a second thing one should be able to do is to always be running the liability or debt side of the balance sheet in an optimal way (depending on the freedom available). For myself, I know that investment diversifaction is basically a sensible way of approaching a crap shoot, but I do think that given that with liabilities, you have complete visualization to what you are paying, how you are paying, and your structure, there is, particularly in this environment, a tremendous opportunity to fully rewrite the liability side and get substantial savings growth via doing this. Interested in your thoughts and any others on the same line of thinking.

JessicaW said...

London, very interesting question. Thanks for reading PLR.

As of right now, I think that Mint's only intention is to provide a dashboard from which we can all drive our own personal financial situation.

They do provide some advertiser information that suggests other savings products, credit cards etc., but I don't believe that they're really trying to play the role of the financial planner.

(I don't know about you, but I don't think I'm psychologically prepared to entrust my financial decisions to free online software).

I love Mint because it's telling me what I essentially already could know--if I sat down wtih all of my statements and figured it out.
(Also, the real-time budget tracking is the feature that I use most).

We know from all of our basic financial training that investment diversification is critical, but few people talk about diversifying debts. It's my opinion that many people go about paying down debt all wrong.

Could Mint.com tell you "pay this down first?" with some of the debts? Sure they could, but they'd have to be collecting a lot more information than they do now. For instance, I have an 8-year-old student loan that I owe $2,000 on. Mint.com doesn't know it's equipped with tax-deductible interest at 1.5%. Why would I pay this off when I carried a home equity loan, mortgage balance and credit card all around 5%?

Yes, in theory Mint could do that prioritizing for us, and it would be really nice, especially for folks who struggle with knowing the best and worst kinds of debt (or who haven't examined their credit card terms).

I don't think that's the role they're trying to play right now. I also don't think that just because advice is given, it should be taken. While some of the "savings opportunties" that Mint has presented me may be great fits (Ing Savings accounts) others are especially bad fits (the credit cards, which have promotional interest rates often double what my current rates are).

If Mint puts itself in the role of financial planner--I doubt I'll be using that tool.

By the way, I'm not a financial planner, so this does constitute my opinions only.

I hope that answers the question that you're asking. If not, let me know and I'll gladly try again.

Dan said...

Mint sounds A LOT like Yodlee, another free account aggregator that has been around many years.

I'd be interested in hearing what the differences are, and if one has any advantages over the other. I've used Yodlee for three years now, but if there is something special about Mint I'd consider checking it out.

Tom said...

It looks like Mint is really garnered a huge following...

"Mint had another great month, increasing site visitors by about 200,000, a five-fold increase in the past year. Mint's gain in January was more than that total traffic of all nine 2008 newcomers combined. Mint had a 60% market share of the total of 1.8 million visitors in the category, about the same as December."
Source: Netbanker

I also just came across this fascination presentation from Mint's CEO about entrepreneurship.

JessicaW said...

I just noticed that they've gotten rid of the confusing welcome screen about the iphone app. :) Thank goodness!

Tom said...

I just came across this about Mint -

Quicken Online Can’t Believe Mint Is Doing So Well; Sends Threatening Letter

It's nice to see big companies taken down by better, nimble competition.

JessicaW said...

Wow--thanks Tom. That's a pretty snarky letter from Quicken! I've used both Quicken and Mint, and IMHO Mint is just a better product (oh, and it's free.)
Thanks for posting!