A review of Mint.com follows.
Seven years ago, you would have found me blissfully unaware of my spending practices and their impact, flourishing my credit card without a second thought as I ran up my tab at restaurants and shops. I defined living life fully as having the things and experiences I desired, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, imagining that I could travel anywhere and do anything I liked.
There was a catch, though. Only through intentional ignorance could I stand to keep it up, refusing to look my finances straight in the wallet. When I was confronted with bills I’d flinch, pay what I could, and hope to straighten things out later.
It was a frightening day when I finally faced my situation. During such “rich” living, I’d not realized the weight that my debt added onto my life. I was tipping the scales way out of balance, and the only way to even begin to fix things was to gather my finances and face the situation head-on.
Now, I watch my finances daily, with a slight degree of paranoia. I suspect that any moment I’m not paying attention, a spending mishap or stock fluctuation will sneak in and alter my financial landscape. I am obsessed with a constant need to know where I stand against my goals, planning strategies and swelling with pride at every small stride forward. I thrive as I watch my debt dwindle.
Besides my mindset, my biggest obstacle to financial awareness was my hatred of math. There, I’ve said it. I despise balancing checkbooks, tallying accounts, and performing almost any analysis involving a calculator. And though I’m starting to get to know them better, balance sheets, cash flows, and other documents which look like corporate financials make my eyes glaze over.
I have outlined my own budget and expenses several hundred times in Excel, only to find I never want to look at them again. It’s just how I am.
While I had high hopes for MS Money and Quicken, I found them to be expensive and somewhat burdensome to work with. I spent hours categorizing things only to realize that I didn’t have the time at home to keep it up, nor did I find the reports all that helpful.
I kept wanting it to be simpler, clearer, cheaper. My finances at a glance, in one place, but accessible online from anywhere without needing to remember scores of passwords.
I found this to some degree in Yodlee’s account aggregation, encountering the service first as Wachovia’s “One Stop” and then as Fidelity’s “Full View“. Some use Yodlee MoneyCenter directly, I’ve heard, but I always access their services via one of my account providers.
Though the service can look and work differently based on implementation, it’s relatively simple. Essentially, there’s a one-time setup phase, where you add your accounts, and then each day you log in and refresh your data to view a snapshot of exactly where you stand financially.
Bank accounts, loans, brokerage, credit cards, 401K and other investments tally up to a neat net worth, with transaction information easily accessible. Even insurance, frequent flyer miles and my billpay service can be added to this view. I set it up once, and now log in every day, sometimes two or three times a day. I told you it’s an obsession.
The problem? It’s great to get such a high-level at-a-glance view, but it hasn’t grown with my needs. There are no analytical tools, no way to categorize and tag items and get different views or reports of the information presented or any helpful tips to improve my situation.
Until Mint.com, that is. Launched last week, this free online money management service features the security and ease-of-use of the Yodlee platform with a host of simple yet effective tools for categorizing, analyzing and ultimately improving one’s relationship with money.
Their web site makes some impressive claims:
Mint is the freshest, most intelligent way for you to manage your money online. Not only is Mint free, it saves you money. While existing personal finance software “solutions” require hours to set up, a passion for accounting (is that possible?) and hours of weekly maintenance, Mint is virtually effortless.
Can it be true? Can it really save you money? Most importantly, can it save me from the things I most dread, mathematics and accounting?
I’ve been beta testing their service for a few months now, and have formed some strong opinions so far. So, let me introduce you to Mint.
Signing up is extremely simple – enter your e-mail, zip code and password and you’re ready to begin adding accounts. The site advertises “Two minutes to financial organization”, and I found that to be true once the traffic surge resulting from Mint’s recent TechCrunch 40 award win finally subsided.
The Add Accounts page itself is set up like a virtual wallet with each account on its own “card”, so you click a card to find your financial institution from the over 10,000 banks and credit card companies Mint currently supports and then add away until your finances are fully represented. You enter your access information and answer any security questions once, and Mint stores this information for future retrievals.
While some may have concerns about the security of this setup, I feel comfortable with it because of my experience to date with Yodlee. Plus, most of the access information is not stored in clear text so it would not be easily harvested if the account was compromised. Overall, I find that daily monitoring of one’s accounts is the best way to ensure that damages are limited and quickly controlled if unauthorized access occurs.
Mint does not currently allow users to add brokerage and investment accounts, however since the Yodlee platform offers this I am expecting it to be part of a future release. My bank and credit card accounts alone were sufficient to give me a taste of what Mint can offer, but I feel that including all types of financial assets is what will make the service a true success.
For now, this is what my Add Accounts page looks like:
As depicted in the screenshot below, Mint has one of the friendliest, clearest net worth depictions I’ve seen to date, with a clear outline of accounts and a “financial health” meter that shows cash versus debt in a high-level, easy to understand way. The dashboard displays important alerts for things like low balances or deposits, bringing these to your attention. E-mail alerts are available as well, keeping your money on your mind even when you’re not logged in.
But that’s not all. Within the Transactions tab, all transactions from these accounts are displayed and pre-categorized for you, although you can change categories or add notes at any time. A handy chart shows your spending history for the last three months when you highlight any vendor, and a similar income history is provided for deposits. Labels can be added for additional clarity and classification, but the whole interaction is very easy.
The Spending Trends tab offers some great graphs and charts, showing spending by category and, once a category is selected, provides percentages of spending by vendor. The bottom of this page features a section called “How is my spending changing?”, especially valuable for those seeking to benchmark progress on altering spending habits. The graphical approach makes interpretation extremely simple.
The feature which really distinguishes Mint from its competitors, however, lies within the Ways To Save tab. Unlike Wesabe, which when I tried it offered a small group of user-provided comments intended to be hints, Mint points out exactly what kinds of savings can result from simple changes in account providers, whether in terms of interest earnings or credit card interest rates. This, too, is clearly illustrated, as shown below:
As Mint is still growing its offering, I expect these suggestions to grow more extensive and robust over time. I am a bit of a rate-chaser and have spent hours on BankRate trying to determine where I should move my money or credit account and what my savings can be if I do so. If Mint can provide sufficient information for me to do a true comparison within their service, I won’t have to search elsewhere for rates and will remain on the pulse of what’s competitive.
Unlike Yodlee, I don’t need to constantly refresh my account data with Mint. Mint updates this information automatically and can e-mail alerts regarding unusual activity, low balance or other bank fees and more, making sure that I’m kept aware of important happenings even if I forget to log in and check up on things. Features like this help people like me to be a bit less obsessive about checking my accounts – I can hand-pick the alerts I’d like to receive and even have them sent to my mobile phone or wireless device if I’m traveling.
Mint.com delivers on its promises to help users better understand their spending and financial habits and highlight opportunities for savings. Their web site boasts that they can help users “stop overpaying” and “start oversaving” by locating lower prices and higher interest rates, and it seems the architecture is in place to accomplish this if Mint develops a strong and varied range of partners.
I believe Mint provides a great, easy and best of all FREE way for people to begin a daily relationship with their finances, and if the service continues to grow over time to encompass my entire financial picture, I’ll be completely sold.
I may never do math again.