How Mint Can Revolutionize Your Budget
When it comes to budgeting, life has never been easier. Today, you don’t have to revert to an old-fashioned spreadsheet or pen and paper. (But go for it, if that’s your jam!) Instead, budgeters have access to a huge variety of apps and websites, including one of my favorites: Mint.com.
Mint has been in the personal finance game for a while. And it’s created by Intuit, the same company that created Quicken. In fact, it’s sort of like a baby Quicken. It’s less complicated, but it works in much the same way, and the interfaces are somewhat similar.
First, we’ll run through how Mint works and what it offers. Then, we’ll talk about the pros and cons. Think this is the budgeting tool for you? Read on to find out.
What Mint.com Has to Offer
When you set up your Mint.com account, it will ask you if you want to link to your bank accounts. To make the most of the interface, it’s best to link at least to your primary checking account. But, honestly, the more accounts you link it to, the better.
And don’t worry. Mint’s parent company, Intuit, has been keeping people’s financial data safe for years. It uses bank-level security and encryption to pull in your transaction data while keeping your information safe.
The longer Mint is around, the more accounts and types of accounts it can connect with. Several years ago when I first started using the tool, I wasn’t able to connect to some of my smaller bank accounts. But now, I can connect to all my bank accounts and credit cards, as well as most of my utilities companies.
Wait? Utilities companies? Why would you need to add those to a budgeting tool? We’ll talk about it more in a moment. But for now, know that Mint offer a slick bill-paying service if you connect these accounts, too.
When it’s all said and done, setting up with Mint can take a while. But that’s not because the process is laborious. It’s actually quite smooth with great prompts along the way. But it can take a while to plug in all of your banking and account information.
Once you get set up, Mint will take you to an Overview screen. This will include an overview of your account balances, any alerts or offers on the table, and an overview of your budget. I don’t tend to spend much time here, but it’s a handy screen that gives you a good idea of where you stand with your money.
This is the core of Mint. This screen is where you refresh your transactions from all of your accounts, and then categorize them accordingly. Mint does a halfway decent job of categorizing basic transactions from obvious vendors.
But, for instance, my plethora of Amazon transactions all come in as “Shopping.” In actuality, some of these transactions fall into my grocery budget, others into my kids’ stuff budget, and still others into my personal budget. So I have to go to the transactions screen to assign them.
If you’re like me, nearly every Amazon order goes to multiple budget categories. Luckily, you can use Mint to split the transactions as many times as you like. So that $50 Amazon order can be split $10 to my grocery budget, $20 to my kids’ budget, $10 to my pet budget, and $20 to my personal budget. Easy peasy.
The only caveat here is that you can’t split transactions until they actually clear. Uncleared transactions will still show up, but I don’t bother to categorize them until they show up as cleared. Otherwise you can’t split them, and sometimes the system gets glitchy with categories when transactions go from uncleared to cleared.
You can also add transactions manually here if you don’t have one of your accounts connected but want to count its spending towards your budget.
On the transactions screen, you can also sort transactions by account or account type. Or you can look at all of your transactions at once, sorted by most recent first.
This is a relatively new feature of Mint. But now you can get a free credit score with your free account. It’s based on your Equifax credit report and gets updated monthly. Like many credit scoring tools available online today, this one will let you see what factors are influencing your score.
If you want an all-in-one financial dashboard, Mint.com is where it’s at. You can use the bills tab to see your bills due in the month, your available cash, and your available credit. It will also give you a timeline of when your bills are due, including the amount due.
When you hook up your bills to Mint, you can pay them through Mint, if you’d prefer. Or you can simply add your bills and due dates to the calendar. Mint can email you reminders to pay your bills before the due date. And having them in the calendar mode lets you track your cash flow as you go.
This is where Mint.com really shines, in my opinion. On this tab, you’ll find your core budgeting setup.
When you first get into Mint, you’ll need to go here to set up your budget categories. You can create custom categories as broad or granular as you’d like. Want a general “Food” category? Go for it! Want to track dining out separately from groceries? You can do that, too. You could even break down your budget categories between coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, and farmer’s markets.
Bottom line: You’re in complete control of what your budget looks like.
Once you set up the budget, you can assign transactions to various budget categories. And, again, you can split a single transaction between multiple budget categories if you need to.
Then, the budget screen will start to get colorful. If you’ve still got money left in a category, that category’s bar will be green. If you get close to the limit, it’ll turn yellow. And if you hit the limit or go over it, your bar will turn red.
The budget screen can help you easily create a zero-based budget. You’ll start by putting in your estimated income for the month. Then, as you create your budget categories and assign amounts to them, you’ll see what you have left of your income.
While you can’t budget for future months, you can budget out into the future with “Every Few Months” or “Once” transactions.
Let’s say you want to create a budget for your twice-a-year trip to visit family. You want to budget $500 every six months. So you’ll choose a category, click “Every Few Months,” and then tell Mint when the next event will happen. It’ll automatically divvy up your budget among the months leading up to that one. So you’ll basically set aside money each month until you’re ready to spend it.
The “Once” option is similar, except that it’s saving up for a one-time transaction.
Once you get going with Mint, this screen is a great at-a-glance for where you’re at with your monthly spending. At first, you’ll find that you need to recategorize a lot of transactions so that your budget lines show correctly. But over time, Mint will learn where transactions from certain vendors belong, getting more and more accurate.
I’ve found that this visual aspect of Mint is particularly helpful for people like my husband. Managing money together used to be tough. But giving him an at-a-glance view of where we stand on our finances helps him get on board more easily.
This section of Mint is one that was a little rough to start out with, but it’s gotten better. Basically, you can set goals for just about anything.
You can tie debt pay-off goals to certain debt accounts, like your credit cards. Mint will help you calculate how long it will take you to pay off certain debts, or all of your credit card debts, for instance.
The other option is a savings goal. You’ll need to tie this goal to a specific savings account. Mint will then track your savings goals as you put money into those accounts.
Goals and budgets can still be a little tough working together. For instance, your credit card payments can sometimes get double-counted. But this is smoothing out so that goals plus budgets gives you a holistic view of your spending and saving.
Once you get a few months’ worth of transactions under your belt, this is a really helpful tab. You can basically slice and dice your spending data by month, quarter, or year. You can look at a breakdown of your spending by merchant, by category, or by tag. Or you can look at how your income has changed over time.
Trends is a great option if you’re trying to figure out where to cut back on your spending. It’s especially helpful if your goal is to break your spending down into something like a 50-30-20 budget. Just categorize your expenses accordingly (savings, wants, and needs), and then check out your trends over time to see if you’re hitting your targets.
As I noted earlier, Mint is sort of like a mini version of Quicken. But where Quicken tends to focus on investments with a budgeting piece, Mint is the opposite. So it focuses more on everyday budgeting, but it also includes an investing piece.
The investing section will let you see where your investments are and track their value over time. You can hook up your investing accounts directly with Mint, just like you can with your other accounts. It’ll break down your performance, allocation, and value over time.
Mint will make some investing recommendations if you’d like. But I’d trust it more as a tool for tracking. If you’re interested in more in-depth investment tracking, consider using Personal Capital, instead.
Ways to Save
This tab is one of the ways this free budgeting tool makes money. If lets you check out offers for credit cards, checking and savings accounts, and even insurance. The tool isn’t as personalized as some others, like those offered by Credit Karma. But it’s a helpful option if you’re already in the market for a financial product.
The Bottom Line on Mint.com
As I said earlier in this review, I’ve used Mint for years. I’ve tried other budgeting tools sometimes, but you really can’t beat Mint’s interface and ease of use. With that said, it does have a few drawbacks, which include:
- Inability to plan forward. Being able to plan long-term is important to me. So it frustrates me that you can’t set up a budget for the next month in Mint. You can’t get to that month’s budget screen until the first of the month, actually.
- Goals can still get squirrely. Like I said, these seem to be better than they were when Mint first rolled out Goals years ago. But sometimes it’s still hard to get a transaction to count for a goal when it should count for a budget and vise versa.
- Too detailed for some. Mint may not be the right choice for you if you aren’t interested in tracking every aspect of your budget. Even though it syncs to your bank accounts, assigning categories to every transaction can get time-consuming. You could always mitigate this by creating only a couple of broad categories, if you decided to do this.
Even with its drawbacks, Mint is still a great budgeting tool. It’s worth checking out, whether you’re an experienced zero-based budgeter or are just starting to track what you spend.