How do you track your personal finances? For years now we’ve been using Mint to track our spending, monitor our accounts, and setup simple budgets. This week’s article will provide a review of Mint and how we use it at the Need2Save household.
What is Mint?
Mint is a free online service for personal finance management. In addition to a web browser based application, dedicated mobile apps for iOS and Android are also available. Mint is provided by Intuit, the same company behind TurboTax and QuickBooks.
Mint can consolidate all of your financial account information into a simple to use dashboard. This includes accounts such as your checking and savings accounts, credit cards, and loans (automobile, student, mortgage, and personal). Once you provide your login information to Mint (more on that below), Mint will automatically synchronize your accounts to show your current balances as well as past and pending transactions.
We primarily use Mint to monitor our current account balances and transactions, but Mint provides other features as well. You can easily establish a monthly budget with Mint and establish savings goals. Like many other financial services, you can get your credit score for free with Mint. We will discuss some of these features below and mention a few features that we don’t utilize.
Below is an example of the Overview page that you see after logging into Mint. The left column shows your current Cash, Credit Card, Loan, Investment, and Property balances (note that we’ve blurred out our balances). The right side of the page provides any alerts (e.g. uncategorized transactions as shown below, large deposits or withdraws, etc.), upcoming bills, advice (meaning advertisements!) and so on.
Account Linking and Security
The biggest obstacle we had to overcome was providing our account login information to Mint. In our opinion, linking to all of your accounts is the most powerful feature of Mint – but it also comes at the highest cost. We still aren’t entirely comfortable with providing this information. However, there is no other clear alternative for Mint to gain access to your accounts.
The Mint web site details their security measures at https://www.mint.com/how-mint-works/security and I urge you to review that page before providing your information. Any financial site worthy of using will use HTTPS for secure encrypted communications between Mint and their web site. Mint mentions that your login credentials are stored securely in a separate database using multi-layered hardware and software encryption. As an engineer, I would like more details on what technologies they are using so that I can evaluate the strength of their security solution.
Assuming you can get past the need to provide your login information, the process of adding accounts is pretty easy. You can search for your bank, utility, credit card, and investment providers and they will present you a list of matching results. Select the appropriate account and you will be prompted for your username and password. If everything goes well, Mint should show your account information within a couple of minutes. Some accounts require additional steps such as providing a passcode or answering your established security questions.
We have a few occasional issues with the account linking on Mint. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, we are prompted to re-enter our login information for an account that we have already setup. I don’t know if this is an issue with Mint or some change on the account holders end. When this happens, your account information will not be up-to-date until you re-enter your credentials.
We’ve also run into a situation with our mortgage where Mint simply can not login to our bank. To be fair, Personal Capital has the same issue, so it must be due to a change that US Bank has made. For this reason, we have removed our mortgage – and our house – from Mint. Speaking of our house, Mint allows you to enter property assets as well. Mrs. Need2Save never liked that fact that I had added our automobiles (which are paid off), so I removed them when I removed the house.
Transactions and Trends
This is the feature we probably use the most on Mint. We have numerous credit cards that we use for different purposes, depending on the rewards. American Blue Cash for groceries and gas, Chase Sapphire Reserved for travel and dining out, and Citibank Double Cash for most everything else.
The transaction view shows a table of your recent transactions, both inflows (getting money) and outflows (spending money). Each transaction has the date, description, category, and amount. Mint does a pretty good job at identifying the category for a transaction. However, sometimes Mint categorizes incorrectly. You can easily update the category for a transaction and you can create new categories. For example, a transaction at Subway would likely show up as Fast Food. If I typically go to Subway for lunch (which I don’t) and I wanted to track my lunch spending, I could categorize my Subway spending as Lunch.
You can view your transactions across all of your accounts or just for a particular account. This is convenient if you are trying to monitor activity one one particular credit card or your checking account.
If a particular transaction covers multiple categories, you can split the transaction into multiple pieces. We typically don’t take the time to do this, but for certain spending – like a trip to Costco – this is useful if you really want to be precise with your budgeting.
You can also exclude transactions from tracking on Mint. For example, consider the case where you used your personal credit card for a work purchase and you will be reimbursed. We exclude these transactions from Mint as they are not part of our personal financial picture.
The trending feature in Mint can show you how much you have spent on each category over time. The figure below shows our spending from January 2016 to January 2017 as a pie chart. Note that our Home expenses have been high due to our goal of paying off our mortgage (Mortgage Payoff Goal) as well as a few recent home improvement projects (DIY or Hire a Contractor?). You can also see your spending per month for a selected category.
The budgeting feature of Mint is simple to use. We configure our budget for a month duration to capture our expected income for the month and our expected spending.
In one section you enter in your income for the month. We use our net income which is after taxes, benefits, and other deductions.
The other section captures your anticipated spending. You can go as ‘fine grained’ as you like and we drill down on some categories. For example, with food, we budget separately for groceries, fast food, restaurants. lunch, and alcohol. Other categories, such as Pets, are at a higher level and cover all associated spending. It just depends on how detailed you want to track your spending.
After you setup your budget, the Budget View shows how you are doing for the month. Your current spending for each category is displayed along with corresponding budget amount. A bar graph for each category is also displayed, with a green bar indicating that you are under budget, a yellow bard indicates you are nearing your budget, and a red bar indicates you are over budget.
You can also set savings goals. Common goals are provided for things such as paying off credit cards, saving for an emergency, buying a home, etc. You can also setup a custom goal. Based on the goal you select, Mint will ask relevant questions to determine what your goal is and how far along you are. Mint can also predict when you will meet your goal based on your target savings, how much you have currently saved, and what your monthly contribution is.
There are a few other features in Mint that we don’t use often. For example, Mint can provide your credit score for free. Mint also advertises that you can pay your bills through Mint, but we haven’t tried that feature. Mint also provides some basic investment analysis, although we use other web sites for more detailed investment analysis.
Mint has been a convenient tool for us to monitor our accounts and spending. Although the service is free, there is a small amount of advertising. The advertising could be better, as sometimes Mint will recommend credit cards that we already have. If you can get past the need to provide your account login credentials, then you may find Mint useful for tracking your personal finances.
Have you used Mint? If not, why not? Have you used other online services such as Personal Capital? Let us know in the comments section if you are interested in our experiences with Personal Capital and SigFig.