Mint.com Review

Mint.com is by far one of the flashiest, sleekest, most-web-2.0-ish personal finance applications to hit the market in quite some time. Will it revolutionize your personal finances? Read on and see for yourself.

*Update: Mint has made some considerable improvements and as such, merited an updated review.  The original review is still well worth reading, but be sure to scroll down to An Update to the Mint.com Review to see the updated review on the latest and greatest from Mint. *This review was updated in September of 2009.

A Brief History of Mint

Mint was founded by Aaron Patzer in November of 2006. It was launched into the stratosphere of popularity after winning the TechCrunch50 (a conference where startups come and pitch their new ideas/products).

At the time of this writing, Mint boasts 22 employees and has raised over $30 million of venture capital.

How Much Does Mint Cost?

Mint.com is free. But this time I won’t say you get what you pay for, because you actually get some very nice functionality.

A Few Things to Know About Mint

There are a few points you must be made aware of before using Mint.com:

  • It is all about synchronizing with your bank and other financial institutions. I have every reason to believe that Mint.com has crossed evey ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’ as far as security goes (the business risk would be far too great not to do so). However, if you just have a general problem with your bank login information (and all of the security answers, secret questions, etc.) being stored with a third party, then Mint.com will definitely not be for you. To that end, neither will any other financial aggregator.
  • Mint tries its very best (and comes as close as I’ve ever seen) to do absolutely everything for you. While this makes categorization of some transactions a breeze, others are categorized wrong (I’m sure it will improve over time) and the biggest kicker: you don’t get to make your own categories. The reasoning behind that is obvious. They can’t know to categorize Lowe’s as Household Improvement if you’ve named that category House : Lowe’s.
  • Mint’s revenue model, from what I can gather, is solely from one source, and may eventually be from another parallel source as well.
    • The first source is the offers you are shown while using their system. It’s very unobtrusive in the “Ways to Save” section. Mint’s recommendation engine is its bread and butter. For instance, my checking account at Wells Fargo doesn’t earn any interest. Mint recommends that I go with ETrade, where I can earn 3.0% if I keep a $5,000 minimum balance in there. Mint clearly shows me the money I could save if I made the switch. If I do make the switch by going through Mint’s interface, then Mint is paid some type of commission or referral fee by ETrade.
    • Mint’s second source of revenue, and I don’t know if this is being realized yet, is likely the billions of dollars in spending they can track, aggregate, and present to interested third parties (obviously keeping the data anonymous). That purchasing information would be extremely valuable for marketers from all types of industries.

My Setup Experience with Mint

Setup with Mint.com is a breeze. You enter your financial institution (they fairly recently added the ability to track loans and investments), your login and security info, and Mint grabs your account information and pulls in as much data as it can, categorizing transactions on the fly (as many as it can figure out).

I liked how they let me exclude business accounts from my Wells Fargo bank. Some aggregators won’t allow this and it is a major annoyance when business spending is mixed with personal spending for trends and reporting.

There wasn’t much more to do with the actual setup, though working with the history of transactions (as you’ll surely find out for yourself) was painful.

A Walk Through Mint

Overview

The Overview section gives you a snapshot of what’s going on with your finances. Not much to report here really.

Transactions

The Transactions area of Mint.com could definitely use some TLC. While it’s flashy and polished, the functionality of the interface leaves you wanting to pull your hair out. The main reason being that you’re completely mouse-dependent for moving around the interface. You’ll find yourself clicking a lot to get very little done in comparison.

Again, a big weakness here is the inability to categorize your transactions the way you’d like to see them. It’s just something you have to accept if you want auto-categorization from the get-go, along with comparisons to the US average, and other more specific geographic locations.

You can label transactions, but I found that to be of very little use, since labels aren’t tied to the reporting engine in any way I could discover. Why add data if you can’t use the data in some way later except to find the data you originally labeled (and that’s currently how it is)?

Trends

Trends is a fancy word for Reporting, and Mint.com does fancy well. You can see spending trends in a pie chart or bar graph form, as compared to people in your own location. Perhaps this will allow you to pat yourself on the back, or bring you to tears. That all depends.

The reporting engine in Mint.com is graphically very nice. It redraws itself as the data changes, drill-down is simple, and there’s a nice slider to change the timeframe very quickly. How useful is the data for you? That all depends. I would much prefer more of a forward-looking Mint.com than one that simply analyzes what you’ve done in the past without any consequence.

Investments

The investments area is pretty standard, though again, Mint has done a good job of making the standard pretty. There wasn’t anything new or interesting to report here, as the functionality (and then some) can be had by any number of websites elsewhere (Yahoo! Finance, your own brokerage, MSN Money, etc.)

Ways to Save

The Mint.com recommendation engine, as mentioned above, is where Mint’s money is made (no pun intended). They’ll recommend ways to save/earn more money by accepting various offers made by other financial institutions. The way they present it is fairly cool.

They do basically a side-by-side comparison of what you currently have to what you could have. What do I like about this? You could save some money. What do I not like about it? Who wants to be changing their checking account every four months? Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how many of these offers you actually accept.

When Mint.com says they show the average person over $1,500 in savings that’s all well and good, but I’d be more curious to know how many people that are shown those savings actually accept the offers. You have to have both. The first measure shows how much you’re making available, but the second measure shows how attractive those offers are.

Mint’s Budgeting Section

I stress the Budgeting aspect of personal finance software a lot on this site, because I believe (as do a whole slew of gurus) that budgeting is what truly enables you to live within your means.

While Mint.com lets you set spending targets based on categories, I would not put them in the same area of budgeting when compared to products such as YNAB, Mvelopes, or even simpler products such as Snowmint’s Budget. Mint basically lets you set a line in the sand, where these other applications mentioned let you truly practice the envelope method of budgeting.

I’m biased toward that method because it is so timeless. It’s been around for years and it works.

The Mint Community

The Mint.com Community, at the time of this writing, has approximately 8,000 members. The largest forums (in terms of thread count) are:

  • Adding accounts
  • Report a possible bug
  • Suggestion forum and
  • Mint Announcements (this is three times smaller than the next largest forum)

From reading through the forum for quite some time, especially in the support-heavy sections (which are the top two forums listed above), I was dismayed to see many, many threads without a response to them at all. It seems most users have issues with getting their bank accounts to sync, they post to the forums, and don’t get a response.

My guess is that Mint.com is having some growth pains here. They’re leveraging their forums as their only support option and a forum isn’t necessarily built to that end. As a result, where users normally provide support for software (at least with a strong, loyal userbase), Mint’s users can’t really help with a post like, “Why isn’t my Nissan Auto Loan balance accurate?”

Mint Support (Bugs, Responsiveness, etc.)

Mint’s support, from what I can gather reading the forums, has been less than stellar, where promises are made by not kept. For instance, at the time of this writing, a bug had been reported about the Budget numbers not adding correctly:

The original problem was posted on January 2, 2008. A Mint employee responded on January 11, 2008 reporting that it would be fixed over the weekend. On June 26, 2008 another user posted in the same thread and the problem remained.

Mint.com leans heavily on the community forums for input, but most community forum members don’t actively participate. They use the forums as a support base where they post a problem and hope to hear an answer. This type of support just doesn’t work, because the members aren’t contributing enough back to the community to really provide the support that new users need.

Mint’s Pros

The application is extremely easy to use, does auto-categorization fairly well, and presents data very nicely. The recommendation engine, if you’re going to be flighty with your bank loyalty (not saying you shouldn’t be, just pointing out the difficulties that come with switching banks) can also be very useful.

Mint’s Cons

The actual “money management” with Mint is minimal. If you’re looking to really dig in and plan how to spend your money, Mint is not for you. Mint is a rear-view mirror personal finance application, that focuses you on post-mortem analysis, not forward-thinking planning.

Mint’s support is lackluster at best. They’re trying to have the forums give their support, but most members are extremely inactive.

Mint Review Overall Conclusion

Mint.com is one of the better financial aggregators out there. It’s great for capturing your net worth in one place and monitoring your account balances. It’s free, so why not use it? Will it revolutionize your personal finances, likely not. Mainly because it promotes and wants its users to be hands off. Being hands off with your finances lessens the impact you can have on them. I personally prefer a more hands-on, forward-looking approach.

An Update to the Mint.com Review

Late last week I recevied an email from Mint.com (as a user) that highlighted a number of big improvements and changes to the popular personal finance software.  I quickly put it on my to-do list to check it out and update the Mint.com review as soon as possible.  A little later that day I got an email from the Lead Designer of Mint, letting me know that some major improvements had been made and that an updated review would be appreciated.  I quickly became very interested in digging into the ‘new’ Mint.com to see what all the talk was about.

It didn’t dissapoint.  There are a number of good improvements, a couple of which drastically improves the overall appeal of the system.

New Mint.com Features

In an article covering the main new features of Mint, they briefly introduce the improved features covering the following areas:

  • A new way to save: IRA Rollovers
  • Better filters
  • New and better graphs (for reporting)
  • An overhaul on the budgeting features

They also mention that they’ve added (and continue to add) more financial institutions to their database.

I’ll go over each one in detail, but first, I’d like to touch on two HUGE improvements that I think were added previous to this latest release that I was very glad to see: inline transaction editing and adding your own categories.

Editing Transactions

One of my main complaints about Mint was that the process of editing transactions was simply too tedious.  You were constantly having to use your mouse to edit any area of the transaction (this might not sound like much, but when you’re editing dozens of transactions at once, it becomes quite annoying).  Not so with the latest Mint release.  Mint has fixed this issue and now allows you to edit transactions using only keyboard commands.

mint-edit-transactions

So you can now tab or arrow through transactions, then hit Enter to start edit mode.  You’ll use tabarrows, and Enter to edit the transactions.  All done without the need of your mouse.  This will drastically decrease the time you spend editing transactions.  This improvement alone makes Mint much more appealing.

Adding Your Own Categories

Another area that Mint.com seriously lacked in was the ability to add and edit your own categories.  Everyone’s budget is different and as such, should be customizable to fit your needs.  Previously you had use the generic categories that Mint provided you.  This has (thankfully) now been changed.

You can add a category simply by clicking Add/Edit Categories… at the bottom of the category list that appears when you click on the category of transaction:

mint-add-categories

After that, it’s quite simple.

I believe this a feature that is essential to any effective money management tool and am pleased that Mint.com has added it as a feature.

New Way to Save: IRA Rollovers

Mint has always offered many “ways to save.”  These are essentially recommendations for you that could lead to either saving money or earning more money (in interest).  They’ve added a new recommendation tool that deals with Rolling over your 401(k) into an IRA.

In general, IRA’s are great retirement tools.  Mint offers a comparison chart that shows how much the difference may be if you choose to roll over your 401(k):

mint-ira-rollover

Of course, the actual difference depends on a number of variables, one of which is what your current 401(k) fees are.  They clearly state their assumptions, which look to be good numbers to me (see the screenshots below).

While this isn’t anything revolutionary, it’s nice to see that they are offering more recommendations for those who may be looking for them.

Better Filters

Mint.com has improved the way in which you view your data.  By entering an account type or by adding tags, you can more easily filter the financial data in Trends and Budgets.

New & Better Graphs

Mint.com has also improved the Trends section quite a bit.  Here’s a screenshot of the new look:

mint-trends1

As you can see, it’s divided into three sections: 1. Set your timeframe, 2. Choose a graph, and 3. Get the report.

Set your Timeframe:  You can choose the timeframe of data you want to see by clicking and dragging accross the timeline to choose multiple months.  Or you can click only one month.  You can also choose This Month, Last Month, This Year, or All Time by clicking the links at the top right.

Choose a Graph:  There are 6 main graphs for you to choose from (Spending, Income, Net Income, Assets, Debts, and Net Worth).  Each graph has different options for the graph (for example, you can view your  Income filtered by: Overtime, By Category, By Merchant, or By Tag).  All in all there are 16 ‘different’ graphs that you use to manage your money.

This is a big improvement on the older graphs that Mint featured previously.

Get the Report:  Displays your data in a numerical format.  What’s more is you can export the report to CSV, allowing you to use a spreadsheet program to analyze your financial data to your hearts content.

Two Helpful Graphs: Net Worth & Net Income

Mint.com offers two new(er) graphs called Net Worth and Net Income.  Not surprisingly, they show a graphical representation of how your net worth and net income has changed over time.

mint-trends10

mint-trends9

According to the accounts that I’ve put into Mint (I need to update a few) my net worth has been increasing.  If I were to have debt, you would also see red bars that represent the changing amount of my debt.

I’m personally a fan of these new graphs.  Hopefully it will give users a clearer view of how their debt and assets effect their net worth and how their spending effects their net income.  It’s also helpful to see the relationship between net income and net worth in the two graphs (can you see that each month my net income was below zero, my net worth decreased?).

Hopefully this will help inspire users to better manage their money.

Other Nice Graph Features

I especially liked that you can filter the data that shows in the graph by simply typing in a category or merchant in the search box above the graph

Another nice feature is that you can compare your data to different time frames (e.g. compare to last year).  You can also compare to different locations, if that interests you.

Below you’ll find screenshots of some of the available graphs and the features they contain:

Mint’s New Budget

Being that Mint.com’s previous budgeting functionality left much to be desired, this is the area that I was really excited to check out.  In a nutshell, Mint tell’s us the improvements they’ve made to the Planning (budget) area:

mint-budget-1

Most of these features are basic features that you would expect from any budgeting software, but that were previously lacking in Mint.com.  They definitely help Mint’s Budget to be more effective.

The one feature that is a big improvement to Mint.com’s budgeting functionality is the ability to “Rollover” your monthly budgets.  This has a bit of an ‘envelope’ feel to it and I like it.  Rolling over your monthly budget means that if you spend more in one category than you budgeted for, the overspent amount “rolls over” to the next month.  I imagine the same would be true if you underspent.

This is important because if you overspend in one category one month, it takes away from the amount you have to spend in that category the next month.  This reinforces spending habits and holds you more accountable to your budget.  This is good.

Here’s a screenshot of the new budget:

mint-budget-2

Mint does a good job of making it very simple to set up your budgets.

What I Like About Mint’s New Budget

It is definitely much better than it previously was.  The addition of the rollover feature was a large and very beneficial improvement.  If people use it correctly it will help them manage their spending better because they can see that if they overspend this month, they’ll have less to spend next month.

I like that they show you an “Everything Else” budget at the bottom of the budget.  This helps users to see the expenses that they haven’t created a budget for yet.  Interestingly enough, this is also what I don’t like about Mint’s new budget (see below).

The other features (budgeting income, planning for regular and irregular expenses, seeing previous budgets more easily) are good improvements to Mint’s previous budget that were much needed.  They don’t however, offer much more than other personal finance software applications.

What I Don’t Like About Mint’s New Budget

While they have made many improvements that will certainly help people better manage their finances, Mint’s new budget still doesn’t encourage a zero-based budget much at all (the “Everything Else” section just isn’t enough).  Some of the primary purposes of a budget is to find where money is falling through the cracks, set a plan for all expenses and savings, hold yourself responsible for overspending, and make and achieve savings goals.

Mint is getting better, much better.  But in terms of truly effective money management, the budget still falls short of a true envelope based budgeting that encourages you to budget for every dollar you make.  Without such, there’s still room for money to slip away without being noticed.

As a side note, I also wish that the budget graph would somehow illustrate how much you’ve overspent.  Currently it appears the same (a full red bar) whether you’ve overspent by $1 or $1,000.

Conclusion

I’m quite impressed by Mint.com’s new features and improvements.  They’ve made a good personal finance software application even better.  Being able to add custom categories and edit transactions quickly using the keyboard were two huge improvements that greatly increased the effectiveness of the software.  The new graphs are great, as well as the different ways to analyze your data through those graphs.

Mint has made some great improvements to their budget as well (what was essentially an overhaul).  I especially like that they now allow you to rollover monthly budgets.  While it’s much better than it previously was, there are still other options on the market that offer a more comprehensive and effective solution for budgeting.  I speak mostly of the applications that use an envelope-based budget or a zero-based budget.

For those, however, that are looking for a simple, close to automated, system to track their spending and perform some basic budgeting, you should definitely check out Mint.com.

In summary, nice work Mint.  You’ve made some large leaps of improvements and I’m liking where you’re going with it.

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