Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review: Mint.com, free online personal finance service

If you haven’t heard of it yet, Mint.com is a free, online personal finance service (and according to their "About" page, “#1 in America”) that organizes all your bank accounts, loans, and investments—including retirement plans, brokerage accounts, vehicles, and real estate—in a place where you can view them all together. You can’t actually conduct transactions through Mint, but it allows you to use one login to view all the transactions, balances, etc. of all your accounts and to categorize your transactions for budgeting purposes. It can make organizing your tax deductions a hell of a lot easier, too, since you can tag your transactions as tax-related so that when you’re ready to file, you can easily find and list them all. And did I mention it’s totally free (and without any annoying ads or pop-ups)? I’ve been using it since November, and for the most part, I’m a fan.

The most valuable service Mint offers is its highly visual budgeting features. It’s quick and easy to set up your own categories and specify spending limits for each category. Once you’ve done that (providing you do a good job of categorizing your transactions), Mint creates a bar graph of your spending for each month and even a date marker so you can see how much of your budget you’ve spent proportional to the time length of the budget. I find this very helpful in preventing the easy trap of overspending early in the month that leaves you without enough budget to get through the rest of the month. If you want, you can also have Mint send you alerts when, for example, you’ve gone over budget, your credit card bill is due, or one of your accounts has a low balance.

There’s also a Flash-powered pie chart you can view under the “Trends” tab that shows how much you’ve spent in each category (even in ones you didn’t list in your budget) relative to the total amount you’ve spent. This is a helpful feature, but it can be misleading because it doesn’t account for returns, refunds, or other income that specifically offsets your spending in a certain area. I’ll talk more about this towards the end of the article.

How can it be free?
Mint makes its money from referrals to banks, investments brokers, and credit card companies through the “Your Ways to Save” bar, which is unobtrusively placed at the bottom of the overview screen. If you’re interested, click on it and see what kind of deals Mint is advocating; they only suggest accounts that are “better” than your current accounts of that type in interest rate, cash rewards, etc. Of course, if you’ve already done your homework and gotten accounts with the best deals for you1, Mint’s sponsored suggestions might not offer much improvement. Personally, I check the suggestions every once in a while, just in case they’ve found something I haven’t, but for the most part I ignore them.

Room for Improvement
I only have a few complaints about Mint’s services. First and most importantly, there are a few banks/investment companies they don’t connect with. They’re constantly adding connectivity, so hopefully this won’t be a problem for much longer, but at the moment it’s quite frustrating. I have my savings account with Dollar Savings Direct, and while Mint has recently added a link and form with which to add accounts from that bank, the link doesn’t work. (The error seems to have something to do with the way the Dollar Savings login page works, which is fairly complicated.) Not being able to add one of your accounts to Mint really screws up its functionality because you’re missing a big part of the equation.

There are two other malfunctions on Mint that are troubling as well. One is that, in my experience at least, sometimes the category labels you attach to individual transactions revert to default. I don’t know why this happens, and it doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s definitely aggravating. The second is that there seems to be a fairly sizable delay in the display of transactions; transactions will show up on the online banking pages of my account institutions as much as two days before they show up on my Mint page.

This last complaint is more of a suggestion for added functionality than a gripe about existing malfunctions. As I mentioned earlier, several factors can throw off the pie chart, including returns and refunds. This problem could be solved easily by offering an option to factor in categorized “income” (or have it done automatically). It would also be nice to have an option to view a pie chart of average monthly spending by category and to be able to view or exclude selected categories from the mix.

[1] See the specific suggestions and how-to’s for each type of account on TiredofBeingPoor.net
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