Do you ever get frustrated by the sheer volume of financial accounts that you need to keep track of?
It can be maddening to monitor your bank accounts, investment accounts, credit card bills and loans. Having all of these accounts on separate websites makes it challenging to get a full picture of your financial situation.
There are solutions to this problem. There are a number of budgeting tools and apps that can help you manage your finances.
Mint.com is one service that I use to help monitor my accounts in a single view.
Simply by entering my email address and a password, I can see the balances on all my accounts, track all of my non-cash financial transactions, monitor my cash flow, and set budgets. I can also get an analysis of my retirement accounts. And all of this is free with Mint.
I’ll explain some of the technology that allows all of this to happen later, but the key feature of Mint is that it “pulls in” the information from all of your financial accounts so you can see all of your accounts on a single dashboard.
The accounts that I monitor on Mint include:
- My primary checking and savings accounts
- Separate online savings account
- My taxable brokerage account
- Roth and traditional IRAs for myself and my wife
- My wife’s 401(k) account
- ESA Coverdell education investing account
- My mortgage loan
- My credit cards
- Our cars (even though we have no auto loans tied to them, we use Mint to track their value)
Using Mint doesn’t mean you’ll never have to log in to separate accounts again. But it will likely save you time, and you get the benefit of seeing your entire financial life in one view.
There aren’t many downsides to using Mint, though it’s understandable why some people would shy away due to concerns over privacy and security. If I had one criticism, it would be that while Mint is useful as a tool, there is not much information provided on how it can be used best.
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Table of Contents
The Background on Mint
Mint was founded in 2006 in Silicon Valley by entrepreneur Aaron
Aside from some integrations with Intuit’s software (such as Quicken and TurboTax), the concept behind Mint has not changed much over the years. At its core, Mint remains an account aggregator designed to help people track their money, set budgets, and get smarter with their personal finances.
Mint does not report official figures on numbers of users, but various published reports peg that number as between 15 and 20 million.
Setting Up and Signing On
All you really need to get started with Mint is an email address, a password and a phone number.
To link your outside accounts, you go through a process of entering the login information and passwords for those accounts. This can be a bit tedious, but it’s not required every time you hop onto Mint.
Once all of your accounts are entered, they will sync up with the Mint website and each time you log on to Mint, you’ll see the accounts listed on a dashboard. In most cases, in takes several minutes for accounts to sync, so don’t be alarmed if the balances seem old at first
When you log into Mint, you’ll see all of your accounts and their balances on the left side. Toward the center of the page, you’ll see a listing of any bills due, and the status of any budgets you set up. (I’ll explain the budgeting capabilities a little later.)
At the top of the Mint page are menus directing you to your transactions, bills, investments, and some written articles on personal finance.
Tracking and Budgeting
I find the most powerful feature of Mint is the ability to see virtually every financial transaction you make. If you make most of your purchases using credit cards and debit cards, you can see all of your spending in a single view. (Cash purchases obviously can’t be tracked automatically, but you can enter them manually.)
Every listed transaction is categorized and labeled based on how items are categorized by the card companies. The log is customizable based on what you want to see. From my experience, Mint has about a 90% accuracy rate with identifying transactions; maybe one in 10 transactions is mislabeled.
I was amused recently when my purchase of running shoes was labeled as “pet supplies.” When something like that happens, you can go in and manually set the correct category for the purchase.
The ability to track all of your transactions helps you get an understanding of your cash flow. It lets you see the sources of your income and — most importantly — what you are spending money on.
Thus, you can set budgets for categories of spending. In fact, you can set up an unlimited number of budgets, and the website will let you know whether you are on track or overspending each month.
It helps to have done a little work outside of Mint to create a budget before you come up with the Mint budget categories. Also take a look at recommended budget percentages by categories of spending when you’re thinking about how you want to set up your category budgets.
My wife and I used the Mint budget feature when we analyzed our spending and realized we were spending a significant amount of money eating out
Mint’s tools present your budgets in the form of helpful charts that help you visualize your spending patterns. You can set up goals, such as saving for a car or schooling, and Mint will keep you apprised of your progress.
Keeping Accounts Synced
Mint’s ability to give you a full view of your money can only work if your outside accounts are synced properly. From my experience, Mint does a very good, but not perfect job in this area.
I’ll wager to say that nearly half the time I log in, there is at least one account that won’t sync, requiring me to re-enter the login information for that account. If I go several weeks or more without logging in to Mint, there are often multiple accounts that won’t sync properly.
Moreover, any time you change a password for an outside account, that account will not sync until you update the login information on Mint. It’s also possible that some accounts won’t sync at all, especially if those accounts require two-factor authentication.
Mint’s syncing has improved over time, however. It recently began using the OAuth open standard for some bank accounts, including those for Bank of America, Chase and Capital One. This system allows Mint to receive a token from the bank that allows access even if you change an account password.
What else does Mint offer? Here are some other helpful features:
- Free credit score from Transunion. This includes some detail on the items impacting your credit, such as derogatory marks on your credit report, credit inquiries, and length of credit history. This can help if you’re trying to clean up bad credit, or just want to keep a healthy credit score
- Trend monitoring. Mint automatically breaks your spending down into categories and displays it on a pie chart. You can see this breakdown for any time frame over the last year, the entire previous year, or the entire time you’ve used Mint. You can filter these trends by account and create comparison charts.
- The ability to create “hidden” accounts. This is useful when you may have accounts that you want to view and track, but don’t want it included in your overall financial picture. This feature might be used for expenses that you expect to be reimbursed for, for example.
- Alerts and emails. Mint can give a summary of your transactions via email. You can be alerted via email or text when a bill is due, when your bank account balance drops below a certain level, if you exceed a budget, and if your credit score changes.
How Mint Makes Money
You may ask how Mint can offer all of these services without charging. The company brings in revenue from paid advertisements on its website, including credit cards, investment companies, insurance companies and lenders.
None of these ads are too intrusive, but on the flipside they can often look like native content. For example, a menu called “ways to save” takes you to a page of credit cards that Mint suggests you may be interested in. These credit cards are “partners” of Mint and the companies direct revenue to Mint if you purchase a product.
If you are using Mint, it’s natural to be at least slightly worried about security. After all, Mint makes it possible for anyone to access information about all of your financial accounts. Strong security is a must-have for any cloud-based operation such as Mint.
Mint uses 256-bit encryption for your login information, and the data exchanged with Mint is encrypted with 128-bit encryption. This makes it essentially impenetrable from a brute force attack. Mint also uses Verisign for security scanning, and partners with BugCrowd on security audits.
Mint uses a 4-number PIN for access to apps on Android and iOS smartphones, as well as the option for Touch ID or Face ID. Two-factor authentication is also available.
Account security also relies on users creating strong passwords and keeping them secure. Change your password often, too.
So Mint tries hard to keep your data secure, but what data is it collecting from you and how is the company using it
Mint acknowledges using cookies and other tracking technologies. It says it uses people’s information to conduct research, but “only in a way that would not allow you or any other person to be identified.”
If you choose to try and implement a “do not track” feature from your browser, Mint will ignore that request. Why? According to the company, Mint is “not currently configured to respond to browsers’ ‘Do Not Track’ signals because at this time no formal ‘Do Not Track’ standard has been adopted.”
Limitations of Mint
We’ve talked a lot about what Mint can do, but it’s not an all-encompassing solution to all your financial needs.
The main shortcoming of Mint is that while it’s great as an account aggregator, it cannot help you actually manage each individual account. You can’t deposit or withdraw money using Mint. You can’t transfer money between accounts. It’s also impossible to pay bills on Mint, though the company did offer a bill pay service up until last year.
There are other competing services that are alternatives to Mint. Some offer more in the way of financial advice. Personal Capital is one service that offers similar account aggregation capabilities, but with more helpful information for investors.
Most of all, it’s important to remember that Mint can help you track your spending and set budgets, but only you can control your income and what you buy.
The Final Skinny
If you haven’t gathered, I am a big fan of the Mint service. I think the account aggregation concept is one of the smartest introductions ever in the personal finance space.
There aren’t many downsides to using Mint, though it’s understandable why some people would shy away due to concerns over privacy and security.
If I had one criticism, it would be that while Mint is useful as a tool, there is not much information provided on how it can be used best.
For example, what are the steps to start saving? Mint can help me set up a budget to save for college. But how much should I save each month? How much does college even cost, anyway?
Mint is lacking in useful information and instead seems content to let people use their service but find advice and answers elsewhere.
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