★ Rockstar Review: Mint (The Godfather of Budgeting Apps)
This is part of our Rockstar Reviews series.
Be sure to check out all previous products we’ve reviewed!
[We welcome back today, Mrs. BITA, who gives a deep dive into the OG of all
budgeting apps – Mint.com. Hope it helps!]
A Solid App for Automatically Tracking
We live in the Golden Age of financial apps. These days, you can barely walk down the street without bumping into a shiny new financial app with a clever name and a snazzy user interface, many of which have already been featured here.
Today, however, we are going to ignore all these up-and-comers and turn our attention to an oldie but a goodie: Mint. Mint was founded in 2006, and acquired by Intuit a few years later. Now over a decade old, Mint has about 20 million users. (By comparison, its younger contender, Personal Capital, has 1.3 million users.)
The Quick Deal With Mint
Mint is primarily an automated expense tracking tool. It can handle some basic budgeting, and help keep track of your net worth. It claims to do a lot more than that, but most of its more advanced features are nothing more than wishful thinking. The basic stuff though – that’s where it shines.
I love my spreadsheets and I spend many (too many?) happy hours tinkering with them. But while spreadsheets are fun for tracking investments, they are an absolute pain to track expenses with. I would rather watch Warren Buffett floss for hours than have to manually enter every expense of mine into a spreadsheet on a daily basis.
For that, enter Mint.
Mint allows you to:
- Link your accounts and automatically track every transaction
- Automatically categorize your transactions and allow you to search through them
- View pretty graphs to show you trends in your spending and income
- Create a budget and track your spending based on this budget
- Setup alerts to detect anomalies in your financial patterns
- Track your bills and your credit score
- Track your net worth
Mint is available both as a web application and a mobile app (both iPhone and Android). I primarily use the iPhone app, and then use the web application only for those things that the app can’t handle. So, the primary focus of this review is going to be on the app. And for what it’s worth, my husband uses the Android version and it seems to mirror the iPhone version pretty close.
Track Your Spending With Mint
When you login to the Mint app on the iPhone, here is what you will see:
I have no idea why they don’t default to starting you on the Overview page of the main navigation menu, instead of on Updates. That seems like an odd design choice, but since updates is what you will see when you first login, we’ll start our review with that section.
The Updates page shows you all the latest transactions (both pending and committed) across all your linked accounts.
For Mint to do its job, you have to give it your credentials and link it to your various accounts. These can be banks, credit card companies or brokerage houses. There is no way around this. You have to trust them with your data. We’ll talk more about Mint security later in this review.
When you login, it will connect to all your linked accounts and attempt to get the latest data. This includes the latest transactions and the account balances.
These updates are one of the most annoying things about using Mint. Sometimes, the updates happen quickly and painlessly. Other times, it can take seemingly forever for the update to complete. You will grow old waiting for the numbers on the screen to refresh. Every now and again, it will simply stop and swear that it cannot connect to one or more accounts, despite the fact that you have not changed your password in months (years?). Sometimes, it recovers by itself. Other times, you will need to reenter your credentials and relink the account in question.
Whether or not Mint will be able to successfully make all its connections appears to be a combination of the phase of the moon and when you sacrificed your last vestal virgin.
Tapping on the “+” on the top right-hand corner of this screen allows you to manually add a transaction. You’re going to need to do this when you spend cash.
The Updates page shows you only a few recent transactions. You can tap on the All Transactions button to see a longer list of transactions, and to search for a specific transaction.
Sometimes you will end up disagreeing with Mint’s classification of a particular expense. If/When this occurs, you can tap on the transaction to change it to a category of your choice.
When you make edits like changing the category of an expense, Mint attempts to learn from its mistake and the next time may categorize the expense correctly. If it repeatedly mis-categorizes something you can set up a “rule” using the web application to teach Mint to always categorize something a particular way.
It is worth noting that you can create your own categories instead of only using the ones built into Mint. You can’t add a new category via the phone app, though; to do this, you will need to login to the web application.
The Tags and Notes fields are also useful, but you have to login to the web application to use those too. From there, you can tag an expense (e.g. if it’s a business expense) or add a note. One thing to remember is that while tags are a searchable field, notes are not.
Mint also allows you to Split a transaction. Let’s say you shop at a store like Amazon or Target. These stores sell a variety of things and you might purchase items that span various categories in a single transaction (e.g. groceries and home supplies). Once the transaction posts to Mint, you can split it into as many categories as you like.
Get an Overview of Your Finances With Mint
Now, let’s use the main navigation menu to look at the Overview screen.
Check Your Alerts
This is where Mint shows you any unusual patterns it has noticed. Sometimes these are useful. Other times, the alerts are a result of sloppy programming. For example, on the 2nd of March, Mint helpfully announced that I had spent double of what I normally spend on my mortgage in the last 30 days. Panicked, I leapt to investigate. It turns out that Mint had forgotten one key fact: that February has only 28 days.
You can configure the kinds of alerts you want Mint to show you (and send to you via email) by visiting the Settings section of the web application.
View Account Balances
- Cash shows you the total of all your bank accounts and CDs.
- Credit debt is the total owed on all your credit cards.
- Investments is the total of your taxable brokerage accounts, 401ks, tIRAs, Roth IRAs, HSAs, etc.
The Overview screen does NOT show you your net worth. You have to dig deeper to get that, and I find that a bit annoying.
What do you see if you click on Accounts? That takes you to a screen with your net worth (at the top) and a list of all accounts and their balances (below).
Add Accounts to Mint
Notice that “+” in the top right-hand corner of the Accounts screen? Clicking on that allows you to link more accounts to Mint.
Stay on Top of Your Bills
This is a new feature that Mint introduced just a few months ago. It automatically tracks when your credit card bills are due. It also identifies other bills, like your cell phone, internet etc. and asks if you would like Mint to track those for you as well. You can choose to pay these bills using the Mint app. I don’t use this feature because all my bills are already set to auto pay and either link to a credit card or to my bank account.
Now, if you scroll further down on the Overview screen of the Mint app, this is what you will see:
This Month’s Budget
This is a graphical representation of how you are doing with respect to your monthly budget. The green shaded region shows how much of your budget you have spent, and the line shows where you are in the month.
Your Credit Score
You can use Mint to monitor your credit score. Note that this is not your FICO credit score, it is based on a proprietary credit model developed by Equifax. It is a good indication of your credit, but will probably not exactly match your actual FICO score. In addition to the score, they will also show you the key components of it, like your payment history, number of hard inquiries, length of credit, etc.
Personally, I use Credit Karma to track my credit, so I don’t use this feature in Mint.
Your Cash Flow
This is a summary of how much you have earned this month and how much you have spent. If, like me, your paychecks are spread over the month but a lot of your expenses are front loaded, you will generally see a negative cash flow early in the month. As long you are positive by the end of the month, you have nothing to worry about.
This is the last section under Overview. Mint shows you a pie chart that breaks down your spending for the month by category. We will revisit this section later in the review.
Budget With Mint
Mint allows you to create a monthly budget and will keep track of your spending with respect to your budget categories. The picture below shows some of my budget categories.
Mint allows you to rollover the unused portions of your budget from one month to the next. This is a useful way to create a monthly budget for expenses that occur only once every few months (e.g. auto registration fees). The mobile app only allows you to change the amount that you have budgeted for a particular category. If you want to make more advanced budget changes, you will need to use the web application.
Spending and Trends
Below the Spending pie chart in the Overview section, tap on All Trends to see some more pretty graphs.
While these are useful for a quick glance at your spending and income, to unleash the true power of Trends, you will need to log into the web application.
Through the web application, you’ll see that Mint allows you to slice and dice your finances (aka create all kinds of different graphs) in many interesting ways.
Here, for example, I asked Mint to show me my Income Over Time for the previous 6 months. If you hover over a section on the graph, you can then click on it and dive deeper to improve your understanding of your finances.
Monitor Your Investments
The web application has a section called Investments. My advice? Never click on that tab.
Oh come now, you say. How bad can it be?
Worse than you can imagine. According to Mint, my investments in VTSAX are down 25.8% over the last three months. Year-to-date, VTSAX is actually up 5.71% and Personal Capital assures me that Mint must be smoking the good stuff. Mint also claims that my performance is trailing the S&P500 by 11%. If that were the case, I would be hunkered down poring over my dismal portfolio, not spending my time writing reviews for you fine folks.
For investments, stick to Personal Capital. Mint will drive you crazy.
Mint Tips and Tricks
We have now reviewed most of Mint’s repertoire of services, for better or for worse. As a long-time Mint user, I thought it might be useful to include a small list of Mint cheat codes to help improve your Mint experience:
- The Transfer Mint category is special. Anything categorized under Transfer does not count as spending in your budgets. So if you’re moving money from one account to another, tag it as a transfer.
- There is a Hide from Budgets & Trends category which excludes a specific transaction from inclusion both in budgets and in trends. This is useful for spending that shouldn’t really count towards a budget. For example: You go out to dinner with ten friends, and put the entire bill on your credit card while everyone else reimburses you. The entire huge ten-person bill shouldn’t count toward your personal food or restaurant budget. You can split the transaction into what you spent and what everyone else spent, and then exclude the “everyone else” part.
- If your mortgage company is not one that is supported by Mint (mine is not), you can use the web application to manually create a mortgage entry under the Property section. You will have to update it by hand. I update mine every few months.
- If you give Mint the address of your home, it will use Zillow to estimate the price of your home (or you can enter a price by hand). Similarly, if you give it information about your car, it will use Kelley Blue Book (KBB) to estimate the price of your car.
Security and Mint
Mint gives you the convenience of tracking all your accounts in a single place, but this convenience comes at the cost of trusting them with the passwords to all your accounts. You have to trust that they do a good job of securing your passwords. If you can’t muster up this trust, Mint is not for you.
I have written a two-part article describing how a financial app such as Personal Capital might secure the passwords entrusted to it. Everything in that article applies to Mint as well.
In addition, here is a pointer to Quora, where in 2010 Mint’s VP of Engineering answered a question about Mint’s security.
I feel comfortable trusting Mint’s security. They have a proven track record of being secure. Remember that they are ten years old and they’ve never been hacked, and I bet that isn’t because nobody is trying.
Understand Your Numbers With Mint!
Software years are like dog years, and Mint is definitely elderly. The user interfaces feel a bit dated. Some newer features (like Investments) just plain suck. But Mint is still the best there is out there at the basics of expense tracking.
Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. – Kofi Annan
To succeed at personal finance, you must understand your numbers. In order to understand your numbers, you first have to track them. Mint makes this easy to do, and I recommend adding it to your arsenal today.
Try it for free here: Mint.com
Other budgeting/expense tracking tools you may find helpful that we’ve covered:
- Personal Capital – Like Mint on steroids, but more focused on *investments*.
- YNAB (You Need A Budget) – Killer budgeting software.
- Tiller – A way to automatically track your expenses using Google Doc spreadsheets.
- Clarity Money – A newer app on the scene that helps with budgeting as well as cutting down bills.
About the author: Mrs. BITA immigrated to the U.S. at the ripe old age of 30 and is on track to retire early at the age of 42. She is the founder (grand poobah, dictator, janitor, and sole author) of www.bayalisistheanswer.com, where she blogs about financial independence, retiring early and finding a purpose.
Rockstar Reviews usually include affiliate links to the services being featured. This one does not because everyone already talks about them for free (hah), but if that ever changes we’ll gladly swap in our referral links :) As always, we only promote the tools we find to be “Rockstar” worthy here.