Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tip 10: Mint.com

Big post...now we've hit the double-digit tips! Welcome to technology week!

Last Saturday I posted about Saturday routines. Another Saturday routine I did not share before has to do with checking in on all my finances. For this purpose, lately I've consolidated all my online finances into one site by following...

Tip 10: Use Mint.com to create a budget and track your spending.

When I tell my friends about this Web site, I get looks of skepticism. I know a lot of people are afraid of financial Web sites such as Mint.com, fearing breeches of security and whatnot, but if you already use online banking or online bill pay or view your credit card statements online, then this is same idea and same level of security. And this isn't just my opinion...I researched online newspapers to find out what financial experts had to say about this site. I have a healthy fear of identity theft (and healthy fear of a lot of other things, no doubt), but I feel as confident in Mint.com as I can in any web tool out there. Of course, do some research yourself and see what you dig up.

Why do I love Mint.com? It's got everything a super-organized person could want:
  • Cost: It's free.
  • Time: It takes little time to set up, and the payoff is significant. When you sign up, you link to your online accounts, and each time you log in the information from each account is automatically updated within minutes. It's one place to see your checking and savings accounts, credit card transactions, investments, loans, properties and whatever else you might like to add.
  • Put everything in a category: After signing up, a Transactions tab allows you to categorize all your purchases. Mint already knows how to categorize most of the chains out there, so it will, for example, know that your credit card purchase from Gap was for Clothing. But, if you happened to buy that item as a Gift, you can manually change it to that category, too. For local and lesser-known establishments, you have to manually change the Transaction category once, but for every time after that, Mint changes it automatically. So, for example, the first time a charge from my favorite restaurant, Coastal Flats, appeared in Mint, it came up as Uncategorized, but after I labeled it as Restaurant, it has been automatically labeled for me ever since (and there have been quite a few trips to Coastal Flats in the past six months).
  • Budgets: You can create a budget for anything and everything. In my Mint budget, I include fixed costs (mortgage, cable/Internet/cell phone bill, HOA dues, car insurance, gym dues, newspaper subscriptions) as well as more flexible costs (gas and electric bills, clothing, home goods, entertainment, restaurants, gifts, even groceries). After tracking our spending for a few months, I was able to make spending goals for our family that are fairly precise. When you look at the Planning tab on Mint, you see all your budgets. When your budget is colored green, it means you are in the clear; yellow means you are close to meeting the budget; and red means you have exceeded your budget for that month. Budgets can start fresh each month, or you can choose to roll them over into the next month. So, for example, I keep our grocery budget on a month-by-month basis, but I allow the clothing budget to roll over each month (this is good in months where I spend little on clothing, but bad in months like January when technically I won't be allowed to buy clothes again until March thanks to my incredible January spending!).
  • Budget for less-frequent purchases: You can also budget for items you do not buy on a monthly basis. For example, though small, our water bill arrives once every three months. Even though I don't need to put money aside to pay that $80 seasonal bill (we will still be able to eat), I still have it set up in Mint because I like to remember what I need to pay and when. I also create budgets for pet medications which we buy one every few months (always more expensive than it should be), and car maintenance that we have to do a couple times a year.
  • Sign up for e-mail or mobile alerts: When you first sign on to Mint, you get a list of alerts: your credit card bill is due next week, you exceeded your budget for clothing (sigh, again), your checking account is getting low...whatever. If you're the kind of person who might not sign in to Mint regularly, you can also opt to receive such alerts over e-mail or your mobile device. If you opt for it, Mint will also send you an e-mail weekly financial summary that highlights your biggest purchases that week.
  • CHARTS! DIAGRAMS! GRAPHS! You can do all these things with a click of the button. Click on the Trends tab in Mint to see a pie chart showing you how your spending from that month breaks down in every category. You really get a sense of where your money is going. And that's just the start of all the visuals Mint provides....this is both exciting and at times scary.
So, if you want to create a budget, or you don't care about budgets but just want a quick, easy and free way to track your money, give this a try.

Next up...Google calendar.

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