Mint – Refreshingly Useful

I am not the first person to write a review for the financial software service Mint.com.  Nor will I be the last.  However, after using the product for just a week, I felt compelled to reach out to my readers and let them know that if you have as much of a deep seeded hatred for personal financial software tools (*cough* Money…*COUGH* Quicken) as I do, then you have most likely given up on the category entirely.

Myself, I needed another run at a personal financial software tool like I needed another run at dealing with the tech support line at the cable company.  With the impending arrival of my third child, and the economy being in the state in which it is, it is no longer suitable to utter "leave it to me" to my wife when issues of our personal finances come up.  You see, she went to the bank and withdrew a pocket full of "I don’t give a shit" for whenever I would try to insist that my Wharton MBA was sufficient credential for her to avoid such topics.

Any time I have tried to use any of the aforementioned software packages, they would prove too onerous for the family to use.  Further, it was complicated to ensure that we could share a file across machines.  Synchronization became a complete pain in the ass.  Bottom line – I loathed the software.

The number one problem I had with any of these packages was simply getting started.  The need for the opening balance was enough to derail most efforts.  Don’t you dare try to use Quicken or Money without reconciliation of that opening balance.  You want to get your transactions into the system?  Sure, no problem.  Want to have them categorized?  You’re on your own.  Want the data that the bank provides to be enough so that your software would simply figure out how to auto-classify new transaction?   Good luck with that.  Forget to download transactions for a month and you only use your debit card for all transactions?  Your night is ruined.

I am willing to go out on a limb and suggest that there is an entire mini-generation of computer savvy young professionals who may never use personal finance software because of the horrors of the on-boarding and maintenance processes of the old guard packages.  This is where Mint.com shines.  Shine is not strong enough a word.  The sun is melting my eyeballs it’s so bright.

The first thing you need to know is that Mint is read only.  There’s no concern that someone can compromise their site and gain access to your accounts.  Mint is a reporting tool, not a money management package.  It’s this delineation, in my opinion, which ultimately frees them from the design decisions which have destined others to fail.  They chose to do one thing (reporting) and do it very well.

When you create your account, you need nothing other than an email and a password.  There’s no personally identifiable information about you stored at Mint.  When you add your bank accounts, you simply provide the login credentials to your bank online service.  If you are like my wife, that last bit was a non-starter.  Mint understands this, and provide this great starter page about privacy and security.  It got my wife over the hump.

I put in our account credentials for our bank, and a few moments later it said it had validated the information.  Iwas not prepared for what happened next.  My last 90 days of transactions had been downloaded, and mostly (probably 95%) auto classified.  I can count on two hands the number of transactions which were incorrectly classified.  Gas, hair cuts, groceries.  It was all done automatically.  All the data was there, and beautifully presented with charts, graphs and data tables.  I didn’t have to do any heavy lifting.

As a reporting tool, Mint strives to give you the tools you need to track transactions, your cash flow, budgets, etc.  They auto compute moving averages for your spending categories and let you know how you are doing against those averages for the month on a real time basis.  They will also send you emails (or SMS)when you go over your budgets for the month.

If you want to get really nerdy, you can plot your spending against the US at large, against a state, or even a city.  All of that data is presumably pulled from their own data sources.

The usability is top notch, with plenty of clean interface decisions that make for a, date I say it, enjoyable personal finance experience.  I really like being able to drill down into the pie chart of my monthly spend and see the transactions and amounts for the category types.  There are some usability nits and nats, but overall I am really impressed with the product.