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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Review: Mint.com

I was one of Mint.com's private beta users, so I'll give it a quick review now that the press embargo is over.

The traditional approach to personal finance is epitomized by Quicken or Microsoft Money: basically, a double-entry book-keeping spreadsheet made to look like a checkbook register to help you reconcile, categorize, and balance your accounts.

The main reason why most people don't use financial software (despite all the bundling deals that Intuit and Microsoft do) is because it's difficult, tedious, and real work. If you enter the data manually, it takes a while, and if you don't enter it manually, it won't categorize your expenses properly, and you don't actually get accurate reporting. There are all these problems where buying and selling stock don't actually track properly, and the whole thing is a morass. I say this as a long time user of Quicken (I've been using Quicken for 15 years --- I bounced a check once and I never did so again because of Quicken).

Mint.com takes the fresh graduate's intuitive approach to money: I can't be bothered to track every cent --- as long as my bank account goes up, I'm doing something right, and if it can categorize 90% of my expenditures correctly, that's more than good enough.

The premise of the site is that you'll register for on-line access to all your credit cards and banks. You will then provide your user name and password to them. That should sound really dangerous to you, but Mint's security advisory is reassuring. They then get all your up to date statements and poll your financial institutions and download your transactions continuously. New transactions are categorized by an AI-like algorithm (which can be easily improved once they get enough widespread adoption that they can apply statistical analysis), and you set thresholds for alerts to be sent to you (for instance, e-mail can be sent if expenditure exceeds a certain amount, or if large transactions occur, etc).

There are a number of weaknesses. First, they don't do brokerages. So your transfers to your brokerage will show up as "Business Purchase." Oops. In my case that thoroughly skews my reports. Secondly, without double-entry book-keeping, you will not detect bank errors! There's no forced monthly reconciliation, and no way for you to notice, "Hey wait a minute, I didn't shop there", unless you scrutinize each item yourself. For me, this is why I use Quicken. I've caught bank errors, identity theft, bad merchants, and many other problems because the forced reconciliation feature forces me to really look at each statement. By relying on the "as long as my bank account goes up" method, you won't catch any of these.

There are a number of strengths I don't find in Quicken, though! First of all, your Mint.com account is always up to date, including your latest expenditure. Their approach to budgeting is awesome: they basically average your spending in all the categories, and alert you when your spending is out of whack. Very automated, very slick, and very intelligent. If only Quicken was this smart. Finally, when they see suboptimal use of financial institutions, they'll tell you what a better move is (say, by recommending a better credit card, or a bank that pays higher interest rates), and they will quantify how much money you'll expect to save or get by making the move. Are their recommendations good? Well, for credit cards, they recommended the same one that PFBlog recommends as the credit card of the year. He does these analysis a lot more than I do, and I trust his recommendations, and if Mint.com comes up with the same thing, that says a lot.

Am I likely to keep using Mint? Probably not. I definitely am addicted to the reconciliation feature --- the fresh grad. approach to personal finance isn't anything close to what I want. The reporting fails for me as well, since if most of my money goes into investing, giving me 70% expenditure on "Business Purchasing" is of no use. But the budgeting and alerts system and the recommendation system is so good that I fervently wish that Intuit will adopt this for Quicken (the auto-categorization is already there in the latest version of Quicken, though it doesn't save me as much time as I would expect).

All in all, if you're a fresh graduate or you are currently not using Quicken or Microsoft Money, Mint.com is way better than nothing. For tightwads like me or the financially sophisticated who have a lot of investments, I'm afraid that Mint.com will not save you too much work.

Recommended if you fall into one of the above-mentioned categories.

[Recently, mint.com introduced the new investment tracking feature. I've reviewed that feature here.

16 comments:

Unknown said...

Hi Piaw!

Have you tried yodlee? I too was part of the Mint beta, but I didn't pay a lot of attention because I was already using yodlee everyday. I talked to a Mint developer once and he told me that they use yodlee as their backend, but do a lot of stuff on top of it. Mint had problems with everything but my bank account so I didn't really get to see this. Yodlee handles brokerages as well -- it was insanely easy to set up, though I find it a bit slow sometimes and the manual categorization process is tedious.

I'm curious about what kinds of bank issues you've found, and how you've found them. I try to look a all my statements, but I've never seen anything amiss and now I'm wondering if I'm just not paying close enough attention...

Piaw Na said...

No, I have not tried yodlee, mostly because Vanguard does something similar and I do most of my banking through them. And manual categorization is something I only want to do once, so if I'm already doing it in Quicken, I have no desire to try another site that doesn't do it automatically.

Here are some bank issues I've found:
- Wells Fargo accidentally charged me a "low balance" fee, when my balance fell under $1000, when I had an account that wasn't subject to those fees.
- Someone had stolen Lisa's debit card number and was using it to run up charges.
- Financial fees that get charged by credit cards when I'm on vacation and didn't get to my bill on time (they'll usually waive this)
- Mistaken double charging by merchants.

None of this was huge (the largest was about $200), but catching it early and calling the bank early his key to finding fraud, for instance.

md said...

I don't understand the attraction of keeping this data online, unless you're a traveler with internet access but no laptop. Is there some way to export your data from Mint.com at least into CSV format? What if they go belly-up, what happens to your data?

I use MS Money and have about 4 years of data in it (prior to that I was keeping all my data in a spreadsheet). I feel very confident that MS and Intuit will continue to support their products, and that I will probably (barring disaster) have access to the stats that I've been recording for the rest of my life. Not so for a startup online company.

Piaw Na said...

Mint.com doesn't generate any real data, so if they go belly up, losing your data is no big deal. It's not like you're going to go through and store reconciliation data or category data there, since the idea is that it's all done for you. You'll end up no worse than before. You can always go back and download from your CC companies and your banks.

I wouldn't use mint.com if I had no laptop while I was traveling. The chances of a keylogger being installed at a random internet cafe are just too high.

Unknown said...

Mint.com is an application that really should not have been on the web. They should have had a desktop app that downloads secure data to YOUR PC, when needed, and that's that. Keeping all your passwords and secure financial info in a startup's data center is just plain freaky.

There's a great review by an actual user of Mint.com that covers these and many other problems with Mint. Read it and save yourself the trouble:

http://techlahore.wordpress.com/2007/10/03/the-fools-at-mintcom-or-mintcom-sucks

VantuckyVape said...

Mint.com's Daemon Billian stopped by Averad.com and gave an update as to why customer support is so lacking. Might be something to check out

Link - http://averad.com/
Diggs link - http://digg.com/software/Mint_com_refreshing_but_bad_customer_service_aftertaste

Abe said...

I found it to be excellent - the security concerns are misplaced (assuming your password is sufficiently complex) as outlined on their site - the comments otherwise are a little paranoid and likely a result of not reading (and therefore understanding) their security measures.

There are essentially two problems I've found:

(1) Not all expenses are calculated accurately, though it's remarkably accurate (out of $1500 in charges, I found one error - gas fill up was uncategorized - probably the station's fault as they ran it through their mini-market system rather than labeling it as fuel/automotive).

(2) Some banks/institutions are not setup properly. For example, a smaller bank may have several security questions but Mint's form for that bank only allows answering one security question. This is an inconvenience, but you can email them to fix it - they emailed me back automatically 30 seconds later and then I got a live response less than 5 minutes after that. They were aware of it and went to work to fix it.

Perfect? No, but I'm one of those "recent college grads" who this system seems optimized for (i.e., no complex investments, just bank accounts and credit card(s).

miked said...

How can I close my Mint account?

1. Login to your Mint account.
2. Go to “Your Profile”.
3. Locate the “delete Mint account” option under “More Options”.
4. Your Mint account data will be removed within 48 hours.

Carla said...

I definitely have to close my Mint account and find something else because I am having issues with adding accounts. They recognize my Citibank account but they cannot optimize my ING account. It keeps getting me an error message when I try to add it. I have tried for weeks. I emailed customer service, but they are slow in responding. I have to find another service.

James said...

I agree that mint def has some areas where it's lacking but overall I think it's pretty cool. I wish it could track investments better also. I think the biggest one for me would be if you could have generic accounts that, while they wouldn't update automatically, you could just be prompted to update when you logged in so you could see the full picture instead of it looking like a large chunk of your money is missing. I just read a positive review of Mint.com and I guess a lot of people are using it and liking it. I should know, I'm one of them ;)

Jason Staten said...

My Mint.com experience was terrible from day one. My account balances were never close to where they should be, taking forever to update. Today I received a random alert from Mint on my phone claiming I had a low balance on December 17th, 2008. That was the final straw for me. I'm happy to say that I've closed my account with them today.

ONLY 1 ME said...

was eveyone asked to enter their banking username & passowrd??? or am I being hacked?

Unknown said...

Hi Guy;
From my side i don't want to give my password to Mint to get my bank data. It's too risky, i even don't trust my Bank anymore.
I have found one simple Website to controle my finance: www.mybudget-online.com
The website doesn't get a lot of features but it's really simple for everyone and it uses HTTPS to secure connection.

R.Ingram said...

i thought mint would be a great way for me to track and categorize expenses (and income) across three bank accounts. it worked great for a while, and i was able to easily format into an excel spread sheet for accounting (tax) purposes. i'm one of those people who hates intuit and generally accounting (i'm the artistic type:)
i found mint to be gliche and unreliable. it stopped downloading one of my accounts (would just time out) and it somehow loaded one of my accounts twice, collecting a months worth of transactions. i needed to delete the dup but no way to tell which account actually contained the 5 months of history that i had built up, and so deleted the wrong one. if you're using mint for fun and not relying to build solid history for accounting probably ok. but i wouldn't rely on the data; you may lose it OR need to change course later cause it just stops loading a specific account.

Kyler said...

Thanks for this very articulate review. I realize it's three years dated by now, but still helpful to me.

I'm on a search: I used to use Quicken for years until Chase Bank started charging me $10/month to download transactions. I eventually stopped tracking my spending all together -- I began doing the recent grad thing. Now I want to pay attention again, I still don't want to pay $10/mo. if I don't have to, but I'm having trouble finding the right solution. Do you have any recommendations? Mint.com without the "audit/verify" function won't work for me. I'm a mac user and am looking at iBank and Quicken again.

Isn't there a program that can be automatically updated without subscription fees?

Would love to hear from you if you have any suggestions. Thanks,

--Kyler

http://www.facebook.com/kyler.mulhauser

Piaw Na said...

Some have suggested GNU Cash or Money Dance. I would evaluated Money Dance unless you have the intestinal fortitude to compile GNU Cash. I tried Money Dance, and Quicken for Windows is still better. Quicken for Mac is a joke.