Even before I started blogging about personal finance myself, I’d frequently come across articles about various financial apps. That’s when I started to notice a trend: regardless of what list I was looking at, Mint seemed to always be included. Eventually I came to learn that what I thought was just a mobile app also had a desktop site and, together, they comprised one of the most popular free financial tools out there.
So, at long last, I figured it was time to get started with Mint for myself — and boy am I glad I did. Without further ado, let’s first dive into Mint’s desktop site and talk in-depth about the what features it has to offer.
Getting Started with Mint
While signing up for Mint is about as simple as creating a username and password, getting the app and/or site to a usable and helpful state does require an investment of time. That’s because, in order to use the service as intended, you’ll need to connect as many of your financial accounts as possible. This includes regular checking and savings accounts, retirement and investment accounts, and even online accounts for cable companies, cellular service providers, and utility companies. In reality, linking all of your bills to Mint is optional from a budgeting standpoint but is very helpful for the at a glance billing calendar, which we’ll get to later.
To be honest, the most time-intensive part of this process for me personally was trying to remember — and, in many cases, resetting — my passwords for the various banking accounts. I also came across a couple of quirks in the linking system that added a few minutes to my experience. For example, by requesting to link an account under “PNC Virtual Wallet,” it included my wife’s and my savings and checking but not our IRA. So I then chose “PNC Investments” which added all three accounts, including those added through the Virtual Wallet. So I ended up having to delete the “Virtual Wallet” data lest I have duplicate info. Granted, fixing these small errors didn’t take a ton of time but are still worth noting.
There are also options to add other bills or assets that don’t have accounts. This includes adding your rent so it’s accounted for in your rent and/or providing your automobile info to factor into your net worth. Lastly, you can also sign up to receive your free credit score, which requires you to enter your social security number and answer a few questions to verify your identity.
There’s a lot to Mint but the majority of it is included on the Overview page. My favorite feature lives in the left column where your various account balances are compiled, allowing you quickly view your cash on hand, outstanding debts, investment balances, and more. With half a dozen bank accounts, three retirement accounts, and three credit cards to our names, getting this wide lens snapshot of our finances has been extremely helpful to my wife and me. Furthermore, I’ve found myself fascinated by the net worth tab that calculates the value of your assets and subtracts your debts. Sure I could tabulate this number by myself, but having it generated automatically and in real-time is not only interesting but, dare I say, motivating.
Over in the main column, the first section you’ll find is Alerts. These customizable reminders and indicators will inform you of recent large purchases or deposits that were made, bring your attention to any low balances, and let you know when you’re close to reaching your budget limit. Like I mentioned you can also customize these to add a number of features such as warnings about unusual transactions over a certain amount or even have it highlight fees your banks are charging you.
Before we get into the larger sections of Mint, let’s talk about their free credit score that appears about half way down the Overview page. Like other educational score services such as Credit Karma or WalletHub, Mint displays your score (which is provided by Equifax) and shows you where you fall on the scale. Below that is a link that will offer you more info about your score including your credit utilization, payment history, age of credit, etc. As I said, this is fairly similar to other services except for one notable difference: it shows my score as being a full 20 points lower. I’m not sure why that is exactly but considering that it’s just an educational score anyway I’m not terribly concerned.
The rest of the Overview page is populated by widget version of some of the other subpages Mint offers. With that in mind, let’s take a look at each one individually.
Incidentally, the Transactions section is the only one not to be clearly represented on Mint’s Overview page but there’s a pretty good reason for that: Transactions is easily the least sexy and most unwieldy section on Mint. That said it’s also one of the most important. Here is where you can not only view all of your purchases and deposits across all of your accounts but also categorize them and add notes. The reason this is important is because the category selected will dictate how each transaction is accounted for in your budget.
In most cases categories for each transaction will be automatically detected by Mint. Of course it’s far from infallible and so you may want to make some changes. A humorous case in point I recently came across was that a 5K run I had signed up for was accidentally labeled as fast food — that’s some clever irony, Mint.
As you’re pursuing transactions, what’s also helpful is that you can tag transactions as “reimbursable” or “tax related.” A round-up of transactions you’ve tagged can be found at the bottom of the left column. Lastly you add cash transactions manually to be included in your budget if you so choose.
Next up is the bills section where recurring items you’ve entered into Mint will be displayed. Upcoming due dates are also recapped on the Overview page. As I mentioned earlier, you can populate the Bills section by linking various accounts (in my case AT&T and Spotify) and/or entering other expenses such as rent.
While I definitely see the use in this section, it’s not one I expect to use very often. I suppose it’s always nice to get an extra reminder that the first of the month is coming up, but most of my other monthly bills are scheduled to auto-pay, leaving me little reason to set an alert. However, for others who would like to see all of their upcoming due dates — and the payment amounts — in calendar form, this could be a great resource.
Budgets and Goals
Whenever I thought of or even wrote about Mint in the past, I referred to it as a budgeting app. Even though I now understand that it’s really more than that, the budget section is clearly the star offering. With the ability to establish spending limits for a variety of categories, set alerts, and monitor spending in near real-time, it’s not hard to understand why Mint has become a go-to for those looking to rein in their spending.
When I first connected my accounts, Mint automatically set a budget for me across a number of categories. Sure you could stick with what they suggest but the customization they offer is outstanding. For one, in addition to the comprehensive list of categories they include by default, you can also add your own.
Another great feature is the ability to budget for less frequent expenses. For example, if your car insurance bill is $500 but is only due every six months, you could set that category to a six-month cycle. This will allow you to set money aside for the upcoming expense.
Going hand in hand with the Budgets section is Goals. Here you can select various money milestones such as purchasing a car, building an emergency fund, or saving for retirement and have Mint help you budget for that goal. Additionally, if you end up with a surplus at the end of the month, Mint will encourage you to put that money toward one of your money goals by telling you how much sooner you’d achieve it with the extra boost.
Trends is a data-driven section that takes a closer look at your finances and spending. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I don’t quite understand its usefulness just yet. First I have some questions about the methodology of the net income graph it provides both here and on the Overview page, as it shows some pretty drastic swings in my case. Then again, with only a few months of data (I currently only have transactions showing from February on) and one of those months containing vacation expenses, I expect that I’ll be able to make more sense of it going forward.
This was a section I was certainly not expecting from Mint. In Investments you can view your various retirement accounts and see how they’re performing. Although this is extremely interesting and educational overall, it’s also not always a great idea to babysit your retirement accounts, especially at such a young age. So while I intend to check up on this tab every now and then, I’ll try not to drive myself crazy by obsessively monitoring my long-term investment money.
Ways to Save
Like many other free services, Mint needs to make money somehow. That’s why, in addition to the Ways to Save section, you’ll come across suggestions for all kinds of accounts. If you’re in the market for a new credit card, savings accounts, or investment account it is nice to be able to compare options at a glance. Otherwise, you can feel free to mostly ignore this section. (Sidenote: I did find it humorous that they suggested the Discover It card to me even though I linked my account for that card. This makes me wonder how personalized these offers actually are.)
The Mint App
As you probably know, Mint also offers a mobile app. In the first tab, Updates, you can view recent transactions, upcoming bills, and more. Similar to the desktop version, the Overview section gives you a look at your cash flow, account balances (both combined and separated), and how you’re budget is looking. In that aspect the app is scaled way down from the website itself, which honestly came as quite a shock to me. However having the app in addition to the using the desktop site is a must simply because it will trigger push notifications of your Alerts to your phone.
To say I learned a lot about Mint in my efforts to review it is an understatement. I had no idea how wide-reaching and comprehensive the service was. Much to my surprise, it is not just a budgeting app or merely a way to view multiple bank accounts at one time — although those are both outstanding features. Mint actually is the one-stop financial dashboard it claims to be and, as a result, will certainly be a tool I use frequently from now on.
In terms of flaws, there are a few. For one, considering both Mint and Quickbooks Self-Employed are owned by Intuit, it would be nice if there were better integration options between the two. Although you can apparently export and import transaction data, I’d love it if I could simply mark a transaction as business once and have it sync between the two applications.
Despite that minor gripe, I’m very glad to have finally come around on Mint and can now see why it’s considered the gold standard in free personal finance applications.