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Free online money management with Mint

Mint LogoI have been following Mint ever since Noah Kagan tipped me back in April about a new startup he was working for. Last week Mint won TechCrunch40’s top company award which encouraged me to write this review.

Understanding where your money is spent is the most fundamental thing related to personal money management. Such biggies as Quicken and Microsoft made fortunes selling personal finance software. Mint comes for free and yet it provides just as much information as you need to get the idea where you stand and where you go as far as your finances are concerned.

First impressions

My last and only attempt to introduce personal finance software into my money management routine turned out a total disaster. To input data I was forced to download data files from my bank which MS Money would then process. After that I had to go through most of the transactions and properly categorize them which is a major nuisance. To aggravate the experience I encountered problems with how MS Money handles transfers between sub-accounts, which I wasn’t able to resolve and hence gave up my experiments.

The founders of Mint were certainly aware of these issues when they designed the tool. Setting up my bank accounts and downloading financial data at Mint was a snap and while I still can’t get transactions data for my Chase credit card (pending resolution of this bug) I did so successfully for the rest of my accounts within just a few minutes.

Transactions are categorized automatically as they arrive (Mint servers retrieve them for you overnight) and for the most part Mint is correct detecting the type of expense which leaves your with just an occasional transaction here and there that you have to fix manually. To simplify the process of correcting Mint’s errors you can create rules to assign periodic transactions specific categories based on name. While you can’t create your own categories, the list of predefined ones is pretty comprehensive and should satisfy most people.

Mint Categories

Fancy charts

Heavy use of JavaScript, AJAX and Flash is what you will find with Mint. The combination however is neatly put together and I couldn’t find any major usability issues so far. You have buttons and links exactly where you expect them to be (alright, except for the close icon which is for some reason at the window top-left corner). There are minor bugs here and there (transactions page doesn’t alway refresh when clicking on the account tab, sorting transactions only works on the first page of the list) however I expect these to be worked out soon. It is in beta after all.

In the core of application is ability to see your spending habits which comes in a form of a set of charts. You can see a snapshot of your spendings for a chosen period of time as well as historic spendings trend for a few major categories. You can zoom into each category on the pie which brings up a nested chart with subcategories, very neat.

Mint Food

Business model

The “Ways to Save” tab is where Mint hides its entire business model. The website is designed to analyze your spending habits and give you smart financial recommendations on how you can improve your bottom line. Bad for Mint, none of the offers they gave me really worked. Here they are:

  • Mint detected that I paid $197 to Verizon and $9.99 to Yahoo this month and offered to move to Verizon Total Freedom plan for $145 per month. The $197 expense was due to going over limit last month (I mentioned it in my last post) and is a one time charge. Yahoo wasn’t an internet expense at all but rather an annual domain name expense. - failed
  • Mint looked at my Dividend World MasterCard from Citibank and offered to switch to Driver’s Edge Platinum Select citing potential earning of $240 per year in cash rebate. My current credit card already offers decent cash rebate which Mint failed to recognize (the benefit was quoted as “unknown”). - failed

The last offer from Mint was to switch from Citibank to ING which would pay me 4% interest on funds in my checking account. This is the only offer that has some merit but as usual there is a catch. When you make a move like that, the interest on checking is only one of the factors you should consider. What makes me stay at Citi is the convenience of a local branch, powerful online bill pay interface, and accessibility of my funds worldwide. Since this offer is based on just one factor it looks somewhat single-sided to me.

Mint Screenshot

What could go wrong?

Money saving recommendations aside, overall I am impressed with the easiness of the tool and when all kinks are worked out it is certainly going to be a killer application. Before it does however there are a few major issues that have to be resolved, and these have nothing to do with Mint’s user interface bugs.

Problem 1. To collect the transactions data, Mint screen-scrapes banks’ websites which it does by contracting a company called Yodlee. Having myself built a service that does some web scraping, I can tell you how unreliable the technique is. Mint is doomed to have blackouts whenever banks update web pages with transactions. Mint however is not your bank but rather a tool for financial analysis and as such might survive just fine if these problems are not frequent and limited to a day or two.

Problem 2. To set up your banking and credit card accounts with Mint you will need to enter login credentials for each of these financial institutions into Mint. Mint doesn’t actually keep this information, they forward it to Yodlee who then simply sends Mint a daily summary of customer’s banking activity. Just this week I received a letter from Ameritrade about a data breach. Imagine what happens if someone breaks into Yodlee’s servers?

What personal money management software do you use? Are you happy with it? Do you think Mint has a chance to survive when the big guys like Quicken start rolling out online editions of their tools?

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10 Responses to “Free online money management with Mint”


  1. 1 marko Sep 24th, 2007 at 3:29 am

    That was good analysis.
    I have a question about probargainhunter, How many people vist it every day and month.

  2. 2 Sheldon Sep 24th, 2007 at 7:08 am

    Yan,

    Great job as always. I have used Mint for a few days and like yourself I am quite impressed with the graphics and ease of the site but I fail to see what long term benefits I will gain by continuously returning to the site?? Am I expected to switch cards or bank account every two weeks? Are my spending habits going to change so every 3 weeks?

    If they add a bill pay service or a Paypal like service they would really be on the way to killer app.

    I just most visitors are blown away by the ease and beauty of the site.

  3. 3 Dean Sep 24th, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    Nice review, I too have been following Mint and am impressed with their ambitious web application but I don’t know if I will use it in the long term.

    Many online banks already allow to your categorize your transactions. I hope they are able to improve their recommendation also.

  4. 4 Yan Sep 24th, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    Sheldon:

    Bill pay would probably add value to Mint however I like it the way it is. Somehow I don’t feel confident giving my bills to Mint just yet. For pure analysis though Mint is perfect and not having to go back very often is one of the things I like.

    Dean:

    Well, my bank doesn’t categorize transactions. Also, aggregating your financial data in one place is something no bank offers. It is always there no matter what bank/credit card you use!

  5. 5 Aaron Patzer Sep 25th, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Yan,

    Thanks for a very comprehensive review. I’m glad you see the benefit of Mint in aggregating all your credit cards, debit cards, and savings accounts in one place, and showing you where all your money goes.

    Surprised you didn’t comment on alerts (bill reminders, low-balance alerts, large transactions) which you can get through email or SMS.

    We’re working on our “Ways to Save” page to ensure that we accurately account for your current credit card rewards before recommending something new. You might be surprised how hard it is to get that information into a consistent format from the 5,000 credit cards out there.

    On security, I’ll make a bold statement: You’re safer on Mint then with online banking. On Mint, you’re completely anonymous. We never ask for a name, address, or SSN – just an email. We know about your finances…but not about you. We’re also independently verified by Verisign, TrustE, and Cryptography Research.

    Perhaps more interestingly, 90% of all fraud actually occurs offline, not online (e.g. someone swipes your card at a restaurant or from your mail). Because Mint sends proactive alerts for low-balance or unusually high spending, you’ll know right away. It’s better than logging into 4-5 different banks every day, or waiting 30 days for a paper statement before finding that something went wrong.

    I’d be happy to address any other concerns you or your users have. And keep up the great writing.

    Aaron Patzer
    Founder & CEO, Mint.com

  6. 6 Yan Sep 25th, 2007 at 5:06 pm

    Hmmm, low balance alerts… That is right, the first day I set up Mint I received a low balance alert on a savings account I haven’t been using for a while. A low balance alert on saving?!?! Common guys!

    I am yet to see any bill reminders. These would be quite handy. But the first of all – fix that Chase Credit card transactions bug and I will be your happy customer. Until then half of my spendings goes unaccounted for, a MAJOR problem!

  7. 7 XynamaX Sep 25th, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    Hmm, with me being married to MS Money (for over 10 years now), it’d be tough to switch. I’m not a big web-app fan, so what would really make me want to try this?

    MS Money also uses Yodlee, honestly I hate that, but if you want online updates you need to use it. I have some accounts that aren’t online updatable (manual) but since they are mostly savings accounts I don’t do much with them (other then automatic deposits).

    -X

  8. 8 Jordan Sep 26th, 2007 at 1:48 am

    Appreciate the review. Yodlee has a strong security methodology and record:
    http://corporate.yodlee.com/te.....erview.htm

    My opinion is that you’re safer with a secure portal like Mint or Yodlee than trying to manage a large collection of separate accounts you have to check independantly. Mint (and Yodlee) can generate alerts for many of the fraud transactions that might occur and allow you check all of your accounts every day. If there are fraudulent transactions, using a portal makes it easy to catch quickly!

    It’s also worth noting that while scraping through web pages is one the ways Yodlee can retreive data, Yodlee also gathers a large portion of its data through structure feeds that don’t rely on the consumer web site.

    ..Jordan, Yodlee Inc.

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