When most people hear the word “budget,” they groan about all the numbers and spreadsheets involved in setting financial goals. Instead they procrastinate and continue spending without any specific savings goals. Case in point: I recently postponed a meeting with my financial planner because I didn’t have the energy after a long business trip to work through my finances.
Now Mint.com, a website that already offers user-friendly options for studying how one’s money is spent, has introduced an easy way to set budget objectives, link them to accounts and learn specific steps on how to reach those goals. The goals can even be personalized with digital photos, like an image of the car you’re saving up to buy. And this service, which launched Tuesday, doesn’t cost a cent.
I’ve been testing Intuit Inc.’s free, updated Mint.com service, specifically focusing on its new Mint Goals feature. The idea of adding goals that tie into real accounts has been a long time coming for the finance-management website. Mint previously offered a Planning section on its site, but it required too much manual input, including setting up personal budget categories, and guesswork about how much one should spend.
The Goals feature uses pop-up windows where users can quickly input data, like annual salary, to get estimates on how much they can afford to spend on things like a vacation, as well as how much they need to save for that vacation. Monthly savings estimates can be set to aggressive savings plans or conservative ones with just a mouse click.
Finances in One Place
Mint.com has been around for almost three years and is already used by millions of people. Its proprietary algorithms encrypt data so people will feel confident enough to input their usernames and passwords for their online financial accounts, allowing them to see all of their financial activity in one place. These accounts include those tied to credit cards, banks, retirement savings and others. Mint is known for displaying colorful visuals like pie charts and graphs, so it’s easy for people to see where they’re spending their money or how it’s being invested.
Mint.com’s new Goals tab (top right) offers users a choice of eight popular goals and one to customize. Colorful thermometers (top left) show how much progress was made toward a goal. Details of a particular goal (above) and a “Next Steps” checklist of tasks to complete.
Mint Goals is a new tab on the Mint.com site, and clicking on it directs users to a group of eight popular goals and one that can be customized (more will be added over time). The preset list includes goals to get out of debt, buy a home, buy a car, save for college, take a trip or save for retirement. A digital checklist in each goal called “Next Steps” gives people serious, doable tasks to complete, so they can actually make progress toward a goal in ways other than just putting money aside. This instant gratification saved me from doing a lot of calculating.
The Best Account
When you set up a goal for the first time, Mint suggests what type of account would work best for saving toward it. Examples include a 529 savings plan for people who are saving to put their kids through college or a Roth IRA for retirement savings. Mint will also tell you the provider with the best interest rate.
Unlike some other websites that encourage saving, like SmartyPig.com, Mint isn’t a bank, so you’ll have to leave the Mint site to create accounts and manage money transfers rather than starting them right on the site. Aaron Patzer, the company’s founder and CEO, expects the site will enable setting up savings accounts and money transfers by the end of this year.
Each goal includes the overall amount of money intended to be saved, today’s balance, planned and projected dates for reaching the goal and how much has been saved this month (like $200 of $750). I liked looking at Mint’s colorful thermometers, which quickly showed me how I was progressing in a particular goal.
For example, the Buy a Home goal checklist includes steps like finding a Realtor, getting homeowner’s insurance and getting prequalified for a loan. A panel beside each of these items also offers an educational explanation of what these steps really mean. Many explanations include links to a blog called MintLife, where blog posts from Mint employees and some freelancers offer deep explanations about financial questions.
Ads With Context
The Goals feature comes with contextual ads, which help it remain free. One checklist item suggests opening a high-yield savings account and also offers links to the Discover and American Express websites, which offer the accounts. If you’ve started a Mint Goal to save for a trip to Iceland, travel insurance is suggested, along with Web links to sites that sell trip insurance.
While these links might allow people to get started right away on a particular task, they also beg the question of whether these are the best options for users—or just the biggest advertisers on Mint. Mr. Patzer explained that companies for these ads are chosen according to what’s best for the user and are selected from a list of savings options ranked by the site’s editors.
Goals can be linked to several of your accounts on Mint so they’re updated with real-time data. A long-term retirement goal can link to a 401(k), brokerage account and retirement account. If the stock market takes a dive and money is lost in an account, that loss is automatically reflected in the overall goal’s balance. If you tie a savings account to a goal to save for a house, every dollar added to that account (on the bank’s end) is automatically reflected in the goal.
Mint already gave people a visually engaging way to know more about what their money is doing, but Mint Goals give people a real reason to come back to the site more often.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg
Write to Katherine Boehret at email@example.com