Katherine Boehret

Tracking Your Money Without Paying a Mint

My Dad will be proud to read that I’ve spent much of the past week studying my finances and figuring out my budget. But I’m willing to bet (figuratively since betting isn’t in my new budget) he’ll be surprised to learn that I did this in no time using a Web-based program that didn’t cost me a dime.

This week, I tested a free Web site called Mint.com that serves as a Web home base for account information from credit cards, credit unions and bank accounts. The site securely and automatically logs into those accounts, fetches the latest data and presents the information in easy-to-read and useful ways.

Mint.com lets users track their expenses via pie charts (above) and offers alternative savings options (right).
Mint.com lets users track their expenses via pie charts (top) and offers alternative savings options (bottom).

Mint hopes to help users get a better handle on where their money is going, how much is in each account, and what can be done to budget that money more efficiently. It sends automatic alerts about account data or when you exceed your budget. It can even translate a bank’s often odd rendering of merchants’ names into plain-English versions of your financial transactions.

Starting May 6, the site will let users add investments, such as individual retirement accounts and 401(k) plans, to their accounts, though Mint isn’t designed for serious investors. Today, readers can get sneak peak access to this Investments feature via www.mint.com/wsj. In June, Mint will add auto loans, student loans and mortgages.

Mint won’t work offline because it’s completely Web-based, and can’t be used to pay bills or move any money around, meaning people will still need to visit separate sites for bill payments and money transfers.

Talk of money-related software programs often brings to mind the old reliables: Intuit Inc.’s (INTU) Quicken and Microsoft (MSFT) Money. But some of these programs can cost close to $100 and require intense bookkeeping. Stripped-down versions of these products are available, but these still include fees. Geezeo.com is a Web service that’s more comparable to Mint.com, but it incorporates social-networking tools like introducing users with like interests.

Mint was created for 20-somethings like me who want to pay more attention to their finances but aren’t interested in taking hours each week to do so. This Web site worked ideally for me, and its clean interface integrates Web 2.0 features in a way that makes it a pleasure to use. I think it will appeal to a broad range of people who want to feel more in control of their money, but don’t want to spend a lot of time updating their information.

I set up my information on Mint in minutes, not hours, and used it to track five accounts. In seconds, Mint used data from my accounts to automatically generate colorful pie charts that illustrated where my money was spent — and most expenses were accurately labeled. I was pleased to find my local bank in a list of Mint-supported companies. And the site even encouraged me to look at my 401(k)’s progress online for the first time in a while because I didn’t need to dig into an out-of-the-way, unfamiliar Web site.

Security is important for a site like Mint.com, so it teamed up with online banking-service provider Yodlee to make secure connections to banks. This involves using encryption that the company claims is the same as what banks use. Mint also says that because it requires nothing more than an email address, password and ZIP Code from each person, registration is anonymous. And the company claims that it never sees or stores password information, nor does it ever see account numbers.

When setting up an account, Mint acknowledges nicknames for companies, like Amex for American Express (AXP), making it easy to find specific banks and credit-card companies. If you’d like to sign up on Mint, but don’t already have online accounts set up, Mint will give step-by-step directions on how to do this — whether via a company’s site or by phone.

The site suggests alternative companies that will save you more money than those you’re currently using. Some, but not all, of these companies are sponsors of the site. After entering my savings-account information, I learned about a high-yield savings account that would potentially allow me to earn hundreds more in interest each year. Some of these suggested alternatives were familiar, while others — like Bank of the Internet USA — weren’t.

I found Mint’s automatic alerts to be especially helpful. Each alert can be personalized to notify you via email or an SMS message on your mobile phone when something happens in an account. Account summaries, for example, can be sent via email and text message every Friday, the first of every month or never. Alerts can be adjusted to tell people that their credit-card bill is due within a certain number of days; if a pre-set budget is exceeded; or if a bank charges extra fees.

Mint’s new Investments section showed me details about two investments. A handy graph showed the status of my account earnings and compared them with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Nasdaq and the S&P 500. Individual stocks can be added into your account, though I could see only the balance of a trust holding one of my stocks.

In the Trends section, I learned what my most frequent expenditures were, as well as the total amount of money spent per month, which was interesting to see since I don’t usually add up all of my expenses. Trends can show you how your spending stacks up with everyone else — that is, people in the U.S. who use Mint. My account showed I ate at a Chipotle (CMG) chain restaurant once in February and once in April, spending the exact amount each time. (I like their barbacoa fajita burrito.) But I spent about $4 to $5 less than the average Chipotle customer.

If certain expenses are mislabeled, they can easily be renamed and reassigned to different categories. Pie charts and graphs can be altered with one mouse click to become more or less specific, and budgets can be set after looking at spending history on an easy-to-understand bar graph.

Digital conveniences like online bill payments and Web transactions can lead to people putting less thought into their finances. But the value of knowing specifically where money is and how it is spent is a tool that will likely encourage better financial planning and habits. I only wish Mint had a way to incorporate online bill payments so I could do all of my financial work in one place on this site. Otherwise, Mint is a real boon to people who want to tell their dads that they’re on top of their finances — and mean it.

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