In this guest post, SC takes a look at Mint, one of the recent batch of on-line financial management tools. I haven’t had a chance to use the site, so SC volunteered to write about his experiences.

Mint is a new website that claims it will help you organize your finances, automate your financial life, and help you save money at every turn. I have a credit card with Capital One, two bank accounts with E-Trade, and a number of certificates at E-Trade, as well. Normally I use Quicken at home to manage all my finances, and but I gave Mint a whirl a few weeks ago.

Here is a quick summary in case you don’t like to read: Mint is great for helping you identify spending habits and prioritize your finances. It has wonderful charts and graphs, and was very easy to use. Also, if you are not using the most efficient “financial vehicles”, Mint has good suggestions. It is not a good tool for finding “deals” on your day-to-day spending. Mint just can’t get enough information from your credit card bill to adequately offer cheaper alternatives to your shopping habits.

Getting started
The first thing you do at Mint is add your various online accounts. This was easy as pie — mint pie.

The interface for adding and organizing your accounts was very simple — it felt a lot like moving around widgets on the iGoogle homepage.

Financial overview
Once you’ve uploaded your credit card account information, Mint is able to offer a variety of information about your money. One of the neat features is the Financial Overview page, which shows you the current status of all your accounts — updated every night:

The Financial Overview also displays your cash vs. debt breakdown, and how much you spend on various categories (shopping, restaurants, gas, entertainment, groceries, etc) with a bar chart. If you click on one of those categories, Mint will show you the associated charges, so you can easily see what you are spending where.

For example, here is my grocery breakdown:

And my entertainment expenses:

Spending trends
Mint tracks your spending trends across the months of data it has for you. Then it puts a fancy pie chart together for you. (This probably will look familiar to Quicken users.) Here is my spending breakdown per Mint:

This chart shows each category and how much I spent. If I click on a category — Food and Dining, for example — it will expand to show me more details:

I found this to be very helpful to identify specific areas I can cut back. I wish I could click a subcategory and see a listing of those charges, but that’s not an option I can find.

On the same page with the nifty pie charts, there are a series of bar graphs showing how your spending pattern has changed. This is fairly limited since I just signed up with Mint (and my credit card only keeps two months of history), but I would imagine that as time goes on, it will become more and more helpful:

I sold my car last month and now only ride a motorcycle, so it’s nice to see my gas has gone down. I also made a more concerted effort in September to eat at home more and eat out less. My grocery bill went up, and my restaurant bill went down! Yay!

So here is where Mint loses its flavor. Basically, it offers you “savings options”, which are products you don’t currently use and could save you money. There are two kinds of offers that Mint shows you:

  1. Consumer services — Mint told me I should switch from Sprint to Verizon. It noticed that I spent ~$450 on phone service this month and offered a Verizon alternative. There are a few issues here:
    • I bought a new phone this month, so my monthly number is very inflated. There’s no way to adjust this with Mint.
    • I use Sprint for a reason: I can’t get what I need with Verizon. I have an unlimited phone, data, and text plan, plus a cellular WiFi card, and the connection speed on Sprint is notably faster than Verizon. Mint’s “Verizon Offer” is a generic “you can get your phone, internet and cellular service for $145 a month!” and there’s no way to update your needs and get better tailored ads.
  2. Financial services — Mint does a better job here — at least the offers were comparable products. But again, Mint didn’t know what specific rates and costs my accounts were. So, for example, Mint told me I should open an ING checking account and get 3.50% APY, a yearly savings of $250. But my E-Trade checking account has an APY of 4%! Same thing for the Discover Credit Card it suggested. I have a cashback plan with my Capital One card, but it didn’t ask (or have a way to input manually) what my plan is. So the $4,489 in savings I could have each year is completely inaccurate.

Sometimes — especially if you aren’t taking full advantage of competitive financial vehicles — this might be handy. If you don’t getting interest on your checking account, you should look into it!

But this certainly isn’t the real strength of Mint.

Bottom line
I think Mint is a wonderful tool to organize and analyze your finances; it’s a more detailed and user-friendly online flavor of Quicken. (But without the check writing abilities.) As a free site, it’s pretty cool. It doesn’t get much better than free!

But in terms of actually saving you lots of dough through promotional offers, I would take a pass. Unless they find a way to really tailor their recommendations to your needs and situation, it doesn’t seem like it will work very well for the average consumer. It didn’t work for me.

Thanks for the review, SC! What about you folks? Have you used Mint? Do you like it? How would you improve it? Last year about this time, I reviewed Wesabe, another online personal finance tool. Have any of you tried both? How do they compare? For myself, I’m happy to keep using Quicken for now.

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