Mint is a great tool, but the budgeting and spending category features can be frustrating. I thought I would share my set up for those who may be interested.
As many of you know, you can create new spending subcategories in Mint, but you cannot create new top-level categories. This is unfortunate, because the top-level categories that Mint provides are pretty awful. To make matters worse, many of the cool features of Mint don’t really work too well if you don’t use the categories in roughly the way that they are designed to be used. The challenge is to make minor adjustments to the categorization scheme that solve some of the worst problems while still being close enough to the default to allow the graphing and other Mint functions to work properly.
The overall goal of my system is to assign every last dollar spent to one of about a dozen or so top-level categories, with the categories grouped logically so that roughly similar expenses are included together. I then use those categories to implement a budget.
Here’s what I did:
1. First, I moved every regular monthly bill to the “Bills & Utilities” category, creating new sub-categories where necessary. By default, Mint wants to assign your mortgage payment to “Home,” where it mixes with discretionary spending on things like “Home Furnishings” and so on. Likewise, mandatory car insurance payments are lumped with discretionary car expenses like car washes and so on. But if your goal is to track discretionary spending, this makes absolutely no sense. Instead, what you want to do is to assign all of your regular, non-discretionary bills to a single category separate from discretionary spending. That way you can track those expenses for planning purposes, while also being able to “set them aside” in their own category while scouring the rest of your budget for places to cut discretionary spending.
So I moved every regular bill – including home mortgage, car insurance, car payment, life insurance, and every other bill in that category – into “Bills & Utilities.”
2. Second, I moved almost all discretionary purchase spending into the “Shopping” top-level category. So instead of using the “Pets” or “Entertainment” top-level categories, I moved all of those purchases to “Shopping” and created new sub-categories within the Shopping category for things that I want to track separately. My reasons for doing this are three-fold: First, I like being able to look at a single number to track these kinds of discretionary purchases, rather than having to mentally add up several different categories. Second, I tend to look at all of these kinds of purchases as interchangeable from a budget perspective. In other words, I don’t really care how much I spend on clothes and how much for music and how much for tickets to the theater – I just need to know that I have $X left this month for these kinds of purchases. Third, I find that it is much simpler in Mint to just lump these together in a single category than to spend hours each month trying to divide general shopping purchases into finer categories.
3. I kept the Food categories as they are in Mint, as I like tracking Groceries, Fast Food and Restaurants separately from other expenses.
4. I grouped my other expenses into a few additional categories that are meaningful to me, and assigned each to the closest top-level category in Mint. The key thing here is to use as few top-level categories as possible and to make sure that each meaningful category gets its own top-level category. Here’s my complete list of top-level categories:
4. Kids (activities, etc.)
5. Cash (I don’t track cash – I just budget an amount for ATM withdrawals and spend it however)
6. Car (gas, service, fees)
8. Home (maid and home improvements)
9. Fees (bank and credit card fees)
10. Health (doctors, drugs, etc.)
Every penny I spend gets sorted into one of these buckets. In some cases, I created sub-categories where I want to track particular expense categories, but they are for curiousity only. Anything that I want to budget gets its own top-level category.
5. Finally, I created a budget in Mint for each of these categories *except* Health and Travel (I excluded those two on the grounds that they do not involve monthly expenditures that I can track). The “Bills” category isn’t really discretionary – but I use the budget to keep an eye on it to make sure it comes in where I expect it to each month. The other budget categories are all to some degree discretionary. With the Mint app on my phone, I can always tell at glance whether my overall spending is “on pace” for the month, which lets me cut back when necessary, spend freely, etc.
I’m a much happier Mint user with this system. It’s easy to automate, because I only have to worry about sorting expenses into one of ten broad categories. It lets me quickly view and budget discretionary spending without having bills and other fixed spending mixed in to cloud the picture. And it’s close enough to Mint’s default settings that all of the graphing and budgeting features of Mint work.