November 2, 2009 at 9:00 AM Leave a comment

Keeping a personal budget is a pain. Making a note of every money exchange—both incoming and outgoing—in your day-to-day life gets tiring fast, and even though budgeting is vital to a money-happy life, keeping one yourself can stop some frugal hopefuls in their tracks. 

Why not simplify your budget-keeping by keeping it all online? You have plenty of free sites to choose from . . . but the golden media darling is Mint is mentioned any time anyone brings up budgeting—especially in finance journalism. It’s been in Time Magazine’s 50 Best Websites 2 years in a row, it’s been named a top pick by Money Magazine, it’s one of Kiplinger’s best budgeting sites, it’s won a Webby Award, and . . . well, the list goes on. Obviously, Mint is a winner.

Oh yeah, and on September 13, Mint was bought by Intuit, maker of Quicken Software and grandaddy of budget-keeping software, so Mint’s future looks bright—as does its users’.

So how does fare as a real budgeting tool? Here’s my blow-by-blow:

How It Works

Mint, like most other budgeting sites and software, puts your budget together by pulling all your transactions from all your banking, investing, credit, and loan websites—it can draw your money data from almost any site that has it. Of course, you have to give Mint all your passwords for this process to work—scary, I know—but its security software is supposedly top-notch. Just think of it as logging onto all your banking sites at once and seeing it all in one convenient place.

And for seeing all that data, really works. Its main page is all about the user: on the left is a listing of all your accounts with all their totals (rounded off nicely with a “Net Worth” box at the bottom, showing exactly how much—at least in terms of assets, debt, and property—you’re worth!). Also on the main page are alerts of recent activity in your accounts (as well as impending due dates), a quick glance at how you’re doing in multiple budgeting categories, some neat spending trends (cash versus credit card, for example, show how much of your spending is in credit), and a “Ways to Save” box that shows you what other financial services could be saving you money. That last one sounds scammy—and I’m sure Mint’s making money—but it’s a useful service, and one that might actually help you save.

What’s the Catch?

It’s not all easy. For Mint’s trends and budgets to have any sort of real-life meaning and application to you, Mint has to know what all your transactions are. It gathers up all your money movements and takes a guess at what they might be (often a good one!), but if you want budgeting accuracy (and that’s the whole point here), you’ve got to do the rest yourself.

And doing it yourself can get confusing, especially if you don’t keep up with your transactions on Mint regularly. By going into the Transactions tab, you can go through all your accounts’ transactions and assign them categories (change the one Mint applied, they’re quite often worthless to you—your rent, for example, should not stay listed as a “Check.”

This sounds like lousy, thankless work, but it’s really not bad—and if you have no idea what some transactions are, don’t sweat it: any transaction you do categorize brings you that much closer to an accurate budget.

But here comes Step 2: To get anything out of how much you’ve spent, you need to have budgets (yep, your budget just got split into ‘budgets’) assigned to your categories. creates its own budgets for you—vague, generic, ugly ones like “Shopping” and “Entertainment.” Change this crap, make it yours! How much would you like to spend this month on, say, going out to eat? Make a “Restaurant” budget. On clothes for work? Make a “Work Clothes” budget. The more specific you are, the more useful Mint is.

Once you’ve made Mint yours, its data on the main page and “Trends” tab gets a lot more meaningful. Get ready to see how much you really spent on lunch burgers this month. Mint knows! And ATM fees? Mint knows that, too.

So for getting a glimpse of your financial life (note the word “glimpse!”, Mint is great! But there’s one simple reason why it just can’t replace a hard-line budget: 

Mint’s Achilles Heel

Mint lets you track everything from 401Ks to your house property value—but it doesn’t let you add cash transactions! I’ve been a user for months, and I’m still absolutely awed by this oversight. No cash transactions can ever show up on Mint—and if you’re like me, those account for all the little, day-to-day, drop-in-the-bucket transactions that you really need to keep track of! This flaw alone kills Mint as a viable budget-keeper for me, reducing it to a minor money amusement—“Hey, ‘all’ my money stuff in one place! Heh! 

The Verdict is fantastic when it’s used for what it is: a thorough, cross-sectioned look at most of your finances. If you put a little time into making the site yours (label your transactions and add your budgets), it gives you a pretty accurate glance at your spending habits. But don’t mistake your budgets for the real deal: if you can’t track all your transactions (and cash is a biggie), you’re not seeing the whole picture.

What Others Are Saying 

Get Rich Slowly: Mint: A Fresh New On-Line Personal Finance Tool

Budgeting Babe: review

Consumerism Commentary: Increase Your Net Worth at

Personal Finance Software Reviews: The Overdue Review Review of New Features


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Sam Warren

I write about money matters that apply to my life—and hopefully yours!

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