Mint.com Online Finance Review

by Reads (32,922)
  • Pros

    • Incredibly intuitive
    • Near-perfect interface
    • Actual useful upsells

     

  • Cons

    • No bill-pay functions
    • No real budget guidance
    • Shallow analysis tools

     


Mint online finance promises all the essential household-budgeting functions of Quicken — but for free. In fact, Mint’s success and appeal has been cited as one of the reasons Microsoft discontinued MS Money two weeks ago. Can a web-based application that gives away its services actually replace the heavyweights of personal finance software? We put Mint.com to the test in this review.

PRODUCT OVERVIEW

Mint is a browser-based application that is designed to help you organize your personal finances, analyze them, and then suggest ways you can save money. To quote the site itself, Mint is ostensibly “the best free way to manage your money.”

Mint.com online finance welcome screen

The caveat is right there in the headline. For a free Web app, Mint is rather impressive. Stacked up against personal finance software you actually pay for, Mint comes away as rather lightweight. Anyone who has dabbled with Quicken of MS Money will recognize the basic logic at work behind Mint, but veteran users of those traditional applications will probably find Mint a bit lacking, especially when it comes to actually doing something with your money.

INSTALLATION & SETUP

As a browser-based application, Mint requires no installation, per se, but we were a little peeved to see that Mint.com doesn’t work and play well with Google Chrome. Firefox 3 and Internet Explorer 6 both had no trouble with the site, but if Chrome spit the bit, it’s a good bet that other not-the-big-two browsers may endure some hiccups, as well.

To set up a Mint account, just click any of the ubiquitous Sign Up buttons, and then fill out the five-field signup page. This is the first sign that Mint has embraced the minimalist, user-centered design philosophy made famous by 37signals — no extraneous information is required, and the app will walk you through most every step of the setup.

It’s worth noting that at no point does Mint ask for your name, social security number, or identifying details beyond account logins. Given all the information it does ask for, someone who hacked your Mint account could probably figure out who you are, but since there is nothing to tie you to the Mint account, it’s actually reasonably identity theft-proof. Moreover, Mint runs your transaction during the browser session, downloading your data fresh during each login, and storing nothing but your passwords on its servers. There is no copy of your bank statement floating around a Mint server farm waiting to be stolen. So long as your Web connection is secure — and Mint encrypts that to bank-level standards — then your financial data is safe.

Mint.com online finance create account

After initial signup, you’ll be asked to enter the name or URL for your bank.

Mint.com online finance bank search

The process works just like a search box and returns a list of likely results, which you click on, just like hyperlinks.

Mint.com online finance bank search results

As we’d later learn, this page is actually used to locate any financial institution from which Mint could import data — bank, credit card, or investment account — even though the header merely says “bank.” This was one of the very few usability stumbles we found with Mint, and we didn’t discover it until later on in the setup process.

Select your bank, and then provide your online access credentials, and you’re in.

Mint.com online finance password challenge

If you don’t have an online password for your bank accounts, Mint simply provides a link to the bank’s Web site and you’ll have to set one up there. This was a little disappointing, as MS Money and Quicken have some basic internal wizards that help you set up online account access if you haven’t done so with your bank already. Mint stays out of that process for the sake of simplicity, but we’d like to have seen a little more help here, if only a sidebar prompt that said “Don’t have a password for you bank account? Go to YourBank.com and set one up now.” That’s picky, but part of Mint’s promise is that it’s easier to use than full-fledged pay software, so we expect some basic handholding during setup.

Once we passed the bank password challenge, Mint took less than two minutes to locate the checking and savings accounts we keep at our rather obscure credit union, which is comparable if not better performance than Quicken and MS Money. Mint also immediately recognized which account was checking and which accounts were savings (the account names helped) and noted them in a running setup checklist in the left column.

Mint.com online finance setup checklist

The setup checklist will walk you through completing your financial profile, including credit cards and investment accounts. Moreover, you can list the two major types of assets most users own — a home and a car — in your Mint account, giving you a larger view of your balance sheet than most people think about.

Mint.com online finance home value

The only stumble here is that, while Mint will estimate the value of your home based on the average value of homes in your neighborhood (our estimate actually skewed a bit high), it offers no such service for pricing your car. You’ll have to either guess at your car’s worth or leave Mint and visit any of the major Blue Book sites to finish out your account setup. Again, for an application that promises ease of use, this was a needless inconvenience, especially when so many car valuation services exist out there that would no doubt be glad to offer a co-branded valuation applet.

If, by chance, you don’t own a car, a home, hold a credit card or a 401(k), simply click the “I don’t have one” link in the checklist and you can skip that step. But be sure not to click the skip-link prematurely, because the setup wizard doesn’t let you backtrack. You’ll have to click out to the Overview section and add the asset or account back in manually. It’s not a huge problem, but again, another annoying quirk.

It took us about 10 minutes to enter all our financial data, which is much faster than similar processes in Quicken or MS Money. That said, we had online account logins setup and ready, which made the process pretty smooth. Other users may not have such data handy, and Mint doesn’t do much to help you find it, so your setup time may vary.

INTERFACE & EASE OF USE

Once all your accounts are added to Mint, it’s ready to analyze your transactions and give you an overview of your spending. It is in this area that Mint truly outshines its traditional rivals, as Mint’s categorization tools are lightyears ahead of either Quicken or MS Money in simplicity and usability.

As we’ve stated in previous reviews, importing bank statement data is just the beginning of the work necessary to make personal finance apps useful, because bank statements are missing almost all the data necessary to categorize your transactions. If you use a debit card, most of your transactions will come through as coded point-of-sale numbers that don’t identify where you spent that $19.95. If you use paper checks, odds are all you’ll see on your statement is a check number with no idea to whom the check was paid. Asking software to “guess” what all these numbered transactions are for is a recipe for disaster, so the best that most software can do is give the user the tools to easily clean up and categorize the data. Only after your transactions are categorized can the software analyze your spending habits and build a budget.

Mint, quite frankly, makes categorizing your bank transactions easier than any other application we’ve ever seen. First of all, the transaction list itself is very user-friendly, with AJAX-based highlighting features that let you directly edit the name and category of any transaction.

Mint.com online finance transaction list

What sets Mint apart is the sorting functionality. If you have a repeat transaction, like a regular paycheck, regular bill, or favorite store your shop at, Mint lets you highlight the most recent transaction in the group, then mass-edit all of the similarly named transactions.

Mint.com online finance transaction sort

The same transaction clean-up that took two-and-a-half hours in Quicken took one hour in Mint. We were blown away by how much thought went into making transaction editing — which is the lynchpin of all personal finances apps — so easy and intuitive.

OVERALL PERFORMANCE

Unfortunately, for all that its transaction-sorting interface makes Mint easy to use, it would be nice if Mint did something besides give you a really clean, Web-accessible bank statement. Yes, Mint includes all your accounts and major assets, but you can’t pay bills from inside the interface, you can’t schedule regular paychecks or bills to project your cashflow, you can’t set up a savings plan, and you can’t even manage your paper checkbook with manual transaction entry.

Mint wants no part of actually managing your money; Mint just wants to show you how much you have, and where it’s gone in the past. To that end, Mint will let you set a “Budget” for each of your spending categories, and in so doing will automatically tell you how much you’ve historically spent in those areas, but all the budget really does is set an alert level.

Mint.com online finance budget setup

If you overspend your Food & Dining budget in a given month, for example, expect an e-mail and/or text alert scolding you. As to whether the budget you set is healthy or reasonable, Mint offers no guidance other than what you’ve done previously, and what your city, state, or the whole United States spends on average in that category. The multi-group budget comparison tool is cute, but so crude as to not be useful for anything other than a conversation starter.

Mint.com online finance budget progress

Mint does offer some basic, and pretty, spending breakdown pie graphs, but they don’t lead to any deep insights.

Mint.com online finance spending history

Setting the frequency and context of your e-mail or SMS alerts is handled easily, which is nice, since that’s really the only guidance Mint offers.

Mint.com online finance alert setup

Ironically, Mint’s partner product upsells are really one of its strongest features. If you click on the Ways To Save tab, Mint will look over your spending habits and suggest credit cards, bank accounts, and other financial products that offer the best perks or savings based on your financial profile.

Mint.com online finance upsell savings

Whether these recommendations are truly impartial is left unsaid, but Mint does go so far as predict specific monthly and annual savings based on adopting these product upsells. Thus, if you’re thinking of switching banks, money markets, or credit cards, Mint might prove useful in helping you sort out the best offers. Just don’t ask Mint to buy or sell anything using your new debit or credit instruments.

CONCLUSION

If all you want is the ultimate, interactive, holistic bank statement, Mint is exactly what you’re looking for. It can grab all your spending data from everywhere, add it all up, and let you know exactly how much money you’ve spent — and on what — from any Web browser.

If you want to actually spend or transfer money from the same interface that you use to track your finances, Mint falls woefully short. Simply put, Mint has a look-but-don’t-touch policy with your money, requiring you to use other programs or methods to move your cash around, pay bills, or make any kind of transaction. For most of us, this won’t be a real problem, so long as you don’t mind visiting multiple Web sites to pay your bills online, or you’re fine with continuing to write old-school paper checks to settle up each month.

Mint offers some very basic budget analysis and reminders, but can’t project your cashflow or account for regular events like paychecks or bills. On one hand, that simplicity is refreshing. On the other, we’d dearly love to see Mint’s excellent transaction-sorting interface wedded to a real, full-featured personal finance app. In fact, if Mint ever offered that option, we’d gladly pay a monthly fee to use it.

Bottom line: Mint is a near-perfect Web 2.0 virtual checkbook, so long as you don’t mind still writing checks the old-fashioned way — by hand, or in another program.

PROS

  • Incredibly intuitive
  • Near-perfect interface
  • Actual useful upsells

CONS

  • No bill-pay functions
  • No real budget guidance
  • Shallow analysis tools


LEAVE A COMMENT

0 Comments

|
All content posted on TechnologyGuide is granted to TechnologyGuide with electronic publishing rights in perpetuity, as all content posted on this site becomes a part of the community.