Mint for iPhone: A Handy Attachment for a Personal Finance Power Tool
The site Mint.com is a personal finance service that gathers all your various accounts into one place and helps you keep eagle-eyed track of what's going in and what's going out in real time. Its iOS app is very convenient for on-the-go access to the site's features, though it's best used as a supplement, not a replacement, for accessing Mint through its main desktop page.
The Mint.com Personal Finance app for Apple's iOS iPhones, iPads and iPods quickly led me to a staggering realization: The application is not only astoundingly powerful; it's quite sobering, too. But let's take a step back.
The Mint.com Personal Finance app is basically an iOS gateway application to the online Mint.com personal finance service.
While you can sign up for the service within the app itself, I went to the Mint.com website first and signed up there.
For best results, you'll want to use the Mint.com service from both a Web browser as well as the Mint.com Personal Finance app.
Why? The browser-based access gives you more: The website is like being able to walk inside of a house and visit all the rooms, while the app is more like being able to peer into all the house's windows.
So What Is Mint.com, Anyway?
Mint.com is a free personal finance aggregator, so to speak. It pulls all of your financial accounts into a single place, and once there, Mint.com can automatically slice and dice your financial activity into different types of spending, letting you generate budgets, and generally see where all your money is -- and where it's going. It adds up all your assets and liabilities, monitors your cash flow for the month, and tracks it all in near real-time, updating itself with all your latest transactions and payments.
Not surprisingly, I had some reservations going in. Did I really want to enter all my financial information into some website? What was this information going to be used for? Who had access to it? Is it even safe and secure?
I haven't been messing around with Mint.com for long yet, so I'm not sure how well this will shake out for myself -- or for individuals, for that matter. But when it comes to protecting my individually identifiable Mint.com details, the service seems to understand that protecting their users and not misusing their data and identities is a very good thing. I recommend that you take the time to actually read these documents for yourself, of course, before you sign up.
Still, I must also say that one reason I chose to give Mint.com a chance is that Mint.com is an Intuit company, and Intuit is the company that's been producing the Quicken and QuickBooks financial budgeting and accounting applications for years. I believed that Mint.com would have a broad reach into many online banks and financial services, giving me a good shot at having all my finances covered and available securely.
Mint.com Is a Visual Tool
It's important to note what Mint.com is not: It is not a tool that lets you access and transfer money. No, Mint.com is a read-only service. It let's you organize, view, plan and hopefully act on the information you learn. As such, it's surprisingly powerful.
Once you sign up, Mint.com prompts you to enter in your account information. I thought I was going to have to laboriously enter in long account numbers, but no, it was much easier than I expected: Because Mint.com uses information provided by your user accounts, it can snag all the accounts that belong to you just from your user names and passwords.
So, as a consumer, you probably have more than one account at your bank -- probably a checking, savings, a line of credit, and a credit card account. To get all this data into Mint.com, you can search for your bank, enter in a URL, or select from a list of common financial institutions. Once you select the right company, you enter in your user name and password. If you already do online banking with your bank, for example, this is a breeze. I have online access enabled for most financial products, so I already have the user names and passwords. If you have a credit card, for example, and you've never ever accessed your account for that credit card online, you'll first have to enable online access through that credit card company.
When I entered in my user name and password for my primary bank, I was astounded: In less than five minutes, Mint.com had connected to my bank and was already delivering a starting budget based on the types of spending it could glean from my debit and credit cards usage. I'm not sure if can recognize the correct categories for personal checks, but I'm guessing that if the check is written to a grocery store, the amount will get tagged to your monthly grocery budget. But if you write a check to lady who sold you a jacket at a yard sale, I'm pretty sure it's not going to show up in your clothing budget.
Speaking of Budgets
The initial value in the Mint.com app and online service is the instant and updated visibility it provides into your personal finances. If you have more than one credit card, Mint.com will add up all your credit card debt, for example, and present it to you as a running total. This is exactly where Mint.com can be a sobering application. Holy macaroni, Batman, how did these numbers climb so high?
Because Mint.com can communicate with your financial accounts, you can see the effect of a coffee purchase on your Coffee Shops line item of your budget. I have a few friends who drink a lot of coffee from coffee shops, and I can imagine most of them walking along the sidewalk and accessing their budget on their iPhone via their Mint.com Personal Finance App for the first time: When they see a crazy total, I see them spraying a mouthful of coffee everywhere in surprise. $4.99 here, $5.49 there ... adds up fast over the course of a month, and Mint.com will show it to you.
You know what this also means, don't you? That's right. If you've got a coffee-drinking spouse, these purchases will no longer be buried as innocuous line items in a big monthly statement. They'll add up to real money, so watch out.
Even more powerful is how Mint.com keeps track of all your spending: It's Cash Flow in the app itself, but it's the Transactions tab on Mint.com ... everyday you can see what money went out and where it came in from. The grocery store, the gas station, and the automatic withdrawals from your insurance company. I'm surprised at how good it is about helping me keep track of automatic charges and withdrawals that I know come out every month, but I never really remembered when, exactly, they were deducted or charged. So a Web service fee is set for the 23rd of each month while an insurance payment is the 27th. This is important when you look at a line graph of your budget for an item in realtime. If you don't know when Netflix is getting paid, maybe you don't have an extra $12 bucks to go to a movie. Just an example.
There's So Much More
One of the useful things about Mint.com and the Mint.com app is the alerts and notifications it sends. If you've got a credit card payment due, it'll send you an alert. If you're at an Apple Retail Store and you're lusting over a new iPad, you can tap open the Mint.com app and realize that you don't have enough money in your checking or savings account to buy the iPad. Or you can make sure that you won't max out your credit card by picking up one of the new wicked-fast MacBook Pros.
Mint.com will also help you set goals, like helping you pay off credit cards or save to buy a car. These intensely visual actions and ability to remind you as you walk around town with your Mint.com Personal Finance app in the palm of your hand seem to be potentially quite powerful.
Still, it's not 100 percent automatic. You have to spend some time double-checking items. While it's surprisingly self-sufficient, as I was browsing my spending trends online, I found that I had somehow spent quite a lot of money on "Sports." Delving deeper, I learned that this was actually a loan payment to a financial institution. I don't understand how this happened, of course, but fixing it was relatively easy by tagging the transaction to the appropriate category.
High Hopes and Dreams
The app itself is easy to use and features highly visible tracking bars that show color and activity. Your available cash is green, of course, and thankfully your credit debt is simply black and not glaringly red. First and foremost, Mint.com is all about helping you understand how you're spending and saving your money, and if you need any help at all with this challenge, the Mint.com Personal Finance app is a good place to start.
For me personally, I don't have to remember gobs of user names and passwords to watch my spending activity through all my accounts, plus I can access account information on the go with my iPhone without having to tap into a browser window or use a specific financial institution's dedicated app.
Ultimately, it will take me a few months to see if the excitement it provides in the early days of use will extend to forward progress and larger green numbers for my checking, savings and investment accounts.