The idea of giving anyone my online banking usernames and passwords sends shivers up my spine. But my finances are more irregular than ever right now, so I’ve got to keep a close eye on them. For the last seven years, every month I dutifully fired up Microsoft Money (then later, Intuit’s Quicken) on my computer to balance my accounts. Now that I’m freelancing, it’s either feast or famine in my checking account, and that makes me want to jump off the roof instead of launch Quicken. When several months of personal finance denial went by without doing basic house-cleaning, I bounced a check. It was time to make keeping tabs on my money easier.
Enter Mint.com, a web-based finance aggregator. Given your online banking credentials, Mint logs into your accounts, fetches your transactions and balances for you, and arranges them into a single, well-designed dashboard. Back in October of 2007, Adam gave Mint a rave review on Lifehacker. But in the editors’ private chatroom I said I thought it looked great, but that I couldn’t bring myself to give it my online banking passwords. Last month, thanks to that bounced check, I finally bit the bullet. I’m glad I did.
I still feel icky about a third party storing my banking passwords. However, Mint actually keeps me safer from identity theft or break-ins because it can alert me the moment a big withdrawal, purchase, or deposit happens on any one of my accounts. Mint had built-in support for all my banks, from my checking and savings, to my mortgage account, to my investment accounts and retirement funds. (It does list ING Direct as an institution that occasionally blocks Mint requests, but after I set up my secret questions and answers and entered them, it had no problem getting my transactions). It also smartly guesses what categories a transaction should fall under, and lets you split transactions as well as tag them with multiple keywords. For example, I like that I can take a client out for lunch, and categorize it under “Restaurants” and also tag it “tax deduction.” You can’t do that in Quicken.
I like Mint’s simple budgeting tool, too. You set an amount you’d like to spend on a category–say, $300 on restaurants per month. On a given day during the month, Mint shows you how much you’ve spent as compared to what day of the month it is. The bar in the chart is yellow if you’re under budget for the month but over for the day in the month, and red if you’re over completely. Here’s what it looks like.
The other thing Mint does that Quicken doesn’t is send you email alerts when particular things happen in your accounts. You could probably set this up within each of your online bank accounts, but you can centralize it all in Mint. Right now I have it email me if a bill is due (like my AmEx payment), an account has a low balance (no more bounced checks!), or if a large ($1000+) deposit, purchase, or withdrawal happens on any account. All of this is configurable.
Now, instead of going for months in financial denial, when Mint emails me about a bill being due or a deposit clearing, I log on to get a quick overview of everything that’s going on in my accounts in one place. It’s way more convenient than logging into all my online banks separately, or launching Quicken, downloading transactions, categorizing and reconciling. I actually enjoy using Mint, and tools you love to use are tools you will use.
Regarding password storage, I also gave Mint’s competitor Wesabe a test-drive. What’s awesome about Wesabe is that unlike Mint, you can manually upload your transaction files to it, or use a Firefox extension to do it for you, which means you don’t have to save your passwords there. While I was happy about this option, in practice all that work felt like I was just using Quicken again. Wesabe doesn’t do transaction categories, just tags. It also doesn’t try to guess what tags it should use–you set that up, in addition to tagging rules for future incoming transactions (ie, “any transaction from Regents Pizza should get tagged restaurants.”) I liked Wesabe very much; in fact, it was a really tough decision whether or not to use it or Mint. I wound up going with Mint because it felt just a teensy bit more comfortable and automated to me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
I go on about the security risks of cloud computing often and I’m especially wary of any webapp that wants you to store sensitive information like passwords in it. But the cloud computing tradeoff, as always, is privacy for convenience. Right now the convenience of an all-in-one web-based finance manager outweighs my fears about storing my bank passwords in it. What about you?