Why I Stopped Being Paranoid and Started Using Mint

August 7, 2009

Mint logoThe 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.

Mint budget

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.

Mint alerts

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?

I got turned onto Mint about 8 or 9 months ago and continue to be amazed at it’s feature set. That, coupled with the iPhone app make it a no-brainer for me.

I love the ease of use, because I really don’t like spending time watching my finances, I prefer much of it to be automatic. Mint definitely fits the bill!

Bill Clark [+7]
Aug 7 09 at 2:07 pm

I like Mint but get a little frustrated that it doesn’t pick up “Pending” transactions in my checking account (Bank of America). For this reason it always seems like my Mint is a couple of days behind and I have to go login to the BofA page to get the complete picture.

There is also a bug where one of my investment funds gets double counted on the “Movers and Shakers” box on the overview screen. They say they are aware of this issue but it has been outstanding for some time.

Russell McLean [+2]
Aug 7 09 at 3:52 pm

Have been dying to try Mint, but it’s yet another web service restricted to Americans only. Wesabi is supported in Canada, and I tried it for awhile but just got overwhelmed with all the tagging and manual uploading that didn’t seem worth the hassle in the end. And then the paranoia of giving away the financial information got the best of me, and just gave up.

But if Mint ever comes our way I’ll be sure to check it out!

Ted Avery [+13]
Aug 7 09 at 4:13 pm

I don’t use Mint, but after your write-up I’ll probably give it a try.

I, too, was skeptical about giving my credentials to a third-party. However, in the last few years, more than 50 million people have had their personal info (name, account and soc. security numbers) compromised by their own banks. Citi, BoA, and Wachovia all allowed massive security breaches or simply “lost” their own customers’ data.

Mint has a lot more to lose if they are compromised, and they’re less susceptible to breaches (fewer employees, no branches). In reality, your data is probably as safe or safer with Mint than it is with your own bank.

Mike Cerm [+21]
Aug 7 09 at 4:49 pm

Like Bill Clark, I’ve been a user for eight or nine months. I like the weekly financial statements emailed to me, but like Russel McLean I also end up going to BofA to get the complete picture. And my experience is that Mint doesn’t consistently play nicely with ING. even though I enter my security questions properly to get it synced, the connection frequently breaks and I have to redo it. So I still use Quicken and download my transactions directly from BofA. Mint is sort of the suspenders to Quicken’s belt.

Herm71
Aug 7 09 at 5:44 pm

I started using Microsoft Money with my first computer back in like 1995. To this day, I still have my transactions from when I first opened my checking account. I used it religiously for years and then I just slacked off after getting married. Six years later, I decided to just give it up. I still have receipts from my honeymoon somewhere around here that never got entered.

Once I saw what Mint was capable of, I mustered up enough courage to give up on those old receipts and start with a fresh slate. It was really hard for a control freak like myself to do that, but I’m glad I did. Mint can be what you want it to be. Very hands-on and customizable through your own tags and categories or you can sit back and just use it to aggregate.

More than anything, I think it really helps you get a good sense of where you stand financially. What’s my net worth? How much debt am I rolling? What account has the smallest balance that I can knock out first? Am I really making a dent in my student loans and mortgage? I mean, let’s be honest here. How often do you really go out and login to all of your financial websites? When was the last time you checked on your IRA or 401(k)?

In terms of security, Mint doesn’t know or use account numbers. It simply uses your website credentials and secret Q&A for setting up your accounts. You also can’t move money via Mint, which I think helps ease the mind.

Anyway, glad to see you’re enjoying it Gina. It’s not perfect but it’s definitely a step in right direction. I just wish they had a WinMo app.

JD [+5]
Aug 7 09 at 7:25 pm

I’m still leary of the security thing… I understand that it’s read-only and that you can’t use Mint to move money around.

But they’re still storing your bank/account usernames and passwords (to get at your transactions)… so if there’s a breach involving those credentials, then the person who gets them simply goes to the financial institutions web sites and does their damage that way (rather than via Mint).

I’m really intrigued, but I still think it takes a great deal of faith to give a startup my passwords for banks, credit cards, investment accounts, and so on. Am I missing something?

JD
Aug 7 09 at 8:11 pm

Being paranoid is only a problem if it impacts the normal living of your life. This company (who probably offer a cool server) jingle something shiny in front of you and you line up to give them your financial data. I can’t believe how short-sighted you are being; just because this is a web 2.0 company? “There’s no such thing as privacy,” some might respond. Perhaps, but you don’t have to hand these companies/orgs your info on a silver platter. Maybe you trust these guys now, but companies can be sold, CEOs ousted, and laws changed. Is the risk really worth it to get a consolidated view of the mostly insignificant products and services you purchase? Good luck unringing this bell.

webagogue
Aug 7 09 at 9:48 pm

I think it should be said clearly that it is for Americans only. None of my banks (one of the biggest in Italy and one of the biggest in Russia) are supported.

As I stated many times, I’m not sure that moving everything on line is everytime a good move.
And personal finance is one of the things that in my opinion should be integrated with data available on line, but kept strictly stand alone.

On this point of view there are also a couple of points that helped to build this idea:

a) the fact that while I travel for work (and maybe I don’t have an internet connection available), I use to arrange my accounts and check my budget. and I can do this easily with the client version of some accounting suite.
b) the fact that my bank use a One Time Password, making quite impossible a complete integration with on line services. :-)

This post as a comment at http://ictheworld.wordpress.com

hotrao [+10]
Aug 8 09 at 5:17 am

I’ve been using Mint.com for about 650 days and have never had any issues. I think it’s worth pointing out that Mint.com is just one component of managing my money. Here are a few other things I do:

1. My wife and I have a shared Google Calendar specifically for bills so we know all of our due dates. This is especially important for transactions that are automatically pulled from our checking account.

2. I check Mint.com each day. Yes, every single day. If I do it every day it takes less than two minutes and as soon as I see a transaction has come through, I shred the receipt. This way I never accumulate more than about 3-5 receipts.

3. My wife and I still use a “paper” budget. We have the budget shared as a Google doc so we can both update it throughout the month. The last Sunday of the month we review the entire budget and create the budget for the next month.

4. We have a shared list using Zenbe on the iPhone. We put all transactions that are scheduled and checks that we’ve written. As soon as the transactions show up in Mint.com I delete them from Zenbe.

Like you, I overdrew an account a few years ago. This four step system has prevented the same mistake. Welcome to Mint!!

kylepott [+2]
Aug 8 09 at 6:20 am

@Gina: Who to trust, and how much to trust them, is certainly an important question when dealing with your accounts online; I can certainly understand your reluctance, Gina. I actually get a couple of Thrive (www.justthrive.com) users a week that call up and ask about security, and I always tell them that I’m actually glad they called: consumers that ask about this sort of thing are good consumers.

In your second paragraph, you seem to imply that Mint is storing your bank username and password; I’d be surprised if that were actually the case. I can’t confirm how Mint handles their data, but at Thrive, a secure connection is made to your bank but none of your account information is actually stored on our servers. This way, in the unlikely event we ever did get hacked, no one would be able to log in to your bank. I believe Mint uses a similar system, but again, since I don’t work for them, I can’t be sure.

The way I like to explain the one-way security tunnel at Thrive is as a multi-step process. When you first login, we take your sign-up credentials and they are sent to your bank, to create the secure tunnel. We DO NOT store the logins on our server – after the secure tunnel is created, it simple sits as a one-way tunnel for information. Banks can push information to us, and we cannot push it back.

If you change your login credentials, your bank breaks the tunnel and lets us know – we then request updated credentials for you. Again, your credentials are not stored on our servers, they are simply used to recreate the tunnel.

So there are two data-loss situations. In one case, you Thrive account credentials are hacked and someone can log in as you. What can they see? Your balances, your transactions, what types of accounts you have, and what banks you use. Damaging information, to be sure. But they don’t have your bank passwords or logins, they can’t change anything at your bank or move any money around. They can only view some sensitive information about you, which they could get straight from your mailbox – it is the same information on any paper statement you receive.

The other data-loss situation is a hacking of our servers, not just your account. The same information is available, but on a vastly larger number of people.

I suspect the same is true at Mint, though I can’t be sure. Which isn’t to say that I think all security systems are created equal. There are several differences between how Mint and Thrive handle security. For one, and I think this is big: you can actually call us. We pick up the phone, we talk back, we’ll answer questions and address security concerns. We even welcome visitors in the office, if they are in NYC – you can come check on the people that accepted your sign-in data and we’ll usually buy you lunch, if someone is free. I’d love to see Mint make the same commitment.

Another difference: we’re talking to you (on Saturday morning, no less!). =] We’re actively out there in the world, talking about bank and data security, and what people can and should do to keep themselves safe. We consider increasing financial literacy (which includes security discussions) part of what personal finances need to do to help the public and serve their members.

Unlike Mint, we also ask for your name and phone number. Why? Because in the event of a data emergency, we want to be able to contact you immediately, verify your identity, and get to work dealing with the problem. Anonymity is a double-edged sword: less for hackers for steal, but less ability to actually help you with security issues.

I think the important issue raised here is finding a site and a method of money management that you’re comfortable with. Everyone has to choose for themselves, based on the positives and negatives, of joining a site like Thrive. And honestly, if someone understands all the considerations and still chooses not to use Thrive, we’re totally fine with that – it isn’t for everyone and some people are less comfortable than others. I simply care that people understand what they are and aren’t making accessible by using such a site, and all the things they stand to gain.

If you aren’t comfortable giving your bank account information to a site, remember that it is vitally important that you are managing your money. Consider checking out this article over at Get Rich Slowly, which names a number of offline options. Whether you use a website like Thrive or something offline, find a way to take control of your financial life.

Matt Wallaert [+1]
Aug 8 09 at 7:49 am

@Nadezda Moiseeva: If you don’t mind, shoot me a note at matt@justthrive.com and let us know what banks you are having trouble getting support for. I want to make sure that we connect to them and, if not, turn them over to our account team to contact so that we can get them setup.

@Herm71: Just an FYI, the ING Direct problem is ING’s decision, not Mint (or Thrive, or anyone else’s). ING has chosen to not support their customers and has pledged not to work with aggragators.

@Mike Cerm: That is a valuable point, and one we make often at Thrive. In reality, we’re actually storing much less information than your bank is, and if someone compromises your bank, they can actually move money around (which you can’t do in Thrive, Mint, or any other account aggregator that I know of).

However, I did have a chat with the COO a few weeks ago when he was in New York, and I suggested a secure solution they could use to connect to Thrive, which he said they are working on to have implemented by the end of the year.

@Ted Avery: Thrive works in Canada, and with most of the major Canadian banks. If you give us a try and find that we don’t support your bank, just shoot us a note at support@justthrive.com and we’ll get it added to our list of banks to talk to.

Matt Wallaert [+1]
Aug 8 09 at 7:55 am

I am a Mint.com fan! I too gulped at putting in those username and passwords for my banking information, but I was persuaded to go for it by a colleague who’s got a masters in computer science. I decided if he was ok with it, I’d be ok with it. I set up a Mint.com account about four months ago. I’m a few paychecks away from retiring from my current position. Carefully tracking my spending over the last four months has actually been reassuring! I’m going to keep trying to find a way to generate some additional income, but I can see that I’ll be able to manage if I can keep my wits about me and don’t imagine I can do anything fancy. (P.S. Whatever you are saving toward your retirement… It’s not enough. I sure wish I’d caught on earlier in my work life.)

Ilene Frank [+1]
Aug 8 09 at 5:05 pm

The only thing that keeps me tied to MS Money is the Cash Flow Chart. A lot of times we want to see what our cash flow looks like over the next 15 or 30 days to see if we can afford to buy a new bike or take a mini vacation. If Mint had that it’d be my killer financial app.

Nathan Jovin
Aug 9 09 at 7:39 am

My issue with Mint.com is that I want reminders for my other bills–utilities, insurance, mortgage, etc. Mint will do it for those accounts they monitor, but if they don’t monitor them like they do your Credit Cards and Bank Accounts, you are out of luck.

Personally, I’m looking for something with much tighter integration with my bank’s online payment system–I use BoA. My issue, really is with how MS Money handles Electronic Payments and how my bank’s website does.

At the end of the day, Mint is a nice snapshot of things, but sometimes there are things a connected financial software such as Quicken handle better.

I’m still looking for the perfect zen-like combination.

JJT
Aug 9 09 at 10:14 am

Thanks for the review, Gina. Were there reasons why you chose Mint over the online version of Quicken?

Andrew [+2]
Aug 9 09 at 12:00 pm

Without the capability to create or change top-level categories, Mint.com has very limited usability for me. Dumping so many categories under other categories as sub-categories makes it tough to manage anything.

Jim

J-Mac
Aug 9 09 at 12:39 pm

Mint would be fantastic if they offered a download version of it instead of it being a web 2.0/cloud application. I understand the appeal of the cloud but for security, I really like the control of installed software. I’m not a programmer, so perhaps this is a very naive stance.

mvrpbrian
Aug 10 09 at 10:27 am

I signed up for Mint a while ago, and while I still have at least one bank that’s not supported by them (pretty much a reminder for me to leave them and consolidate my retirement accounts) I absolutely love it, if for nothing more than a consolidated view of my financial activity at this stage.

I haven’t even touched on some of the power features you’ve described here, and the rest that are under the hood – my rationale for signing up was that I was tired of logging into three banks to see my retirement funds, three banks for three different credit cards, and two banks for checking and savings accounts – I wanted a way to see it all, and all of their respective activity, at the same time, and Mint is perfect for that.

The fact that there’s so much more under the hood, all for free, is cake!

phoenix [+3]
Aug 10 09 at 7:09 pm

Been using Mint for a few months now and love it! Like you, I used to use Quicken. Mint is so much nicer as far as managing personal finances + added view of business accounts.

Curious as to what you use for Business finances. I use Quickbooks and am happy with it. (Would be interested in a business counterpart to Mint; Mint-like competitor to Quickbooks.)

Dakota

dburns [+1]
Aug 11 09 at 2:59 pm

Hi
I am a developer and want to warn you to not give out your credentials to anybody. I would not even store them offline on my harddisk.

Eventhough such services as mint try to be as save as possible, there are several reasons for not using them:
- it is just another place that can be hacked. Don’t compare security with your bank. This is not instead, it is in addition.
- it is a very attractive place to be hacked (or just sniffed, listening in)
- it is probably illegal (read your banks terms about online banking) to share credentials with anyone. Therefore, if something happens it is your own fault.
- most us banks do not use a TAN (transaction number) or one time password for transactions, which is very dangerous (just stupid). Therefore once your credentials become known transactions can be made.

These are probably reasons why some banks are simply not cooperating with such services.
I strongly advice anyone to not use them ( sorry to be that direct ).

Highwind
Aug 21 09 at 8:22 am


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