Automation. What do you think of when you hear that word? Perhaps you think of robots, self-driving cars, or computers in general. But have you ever thought you could put the power of Automation to work for yourself? The truth is, this one word lies at the heart of making life more efficient. And in many cases, you can put this power to work for free.
Let me introduce you to Mint.com. Mint is an incredibly useful piece of free software to track all your finances – credit cards, bank accounts, investment accounts, loans, etc. I’ve used Mint for years and have been very satisfied with the experience. I even contacted customer service once when a particular bank account wouldn’t connect, and they were able to fix the issue – not bad for a service I’ve never paid a dime for!
How it works
Mint works by connecting directly to each of your accounts online and pulling in all the transaction data and account balances and compiling everything conveniently in one place. All you need is your account’s online login information, and Mint should be able to connect to it – but honestly, if you don’t have online access to your accounts, what are you doing? You are no longer permitted to keep reading this article, and must drop everything right now and go set up free online access with every financial account you own. It’s 2018 already, geez.
Mint has worked beautifully with all Canadian and US accounts I’ve tried – Tangerine Bank, EQ Bank, Scotiabank, Questrade, and American Express in Canada; Discover, Chase, Betterment, and Capital One in the US. I have a Mint widget on my phone, so with a quick glance at my phone I can see every transaction from all my accounts, sorted by newest transaction first. If I don’t recognize something, I can quickly figure out what it is.
The real power of Mint, however, lies in its ability to automatically sort everything into budgeted categories. You can use the pre-set categories, or create your own names – it’s fully customizable! And if you don’t like the category Mint automatically assigns, you can actually “teach” it to categorize things on a certain way. For example, every month there’s a cheque transaction that shows up in my account for $600. After having repeatedly manually changed this miscellaneous cheque transaction for this amount to the “Rent” category, Mint has started doing this automatically. Sweet.
At the end of every month, I scroll through my list of transactions, making sure everything looks right. I also take a look at my budgets, and if anything looks wrong or I’ve spent more than I thought in a certain category, I can click that category and view only those transactions. “Oh yeah, I forgot I purchased those shoes,” I’ll think. “That’s why my clothing budget is higher than normal.” I’ve found both their website and phone app to be very intuitive and useful.
Now, some of you are probably wondering about the security of Mint. “Oh no, I have to enter all my passwords to all my accounts?!? What if I get HACKED??” Personally I don’t lose any sleep over this at night. First of all, Mint only has read-only access to your accounts. So even if someone were to somehow access your Mint account, they would be able to see your transactions and accounts… but would be unable to access your actual money or move it anywhere. Secondly, Mint is owned by Intuit, the same company that owns QuickBooks and TurboTax, which millions of people trust. They use bank-level encryption and in many cases set the standard for security. So is Mint “risky”? In a sense, but so is walking around in public with all your credit cards in your pocket. For me, the immense benefits of not having to manually record and categorize any transactions far outweighs this tiny risk.
What’s the catch?
“Nothing is free… so what’s the catch?” Great point! And yes, there is a “catch” to this free software… sort of. In addition to their free tracking and budgeting software, they also partner with banks and credit cards to provide “personalized” offers to you – this is, to my knowledge, primarily how Mint makes money. If you sign up for a credit card or bank account Mint suggests to you, they make a commission. These ads are fairly non-intrusive and are just in a section of the website – no pop-up ads or anything like that. Again, like with the security risk, the benefits of using Mint for free far outweigh the small annoyance of these ads.
How I use Mint
I love efficiency, but I’m also a huge nerd, and I like analyzing my spending in much further depth than Mint provides. So these days, I mostly use Mint to aggregate and track and categorize all my transactions. Then at the end of every month, I export the monthly transactions, and copy-paste the data into a huge Google spreadsheet that I’ve developed based off the one posted here, but heavily modified for my own personal use.
I’ve found this to be a much more custom solution which also satisfies my engineer’s desire to tinker with how it all works and change/add features every now and then, such as auto-converting my US accounts to Canadian dollars. If you have any interest in seeing what I’ve done with my personal sheet, give me a shout and I’ll be happy to help out!
There are plenty of other budgeting software options (YNAB and Personal Capital come to mind), but I’ve found Mint to be one of the best freebies out there. Do you have any favourite budgeting software? How do you manage your budgets and finances? Let us know in the comments!