How Mint Works

Getting done with school, starting a new job or moving in with a significant other all represent new chapters of your life, often accompanied with new financial goals. Amidst that excitement, nothing could be more frightening than not having a clue as to what your new lifestyle will cost.


Mint is a budgeting and personal finance app that helps you plan for costs of living, track your spending and stay on top of bills. It's one of the oldest and most recognized personal finance apps, especially amongst those pseudo-accountants who classify their spending in tightly-managed categories.



ACCOUNT SETUP

To begin linking external accounts, you'll go to the settings button in the upper right-hand corner of the home screen and tap "Accounts." This is where you can also manage the connection of accounts you've already linked, which is sometimes helpful when trying to figure out why a certain account balance looks off. Unfortunately, linking a new account doesn't happen in the background, so you'll need to give the app 10-15 seconds to pull in balance and transaction data for each account you link.


Have some non-traditional financial accounts like Coinbase, PayPal or perhaps a co-brand credit card like the Venmo card? Since Mint uses Yodlee for account aggregation instead of a provider like Plaid, you'll be able to link more of the lesser-known FinTech apps than you can with other budgeting apps.


BUDGET & BILLS SETUP

On Mint's "Monthly" tab, you can create spending limits for just about any expense, bill or cash inflow. For recurring expenses, Mint will take an inventory of active bills and subscriptions and cleanly display them on a calendar so that you're always aware of what's coming up.


For non-recurring expenses, you can set budgets at a category (e.g., Food & Dining) or subcategory (e.g., Groceries) level, just noting that, if you have both, you'll be capturing the subcategory's transaction in both budgets. For the sneakerhead or beer connoisseur, Mint allows you to add custom categories that help distinguish precise areas of spend. If you lack a sense of "what's normal" to spend in a given month, Mint will display your monthly average spend in each category based on its analysis of historical transactions.


To avoid accounting overload, I find it easiest to let the app tag transactions at a granular level but manage their budgets at the broader category level. Just remember that the more granular you get with your budgets, the more time you'll likely spend manually adjusting tags that Mint doesn't accurately attribute to the right category. Additionally, Mint will always summarize your total monthly at the top of the "Budgets" screen.


It's important to know that, unlike many other budgeting apps, Mint offers a fairly robust web app, in addition to its mobile app, that includes features not available on iOS or Android. Some of these features include the option to mark a budget as recurring versus one-time, set rollover budgets and export transactions to a spreadsheet.


TRACKING EXPENSES

Once you've linked an account, your activity will be automatically pulled into the app and auto-tagged by Mint. While new transaction data isn't displayed in real-time (as is the case with most banks' apps), I find that Mint refreshes its connections faster and more regularly than many other budgeting apps - meaning that your Starbucks order this morning will often be present when logging into the app in the evening.


For those that like to religiously monitor their daily spending, Mint offers a number of transaction tagging and annotation features, such as hiding certain transactions and transfers from your budget calculation, splitting a single transaction into multiple categories and adding custom notes or tags to a transaction. Oddly enough, Mint seems to have done away with the very common feature of specifying whether a category tag should apply to a single transaction or to all go-forward transactions at a given merchant (to classify your purchase of a new futon at Target differently than your weekly grocery run).


For the hands-on budgeter, Mint is everything you could ask for - and more. Where you'll just want to be wary is the presence of the large volumes of advertising inside the app that can convince you that you're really missing out on credit card rewards and great interest rates.



NOTE: This post was based on Version 150.39.0 of the Mint iOS mobile app