Mint: a review

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About five years ago I abandoned the last of my brick-and-mortar financial institutions so that I could manage my money exclusively online. I left Bank of America in favor of eTrade because I believed that as a modern Internet company eTrade stood a much better chance of developing the kind of banking application I would not only value, but also have a modern and savvy user interface. So I switched everything over and bought Quicken, with a rare enthusiasm and excitement for I believed that this would be the new dawn of a new me, a me that actually had his finances ordered and up to date at all times.

Imagine my surprise when I booted up Quicken only to find that it was incompatible with eTrade Bank. Believe it or not, that was in 2003. Three years later when my wife and I began to contemplate buying a new home and I had a renewed interest in trying to gain greater insight into how my wife and I spend money. So I decided to check back with Quicken and see if they had yet added support for eTrade Bank. They had not.

"Shock" does not even begin to describe the feeling I had. I had chosen eTrade because I believed that a company that existed almost exclusively online would work best with products like Quicken that wished to synchronize users' data with financial institutions over the Internet. Seems like a reasonable conclusion to reach, right? Um, yeah.

So in an effort to get a handle on my family's finances I turned to the oldest personal financial application around: Excel. I imported what I could from eTrade and then began the process of manually categorizing all of my income and expenditures over the past three months. It was excruciating and. mind-numbing. But it was also very error prone because my categorization scheme kept adapting and changing as I began to understand my own expenses more and more. During the whole process I kept asking myself, "can't Quicken do this for me? Don't they have enough people's data to know how people generally categorize a payment to Amazon or Grand Lake Theater?"

In the end I toiled over that spreadsheet for about 3-4 hours knowing full well that if I ever needed to update my finances I would need to do it all over again. Talk about poking yourself in the eye with a stick.

I had resigned myself to never finding a tool that would work for me. But just the other day, I stumbled upon a newly released product that in an almost clairvoyant fashion did exactly what I was trying to achieve in Excel in a little under 5 minutes. Plus it gave me the simple, easy to understand personal finance analytics I wanted out of Quicken, and it did it all for free.

So, yes, I am a fan of Mint. I will admit. But it is not perfect. It does a lot of things right, which I talk about below, but there are many things I would like to see it do differently.

Turning Personal Finance into a Game

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A number of notable product design folk talk about the use of game mechanics within the tools we use to help fuel our use of and addiction to them. These same game mechanics can also be used to turn otherwise mundane or even anxiety-ridden tasks into ones that are actually and quite possibly fun. The "game" Mint offers lies in encouraging the user to take actions in their personal life in order to manipulate Mint in respondiing in a favorable and desired way. One very simple example of how Mint does this already is with the widget that shows a user's ratio of equity to debt. This is an incredibly reductionist view of your finances, granted, but that is the beauty because it is easy for me to understand how to move the bar left and right. Another good example is the "how do you compare" feature which actually pits me against others users in the system. This I love because it taps into my competitive nature. I hate know for example that I pay more then most others for gas, especially consider how little my wife and I drive.

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Mint is only scratching the surface here. The truth is that Mint has lots of fertile ground to help provide additional feedback to the user to help encourage them to develop discipline around their finances, and I hope that Mint begins to define its more of its features with game mechanics specifically in mind. I just love the idea of an application I use enticing me to be better about finances - either overtly or subconsciously. I don't care, because the end result is a real value to me no matter what.

The Brilliance Behind the Product

Omniture and then Google showed the world that advertising can be actually be perceived as valuable by users when that advertising is actually relevant to the content of the page and provides some kind of value to the user. It is my belief that search remains the only context for advertising where the ad serves a purpose and value relatively equal to the content itself. Sure, content targeted advertising on blogs can be relevant, but they are still widely recognized as "ads" in the most pejorative sense of the word, and not immediately perceived as a value.

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Mint may very well have discovered the next form of ad unit that provides what consumers will widely perceive as truly valuable. Just click on the "Ways to Save" and you are immediately taken to a page that shows me products and services that will potentially save me money. For example, Mint knows what credit cards I have and their interest rate, so it can present me with credit cards to transfer my balance that will save me on interest payments. Mint also knows who my cell phone provider and can present me with alternative cell phone providers that can save me money on my monthly payment. I honestly hope that one day Mint will also:

  • Help me find a better longer term mortgage. What I hope Mint does not do is help me lower my monthly payment. That is a crock. I want Mint to help me build equity in my home, not help others leach equity from it.
  • Offer vacation packages for me based upon the cities it sees me spend money. For example, Mint should know that I visit Los Angeles from time to time, and should be able to offer ways to save on my next trip there.
  • Help me find a better place to save my money by recommending CDs or Mutual Funds based upon how much of my equity is liquid on average.

A Few Recommendations for Mint

  • Make Community More Apparent - The "How do you Compare" feature is awesome, but I think there is greater potential to inform how users can more actively contribute to the system and one another. It would be great to actually show information about each transaction on how others have categorized an item. I am certain their must be something at work on the backend taking into account how others are training the system, but surfacing that information I think will help encourage that behavior in users even more.

  • Allow for Category Suggestions - I actually like the constraints you place around categories. While I think a compelling argument can be made to allow people to create their own ontology, I think it is wiser to constrain users, lest they over complicate something that Mint is trying to keep simple. But man, I sure would like a few changes made... perhaps you could let users suggest categories? For example, I would love a category for Home Business (both income and expense). Oh, and I want a "Delivery" option under Food because one thing I am dying to know about myself is how often I "order out."

  • Encourage me to Categorize - I think categorization is one of the most important activities a user can engage in. There should be some kind of statistic on the dashboard widget that shows how many uncategorized items I may have. When I click it I should be taken to a "to do list" of sorts that shows all of the uncategorized transactions in my account. As I assign each to a category, my to do list gets smaller and smaller. Ultimately I should categorize very infrequently because over time I should be training the system to do it for me.

  • "Labels?" Come on, they're tags. - I wish a more conventional method for applying labels, or let's be honest with one another, tags to my transactions. I would be more diligent about tagging my transactions if the process was more fluid and less cumbersome. Go for a tagging interaction model like Flickr or Vox.

  • Spending Trends Improvements - The pie chart is nice, but it is not 66%-of-the-screen-nice. Some of the stats I am really interested in are the less prominent stats, like who are my "favorite" merchants, especially over time. I also want to gain a better understanding of income as well and the ebb and flow of income to expense. Let me blow up spending charts... I want to see more than the top 3 places I spend money within any given category.

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5 Comments

Thanks for the thoughtful review and the product suggestions. Several of the product suggestions that you have written about are in progress. Looking forward to getting your perspective as soon as they are live!

Thanks for using Mint.

Byrne,

Great review. My VP of Product pointed me to this as one of the most insightful reviews he's read.

Of all the blogs and press we've received, you alone (so far) realize that Mint "ads" are revolutionary - users only see them if they're calculated to save or make them money.

Thanks for the suggestions. We're working on more comparison and competition features - the back-end is written, we just need to tie it into the front-end.

Aaron Patzer Founder & CEO, Mint.com

I third the nice review part. I'm heavily ingesting the Mint Kool-Aid but I would like to add my things I'd like to see (since you've gotten the Founders attention):

  • A way to export my transactions.
  • Partnership with a couple banks so I don't feel so paranoid about my account info being stored with a third party.
  • API or Little Language to create custom reports within Mint.

The last one might be a pipe dream but I'd really like the ability to get my data out of Mint easily.

Have you noticed lots of transactions getting duplicated in your Mint data? It's very annoying. I submitted a bug about it but haven't heard back in about a week and a half (after getting a human reply in about 10 minutes).

I really hope that mint pulls through on this one.

Seth, we have identified several reasons why duplicate transaction may occur. These cases should be addressed early next week and your dups should be removed automatically. If they persist, please contact us again and we will investigate further.

Thanks for the feedback. - Aaron

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Recent Comments

  • Seth, we have identified several reasons why duplicate transaction may occur. These cases should be addressed early next week and your dups should be removed automatically. If they persist, please contact us again and ...

    Aaron Forth, VP of Product, Mint.com
    Mint: a review
  • Have you noticed lots of transactions getting duplicated in your Mint data? It's very annoying. I submitted a bug about it but haven't heard back in about a week and a half (after getting a human reply in about 10 minu...

  • I third the nice review part. I'm heavily ingesting the Mint Kool-Aid but I would like to add my things I'd like to see (since you've gotten the Founders attention): A way to export my transactions. Partnership with a...

  • Byrne, Great review. My VP of Product pointed me to this as one of the most insightful reviews he's read. Of all the blogs and press we've received, you alone (so far) realize that Mint "ads" are revolutionary - users...

    Aaron Patzer
    Mint: a review
  • Thanks for the thoughtful review and the product suggestions. Several of the product suggestions that you have written about are in progress. Looking forward to getting your perspective as soon as they are live! Thank...

    Aaron (Mint Product Management)
    Mint: a review
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