I received an email the other day offering some suggestions to save about $500 a year through a variety of basically painless financial moves. Most consisted of suggestions like "move this account, which is making next to nothing, to this bank where they'll pay you 4 percent." The email also recommended that I build an emergency fund, provided a list of all my account balances (everything from banking to credit cards to investments), pointed out the top purchases of the previous week and provided a snapshot of my current budget (complete with successes and failures.)
The curious thing is that this email didn't come from my banker, my financial planner, my wife or my mother (though it certainly seemed like something that could have come from my mother, had she had this kind of detail about my financial life.)
No, this email was automatically generated by Mint (www.mint.com), an amazing free online service that will almost certainly change how you think about and interact with your money.
I'm tempted to say this is one of those things you have to see to believe and, perhaps, fully understand. But I'll try to paint a clear picture by starting with what it's not. It's not a financial planning service. You can't pay bills using Mint. It's not affiliated with your bank, but it does connect with more than 5,000 US banks and credit unions, and credit card, brokerage, and mutual fund companies to keep your transactions and account balances automatically up-to-date.
The result is very likely something entirely new to you: a simple service dedicated to pulling information from a variety of sources and making it easier to understand and analyze. So while it doesn't really help you spend your money, it does help you better manage it.
There are two truly beautiful things about Mint. The first is that it is absolutely simple to use. Just enter your login information for your accounts and the service does the rest. (I should note here that this might be the biggest hurdle users will face in the entire process. After years of being told not to enter our usernames and passwords in any Web interface or transaction that you didn't initiate, I'm now telling you to enter all of your usernames and passwords in one location. To do this, you may need a stiff drink or sedative handy. Or both.)
To its credit, there has been considerable effort put into the security procedures in place at Mint, and I can say with a high degree of certainty that your information will be safe. You probably take bigger risks handing a credit or debit card to a server in a restaurant than a Mint server on the Internet, but that's a different subject.
It might help to know they have extensive security information available on the site, and I recommend you read through it before you sign up. (That sedative might not be necessary after all.)
After you set up your account and provide the basic information, Mint queries your financial institutions to access transaction data.
After that, the patented Mint money management software does the rest, with virtually no work required. In their words, "It automatically pulls together your bank, credit union and credit card data, and provides up-to-date and amazingly accurate views of your financial life-from the big picture to specific details, in a friendly and intuitive way."
In reality, that description might pale compared to what it can do.
Which brings us to the second beautiful thing about Mint: It does everything it does beautifully. Well-designed pages, easy-toread and understand charts. Gorgeous graphs. It makes managing your money something pleasant, regardless of how much (or how little) you have.
Mint goes well beyond the reporting/ analysis to help you take control of your cash. It automatically creates a budget based on past purchases. You can use its numbers or adjust them for accuracy and control. You can set alerts, both email and text, to let you know when certain triggers happen. For example, if a balance falls below or a purchase happens above a threshold you determine, Mint can instantly notify you by sending an email to your account or a text message to your mobile phone, or both.
In addition to helping get a clear understanding of your current financial picture, Mint goes one step further (and, I'm guessing, makes its money) by helping you find better solutions for your situation. Using a unique search algorithm, Mint looks through thousands of offers from hundreds of providers to find the best deals on everything from bank accounts to credit cards. These suggestions are based on your situation and individual saving and spending patterns. They claim that Mint typically finds users $1,000 in savings opportunities in their first session. Your mileage may vary; it found about $500 in savings for me.
I've experienced and written about a lot of Internet applications over the last 15 years. But with its simple set-up, outstanding design, amazing features and ability to make a positive impact on your life, Mint is at the top of the list.
Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.