March 6 (Bloomberg) -- In Mint.com’s creation story, as recounted on its Web site, founder Aaron Patzer started the free online personal-finance service after a tedious 2005 session with Intuit Corp.’s Quicken budgeting software. These days, any complaints about Quicken should be directed at Patzer himself.
Tired of getting its clock cleaned by his upstart operation, Intuit last year bought Mint and put Patzer in charge of its entire personal-finance operation. Now he and his new parent face the task of figuring out how the various pieces will fit together and rejuvenating Intuit’s Quicken franchise.
Mint’s greatest strength is its ability to create a budget for people who don’t have the time or patience to make one themselves. Think of it as “Quicken: Short-Attention-Span Edition.” Once you provide log-ins for your bank accounts, credit cards and other financial activities, the site gathers your transactions, categorizes them, analyzes your spending patterns and says, “OK, here’s how much you have to play with.”
Now, I long ago got over any reluctance to trust software with my financial information. Still, it felt a little weird to know Mint was looking at my spending habits. It’s much the same feeling I get knowing Google Inc. is analyzing the contents of my Gmail messages in order to show me ads.
There are two ways of looking at how good a job Mint does. On the one hand, it’s impressive to have a budget at all, given that Mint constructs it with, essentially, no input from you. On the other hand, you’d think that a service that smart ought to know that a teenage daughter’s purchases from the Sephora cosmetics chain are more likely to be in the “personal care” realm than “clothing.” While Mint correctly guessed that purchases made at Whole Foods Market were likely to be groceries, it couldn’t figure out that transactions from Kings Super Markets were, too.
So what do you do? You notice the problems and fix them yourself. In other words: You’re refining your budget. After a while, you may even find yourself clicking over to the Planning tab and beginning to do more serious work on your financial future. The key is that you’re doing it as you go along, and on your own timetable.
Among other nice features, Mint provides a simple way to track the value of your investments, a useful companion iPhone app and a set of e-mail or text alerts for low balances, pending bills and exceeding your budget.
On the other hand, the service stumbled over handling a home-equity line. Mint’s customer-service department replied promptly via e-mail with a solution that turned out to be incorrect, but that set me on the path to solving the problem myself.
Mint makes money by collecting bounties from financial institutions for steering you to their products based on your spending patterns. (It also provides aggregated consumer-spending data, including to Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
To Mint’s credit, it clearly labels which offers come from its sponsors, and you’ll find unsponsored ones mixed in as well. Beware, though: There may be less to some of those purported “savings” than meets the eye.
For instance, Mint suggested a credit card from its sponsor Discover that would supposedly save me a bunch of money by showering me with rewards and perks. But the comparison failed to take into account the rewards and perks of my current card. Once I went back and added those details, a lot of the purported savings evaporated.
Missing From Mint
Missing from Mint is the ability to make online payments, as are powerful investment-management tools. For that, you will still need Intuit’s Quicken, which comes in various editions ranging in price from $29.99 to $89.99, including its first new Mac version in three years.
Quicken, which is one of the longest continually produced PC programs this side of Microsoft Word, could use a dash of Mint’s more youthful DNA. The program’s annual updates have become increasingly indistinguishable from each other, save when some annoying new feature is introduced and you have to go hunting for the command to turn it off. (My least favorite was the now-defunct Zipingo, which constantly prompted you to rate people to whom you were making payments.)
Quicken also requires frequent software patches that are sometimes more trouble than they’re worth. Update No. 7 for the 2010 version promptly blew away my ability to download transactions from or send payments through my main checking account.
I’ve got nothing against Quicken. It sort of runs in the family: One of my relatives works at Intuit in a non-product role, and even my father was a devoted Quicken user.
But Dad passed away in 1989. For better or worse, Mint.com isn’t my father’s Quicken. Mostly for the better.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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