Behind the Buzz About Mint

In's creation story, as recounted on its Web site, founder Aaron Patzer started the free online personal finance service after a tedious session with Intuit's (INTU) Quicken budgeting software in 2005. It's a measure of Mint's success that any new complaints about Quicken should now be directed to Patzer himself. Tired of getting its clock cleaned by Mint, Intuit bought the site in 2009 and put Patzer in charge of its entire consumer finance operation. He must figure out how all the pieces will fit together—while rejuvenating Intuit's aged 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. It's basically Quicken: Short-Attention-Span Edition. Once you provide log-ins for your bank accounts and credit cards, the site gathers your transactions, categorizes them, analyzes your spending patterns, and says what you have to work with. Surrendering my log-ins didn't bother me. I've been doing that with Quicken for years. But it felt weird to know Mint was looking at my spending habits—much the way I feel knowing Google (GOOG) is analyzing the contents of my Gmail messages to show me ads.

There are two ways of looking at how well Mint performs. 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, it sometimes struggled to recognize accounts and transactions. And while it guessed that my purchases at Whole Foods (WFMI) were groceries, it couldn't draw the same conclusion for Kings Super Markets. So what can the user do? You notice the problems, go in, and fix them. In other words: You refine your budget. After a while, you may even find yourself clicking on the Planning tab and beginning to do more serious work on your financial future. The key is that you're doing it on your timetable.

The software also provides a useful companion iPhone (AAPL) app and warns you by e-mail or text alerts if your balance is low or you've exceeded your budget.

Mint makes money collecting bounties from financial institutions for steering you to their products based on your spending patterns. It clearly labels which offers come from its sponsors, and you'll find unsponsored ones mixed in as well. Beware: There's less to some of those "savings" than meets the eye. For instance, Mint recommended a credit card that supposedly would save me thousands of dollars by giving me a bunch of rewards and perks, but failed to consider the perks of my current card. Once I went into my account and added these details, most of the purported savings evaporated.

Making online payments is also beyond Mint's capabilities, and the program lacks powerful investment-management tools. For that you'll still need Quicken, which comes in various editions ranging in price from $29.99 to $89.99, including its first new Mac version in three years.

Frankly, a dash of Mint's youthful DNA would help Quicken. Intuit comes out with new versions of it every year. They're mostly indistinguishable from one another, except when some annoying feature is introduced that you must figure out how to turn off. Quicken also requires frequent updates of dubious value. Release No. 7 to the 2010 edition crippled my ability to download transactions from or send payments through my main checking account.

Quicken is an old workhorse of a program. My father loved it—but he passed away in 1989. For better or worse, isn't my father's Quicken. Mostly for the better.

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