Mint – Keeping Track Of Our Finances In 15 Minutes Per Month

Know what that is? A ceiling! Walls to follow soon. =)

I’ve been getting more questions lately about the mechanics of how we keep “such meticulous” (kindof sarcasm since I don’t think it’s particularly meticulous) track of our spending and balance sheets. This is the first post in what may become a short series on how we use Mint and other financial tools to keep us informed about our finances with minimal effort.

Every month when we publish our income statements and balance sheets, we inevitably hear from readers incredulous at the amount of detail that we know when it comes to our finances, and convinced it must take forever or that I must be absolutely obsessed with our budgets and spending to be able to compile all that information. But that’s just not true at all. In fact, though Mr PoP and I used to do weekly and monthly check-ins on spending together, we’ve fallen off the wagon there and are spending less time than ever thinking about and tracking our spending. (We’ve kindof got other things on our mind – like putting up walls and a ceiling!)

We’re not at an anything goes point in our spending, and our frugality isn’t so ingrained that we don’t ever need to think about it. We’ve just got it streamlined so well it probably takes less than 15 minutes per month. Total. Here’s how we do it.

Use Pockets Of Time To Categorize

I realize I sound like the woman that tried to recruit me as a Mary Kay sales rep* here, but you’d be absolutely shocked how much you can get done with tiny pockets of time and a smart phone.  My favorite pocket of time to check in with Mint is in line at the grocery store. I couldn’t care less about which celebrity has been caught with cellulite or which magic celebrity diet is to thank for a fabulous new figure (easiest answer – the Photoshop diet). Instead, I open up Mint on my phone and use the minute or two I’m in line at the grocery store to scroll through the past week’s transactions and make sure they are categorized correctly.  It’s stuff like:

  • Making sure purchases for our duplex are marked for that instead of marked for our own home.
  • Shooting Mr PoP a text to see how to categorize a cash withdrawal he might have made when I wasn’t there.
  • Double checking that there aren’t any duplicates (a very rare occurrence, but it happens).
  • The vast majority of our purchases are categorized correctly, because Mint has learned how I like things categorized over time.

Recategorized “Tropical Smoothie” from Food and Dining to Restaurants by clicking on the arrow next to Food and Dining in the middle screen capture. It helps us distinguish grocery spending from eating out spending to do it this way.

The more you use Mint and categorize your purchases, the less work it will take you as Mint learns your preferences (you can also create rules in mint to streamline common purchases). Doing this once a week makes sure that I’m not overwhelmed with the number of transactions when I log in.

  • Total Time: 90 seconds/week x 4 weeks = 6 minutes

Check Budgets On The Fly

At the beginning of every year I reset our budgets in Mint after our yearly pow-wow where we talk about what our spending priorities for the year. Then we can check these budgets on the fly to see if we’re staying within our pre-defined goals. When we talk about going out to dinner on a date night, a 10-second glance at the restaurant budget will tell us if we’ve got room for in the budget for an $80 dinner or if we’re better off with a $40 or $20 dinner. We each check the status of the budgets about once per week from our phones.

  • Total Time: 10 seconds / week / person * 2 people * 4 weeks = 1.33 minutes

Forward Email Notifications

Another great thing about having the budgets set up in Mint is that we get email notifications sent to my email whenever we go over our planned budget in a given category. When that happens, I forward them to Mr PoP as an FYI and we both keep that in mind with regard to our spending for the rest of the month. This might happen once or twice per month and takes another ten seconds for each of us to process the email.

  • Total Time: 10 seconds / notification / person * 2 people * 2 notifications = 0.66 minutes

Monthly Spending Summaries

Regular categorizing and keeping an eye on our budgets comprises the “maintenance” aspect of our Mint interactions, and is done pretty much exclusively on our smart phones. But once a month, I log in to the web portal to gather all the information that goes into our monthly Income Statements and Balance Sheets.  I keep a separate excel spreadsheet that I enter these numbers into, allowing me to do some quick number crunches that we use to keep an eye on our progress (and graph in those nifty graphs on our Balance Sheets).

To gather our spending data, I click on the “Trends” tab, and click on “Spending” – By Category. The pie chart that pops up gives me the broad category totals, and clicking into some of the bigger categories gives me the totals for any subcategories (like auto, which contains subcategories for gas and maintenance).

Screen cap from April's Month End

Screen cap from April’s Month End

If anything looks a little out of the ordinary here (a total lower or higher than I was expecting), I click on the “Transactions” link (from the mouseover) and a box pops up showing all the transactions that went into that total. I can make any category changes I may have missed easily from here without having to go back to my main Transactions tab. I usually like to pop into the list of Transactions on the “Shopping” section to see what our most expensive “stuff/lifestyle” purchases were for the month.

To fill in the Income part, I click on the word “Income” on the left and fill in those cells in my spreadsheet with the totals for our wages, rental income, and any other miscellaneous income (rebates, etc) that came our way during the month.  In this format, compiling all my category data goes very quickly.

  • Total Time: Maybe 5 minutes, max.

Monthly Balance Sheet

Filling out our monthly balance sheet tab in my spreadsheet goes even quicker. After entering the spending data from the Trends tab, I click back to the “Overview” tab. From there, it’s easy to copy the balances from all of our accounts into my master spreadsheet.

  • Time In Mint: 1 minute. Maybe.

There is, however, one account that I can’t seem to get Mint to import – Mr PoP’s HSA. So the last task every month is to log into that account and grab the balance to fill in the last cell in the spreadsheet. Annoyingly, it takes going through 2 different menus to get to that balance page and makes me so glad I don’t have to do this same thing for ALL our different accounts thanks to Mint.   (We have quite a few!)

  • Time At HSA Site: 1 minute.
  • Total Time: 2 minutes.

So what’s the true monthly time investment to get this detailed insight into our budgets and spending?

Maintenance

  • Categorizing Transactions: 6 minutes (but time that would be wasted reading tabloid headlines otherwise)
  • Checking Budgets and Reading/Forwarding Email Notifications: 2 minutes

Monthly Summaries

  • Spending by Category: 5 minutes
  • Balances For Net Worth: 2 minutes
  • Total Time: 15 minutes per month (14 for me, 1 for Mr PoP)

That’s really it. We keep an eye on our budgets, but don’t obsess about them. Then we compile all the detail for one big look at the end of the month. For us, this is how we balance managing our financial goals with busy personal lives and careers.

 

* Gawd knows what the Mary Kay woman was thinking. I wear makeup (and by makeup I mean some mascara or eyeshadow) maybe once or twice a year!

 

How do you streamline keeping track of your finances?  Any mint questions?

19 comments to Mint – Keeping Track Of Our Finances In 15 Minutes Per Month

  • Good thing that there is Mint! Well, I downloaded a mobile app and I’m still using it, it’s easier for me to track my finances.
    Clarisse @ Make Money Your Way recently posted..Planning a beautiful wedding on a cost-effective budgetMy Profile

  • We have a fake shared email address for a variety of things in that I have Google Apps set up for free (grandfathered in) for anything @myrealname.com and so I have things like utility@myrealname.com and I set it up in Gmail to automatically forward to my boyfriend’s email.

    I’ve tried using Mint, but over and over again, it misses entire transactions, like my last property tax payment and I don’t really like waiting until transactions post to try to remember where I spent it. I can totally see the value of Mint though – it works great for my boyfriend. I’ve always found their budgets annoying, but maybe that’s because I both hate red AND budgeting! :)
    Leigh recently posted..I don’t want kids.My Profile

    • It’s weird that mint seems to miss so many of your transactions. We’ve never experienced that problem before. Did you ever try submitting a help ticket about it? I had some luck there when transactions were being duplicated.

      We’re not big on budgeting for the sake of budgeting, but use the mint budgets more as a communication center and aid keeping us on the same page and aligned with our goals.

  • Here I am, still doing things the hard way, in Quicken on a cash basis. My one experience with Mint was in 2011 I think. It couldn’t pick up half of our accounts. It’s probably improved, but I wonder if it can pick up our credit union bank accounts and mortgages. I also wonder about all the credit cards we churn through, since we are constantly adding and cancelling cards. Do you know if you have an account with a bank, does Mint automatically add new credit cards when they are linked your account, or do you have to remember to add them in Mint?

    At least one good thing about using the cash basis though is it makes blogging easier. Since I’ve done or planned our credit card payments in June, I can write our Q2 expense post already. The only new expenses between now and June 30 would be cash expenditures.
    Norm recently posted..Cheapskate Analysis: Fans Vs. Air ConditionerMy Profile

    • Debbie M

      I also do things the hard way (with spreadsheets).

      Mint is always doing wacky things like if a credit card gets hacked and has to be replaced, both appear. And the credit card my boyfriend uses appears on my list. And every time I pay my gas bill out of this one checking account that let’s me do bill pay, it warns me that I have a “low” balance. And it warns me that (some) of my credit card bills are due soon even when I already paid them.

      I could fix some of those problems, but I also prefer to look at finer categories. I like to see how much of my grocery store money is for toiletries, empty calories, nutritious food, etc. And I like to look at different categories (like big purchases that I have to save for versus smaller purchases which I should be able to finance in my regular monthly budget). And purchases from places like Target are especially troublesome since they include widely disparate things like food, clothes, and electronics.

      Also, it’s hard to tell how my spending’s going when there’s always something weird going on like property taxes are due, car insurance is due, or nothing extra actually happened that month. I have enough savings now that I don’t really have to worry about cash flow anymore–but my income’s low enough that I still have to worry about spending trends.

      So I do write down every purchase (not just the total from a store, but each thing), with notes on things I might want to remember later (which store, whether this was a sale or regular price, whether there was a coupon) and then another page of the spreadsheet automatically sorts and graphs things for me.

      This takes me about an hour at a time (I also balance my “checkbook,” making sure I didn’t miss anything) two or three times a month. Plus additional time when I decide I figure out something new I want my spreadsheets to show me–but that part’s fun for me.

      • Glad to see I’m not the only one who enjoys getting granular! I always have to breakdown Target and Amazon especially. I do love my spreadsheets because I can bend them to my will and make them display whatever I want.

        Your method of noting all the expenses reminds me of my dad who used to keep a little booklet in the car to write down every time he spent cash. I guess I’m not too far off of that, it’s just that I’m just using a computer!
        Norm recently posted..Cheapskate Analysis: Fans Vs. Air ConditionerMy Profile

      • I’m impressed with your level of detail; I just don’t have it in me to line item receipts. But I do agree that adding Excel features to spreadsheets counts as fun. =)

        Also, with regard to your boyfriend’s card showing, did you know that it’s pretty easy to hide sub-accounts in Mint? Then the information never gets mixed in with your own on mint even if you share login credentials. You can do the same thing if you get a replacement card due to credit card fraud or any other reason.

        • Debbie M

          I figured some tweaking like that would make things better. But there are still other issues, so I haven’t worried about it. Thanks for the information, though.

    • We’ve never had a problem with Mint accessing our credit union (PSECU) or mortgages. The only account we haven’t been able to connect is Mr PoP’s HSA, and I think that’s because the only way I know how to access it is through a submenu off of Mr PoP’s secure health insurance portal. The other one that gave me real problems was Citicards, when we churned those. But I think that was a problem with their website which was so messed up it locked me out multiple times and wouldn’t allow for online payments. (I had to pay a credit card by mail. With a check. The horrors!)

      Mint does automatically add new accounts that appear under the same bank login (ie when we add a new Chase card, it gets added with the others). If you get a new login (like we did when we just got an AmEx under Mr PoP’s name, not mine this time), you have to add that new login.

  • We also use Mint and LOVE it. I may have start using your “Pockets Of Time” suggestion for our cash spending. Although it’s rare we have cash (we usually only take some out for travel or garage sales) it seems like the times in which we do have it, we forget to input the purchases right away. Then we’re left guessing at the end of the month what the cash went to (if not used entirely used towards the expenses for it was intended). P.S. Your ceiling looks awesome! Did you put in the recessed lighting yourselves? If so, we may have to pick your brains later 😉
    Mrs. FI recently posted..Fun in MayMy Profile

    • The pockets of time make a huge difference. It could easily be overwhelming to sit down and sift through all the transactions at the month’s end. But in weekly bunches, it’s much easier to remember what purchases were and there are just a handful!

      Thanks for the ceiling compliments! Those are recessed lights that we installed ourselves. (The royal we… Mr PoP is awesome and did most the work, though I picked out the fixtures.) We used new construction 6″ Halo boxes (they are safe to have next to insulation, and way more energy efficient), and got a great deal on LED fixtures to go in them. Let me know if you have any specific questions!

  • I use it quite a bit, too. It gets a little bit harder with credit card churning because of the amount of accounts, but since they are usually from the same banks, Mint automatically pulls in the new cards. It is great for trackign spending and watching individual categories, but as many have said before it does fairly poorly at investments. I have them in there anyway to jsut get the easy net worth tracking.

    I will show this article to my wife to give her a perspective of how little time it will take if we are efficient and communicate throughout the month.
    Vawt recently posted..How Much Is Your Vacation Worth?My Profile

  • Churning and mint isn’t the best. I think mostly for people that do a lot of “manufactured spending” or buy lots of gift cards at the grocery store to maximize points. We don’t do anything like that, the only churning we’ve done is getting a few new cards and spending like normal on them until the bonus is hit. Those are pretty easy and we often don’t have to add a new login since the card is just added to an existing login with the same financial institution.

  • Frankly, we don’t have a great system. We tried Mint but found it cumbersome to enter all our cash transactions and recategorize so many credit cards transactions. It just never seemed to give us really helpful info.

    We have been entering all our spending in a spreadsheet, but not categorizing most of it. I want to try YNAB so we can get a better idea of what we are spending on, say, clothing or bike maintenance, but Mr. FP just really likes his spreadsheet. Sigh.
    Frugal Paragon recently posted..Thank Goodness It’s Shorts Season, or My War with Preschooler PantsMy Profile

    • Mrs PoP

      Ahh, cash is a thorn for our mint use, too. We solve that problem by using it as little as possible. =)
      Basically if we need cash (maybe once per month?), we pull it out from the ATM for that specific thing (like vacation spending, or a Craigslist purchase or cash for an office thing) and label the withdrawal amount for whatever category it is. If the whole transaction gets aborted, we re-deposit the money in the bank and let the transactions cancel each other out (like a return to a store would). If there happens to be a few dollars left over from the transaction, we don’t really keep too much track of it. It’s already counted as “spent” in Mint, and usually just ends up being random impulses (hot dog for Mr PoP from the stand at Home Depot or something like that) so we’re not too worried if the specificity of our categories is off by a few dollars.

  • Does Mint store information on the cloud? I mean, can you use the same account from several devices? Last time I checked (a loooong time ago) I think the account was stored locally on one particular device, and that was a deal breaker for me…
    Stockbeard recently posted..Average Retirement savings – are you saving enough to retire?My Profile

    • Mrs PoP

      Maybe you’re thinking of a different service? I’ve been using Mint since it was in beta testing (early 2008) and it’s always been cloud based and has allowed for multiple devices at least as long as we’ve shared our account (since our marriage in 2009). Before that I’m not sure since I only would have used my own laptop to access it.

      We have our account info saved on our phones and tablets (so we only need to enter a quick numeric pin for access rather than typing out our full login information every time). But in terms of devices we access our shared mint account from, there are a couple of smart phones, a tablet, and a couple of computers (via the web portal). I also downloaded the mint App for Apple that you can use instead of the web portal on an Apple computer, but I wasn’t a fan of that and deleted it. If I’m at the computer, I prefer the full web portal for mint.

      All that to say, multiple devices on the same account is not a problem in mint. =)

  • Lucas

    I have been inspired to go back and take a look at Mint to see whether it would work for me again. I have been tracking using MS Money for 12 years now. they discontinued the product and online support but you can still download and import statements which doesn’t take too long for people who still support it (MS Money is actually a free product you can download now as well :-) ). However more and more sites have been dropping off Money support. I tried Mind early on, but they had some features lacking like the ability to setup recurring bills or paychecks. I thought i saw that you could do that now, in addition to their categorization engine being improved.

    I just have a lot of data in MS Money so it is hard to looks all of that historical data. I like your use of automation with Mint and excel for reporting. That makes it easier to migrate and retain key records at least. I am guessing you would loose out on specific category data though if you moved away from mint at somepoint right?