Have you ever woken up on a Monday morning, checked your balance and thought, “What the hell?!” In just less than three days, you managed to blow your entire paycheck, which you barely deposited Friday. If I had a dollar for every time I pulled that move… well, let’s face it, I’d probably spend all those dollars too, and still be sitting here lamenting over squandered cash.
I remember long ago when I opened my first checking account. The banker slipped me this notepad-looking thing called a “register.” I was given a quick tutorial on how to use it–something about debits and credits, running balances and reconciliation. But seriously, when was the last time you ever saw someone under the Social Security-collecting age use a checkbook register?
Unless your level of hipster-inspired fondness for retro trends should require you to use one, I’ll tell you how you can keep track of money without looking like an accountant, hoarding all your receipts, filling out your transactions, and waiting for your bank statement in the mail like it were a distant lover’s letter.
Advances in online banking and mobile phone applications make keeping tabs on your accounts easier than ever. Most of the big four (Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo and Citi) have a great arsenal of online and mobile banking platforms for depositors to use. Even some of the smaller banks and credit unions have made strides at keeping up with the Joneses.
But before I explain the drawbacks of using your bank’s online features, you should know of a strategy banks use on customers. It’s called cross-selling; the idea that any customer is only as good as the amount of bank products owned. This could be any combination of checking, savings, credit cards, loans, CDs or brokerage accounts; the point is, the bank’s employees will not relent until all your banking “needs” are “satisfied.”
Imagine you’ve been cross-sold and now you have a checking account with the bank your car loan is serviced at (said the banker, “You can open a checking and have your payments directly withdrawn each month”), a savings account where your retirement CD is housed (also said the banker, “If you open a savings we can give your account a bonus interest rate”), and two or three credit cards at different banks.
Under this scenario, any one bank’s online platform only reveals a partial picture of your overall finances. You’ll have to keep up on multiple user IDs, passwords and emails. So how do you consolidate every bit of your finances into a neat, manageable space?
Enter Mint. Recently purchased by Intuit (the techies behind TurboTax and Quicken), this free personal-finance website has been offering consumers a no-cost, comprehensive solution to money management since the late ‘00s. Because of Intuit’s savvy in the software arena, Mint.com has added apps for Android and iOS devices. Other sites exist which perform the same duties, and also for free, but I’ve been using Mint for years now and the company has great reviews online.
When you create your free account at Mint, you’ll be treated to a clean, simple interface flush with informative yet intuitive graphics, combing data across all your accounts everywhere. You can break down your spending by category to view what you spend most on, or by time to see when you spend the most. Mint will even label all your transactions automatically, and in a way that makes sense, instead of a series of merchant IDs and bank codes.
The website can be used to set a budget, either on overall spending or to put spending limits on certain categories. You can even adjust these budgets to accommodate one-time expenses you know won’t happen frequently (birthday presents, Acoustic Christmas tickets, etc).
My favorite aspect of this website is the net worth tracker. I never really paid attention to my net worth before it was presented to me in the form of an infograph. Your net worth (the difference between what you own and what you owe) is the real measure of wealth and to see that number steadily rise, or fall, is motivation enough to get in good fiscal shape.
Mint will even make recommendations on financial products. Keep in mind, some of these recommendations are from banks who pay Mint to be featured on the site, so do your due diligence and shop around. Bill reminders, top-notch security and the most hassle-free user experience round out why Mint is worth taking a test drive.
Having this arsenal of money-tracking utilities provided by Mint should be your first strategy in staying on top of your finances. By using Mint’s infographs, you’ll be more likely to spend wisely because you’ll anticipate what, when and how you do most of your spending. And if you approach your preset spending limits, the alerts you programmed to be delivered to your smart phone will prevent you from dumb charges.