As I prepare to track my spending in 2017, I have to decide which tool to use.
In the olden days, there weren’t many options. Lately, however, there’s been a boom in personal-finance tools. Rather than try every available app, I elected to take a look at four that seemed like good fits for me: Quicken, You Need a Budget, Personal Capital, and Mint.
I had planned to review Mint and Personal Capital in separate posts, but as I began to pull things together I realized it made more sense to cover them at the same time. I think people are likely to use one or the other but not both. Let’s start with Mint.
Mint has been around for a long time. I remember getting calls from the company back in the early days of Get Rich Slowly. They wanted me to write about their service. And over time, many GRS readers became devoted Mint users. I was never one of them because I preferred to track my transactions by hand.
Nowadays Mint is owned by Intuit, the same company that owns Quicken. It’s been a while since I evaluated the tool, so earlier this month I decided to give it another shakedown. I discovered there’s plenty to like about Mint — but it’s not really meant for me.
To start, connecting with outside financial institutions is quick and easy. Of all the apps I’ve tried, Mint is quickest and most thorough about accessing my accounts. YNAB made me import accounts one at a time, for instance, and couldn’t read the names I’d assigned accounts at various banks. Mint, on the other hand, pulled all of my accounts from each business at the same time and included my existing labels. And whereas Personal Capital won’t connect with my credit union, Mint has no trouble.
Perhaps because it’s older, Mint has a robust feature set than the other tools I looked at. It not only tracks transactions, but also helps you set goals, build budgets, and stay on top of your bills. Here, for instance, is a notice that my Visa bill is due:
And here I’m setting saving goal for my upcoming Europe trip:
Plus, Mint offers a free credit score — something its competitors do not.
This credit score even breaks down ways for you to boost your credit. In my case, for instance, I just don’t have a lot of credit accounts. That prevents me from reaching the upper echelon of credit scores:
So, Mint offers some handy features. But it’s not all a bed of roses.
Ads Ads Everywhere Ads
In that last screenshot, you can see Mint’s major downfall: pervasive advertising. (“If you’re low on credit card accounts, check out these credit card offers.”) It’s everywhere, and has been since the company launched. In fact, that’s why Mint is “free”. YNAB charges a flat $50/year fee. That’s the company’s revenue model. Mint makes its money by pitching bank accounts and credit cards and brokerage firms. And sometimes the ads are absolutely obnoxious.
Here’s the popup I got when looking over my investments:
And here’s the top of the main page, with a bank ad in the account section and two ads at the top of my “alerts”:
Just below the “alerts” section is an “advice” section. That’s an ad. At the bottom of the main page, in an area labeled “ways to save”, is a whole hairy host of ads. Click any of these and you’re taken to a page dedicated to selling you a service:
There are ads everywhere. Sometimes the ads have ads. (I’m not joking.)
Less Than Perfect
Obviously, the ads annoy me. Perhaps they’re not big deal to you. If that’s the case, then Mint truly is a free option. But even then it’s not without drawbacks. Its investment reporting tools seem broken, for example. Here’s how Mint analyzed my asset allocation:
Not sure? Wow. And here’s how it analyzed my investment performance:
Really? Really? Why even offer these tools if they don’t work?
There is a budgeting tool — and it works — but it’s pretty clunky unless you accept Mint’s default categories. I’m not a default category kind of guy, though. As you saw in my review of You Need a Budget, I like to customize labels to fit the way I spend my money. That’s possible here, but it takes time. If I were to continue using Mint, I’d probably use the budgeting tool to monitor a handful of categories. (I don’t really need to budget for HOA fees and health insurance, for instance, because those are the same every single month.)
Because Mint automatically connects with your accounts, you don’t have to manually enter transactions. For most people, this is probably a good thing. I like to enter things by hand (because it raises my awareness) so this feature is less important to me. I got to do a little bit of work though: As Mint auto-imports your transactions, it does its best to categorize them. Naturally, this process isn’t perfect. If you want useful reporting and budgeting, you have to review each transaction to make sure it’s properly categorized. (Again, this isn’t a criticism.)
Mint offers a variety of reporting tools (which it calls “trends”, for some reason). You can break down your income and spending by category, by merchant, or over time. You can see how your debt and income are changing. And you can calculate your net worth.
For example, here’s my spending report for the month of January:
I like that you can zoom in to see the specific transactions that processed on any given day. But I’m a bit confused about how Mint categorizes some of the spending. See that big spike on January 3rd? That’s because my credit card payment processed on that day. Mint counts that as an expense to “business services”. But that makes no sense to me because all of those credit card transactions have already been included as individual expenses for whatever they were. By counting the credit card payment as an expense, Mint is counting each transaction twice. WTF?
The Mint mobile app is nearly useless to me. The interface is spare with minimal functionality. You can look at your spending habits, but that’s about it. Everything else is clunky or unavailable. Except the ads. There are still ads in the mobile app.
Mint isn’t awful but I don’t think I’ll continue using it. There’s no question it offers a lot of features, including some unavailable from other apps. If you want a tool with no out-of-pocket cost and you don’t expect to do a lot of fussing around with your budget and categories, Mint is perfectly fine. And if you’ve been using mint for a while, there’s zero reason to switch. (Don’t make work for yourself just because there’s a better option for folks who are just getting started!)
Next up, let’s look at Personal Capital.
I’ve been using Personal Capital casually for several years. (I think I installed it on my iPad in 2013.) When I say “casually”, I mean that I don’t really do much active with the app. I used to track every penny I earned and spent with Quicken, but when I stopped keeping detailed records I installed Personal Capital so that I could keep an eye on my accounts all in one place. I check in from time to time to be sure everything looks okay, but otherwise the only tool I use often is the retirement calculator (which is excellent).
Like Mint, Personal Capital is an ostensibly free service. But just as Mint has a definite source of revenue — referral fees through ubiquitous advertising — Personal Capital has a revenue model too. The app is a hook to recruit clients to a wealth management company. If you’re one of the many Money Boss readers who has an extensive investment portfolio, the Personal Capital folks will call and email to pitch their servies. And when you sign into Personal Capital from the web, you get pop-up pitches to talk to one of their advisors:
For me, this is less annoying than Mint’s ad-based model. However, you might hate it.
Because I’ve been using the mobile version of Personal Capital for three or four years, I’m going to review the iOS app instead of the web app. From what I can tell, they have substantially similar features but they’re organized differently. The web version of Personal Capital is a little clunky, but the mobile version is slick.
A Focus on Investments
Whereas Mint and YNAB focus on banking, Personal Capital is more concerned with your investments. (Again, this is because the company wants to sell you investment services.) Instead of a home screen that shows your current transactions or a general overview of your financial health, Personal Capital displays things like your portfolio balance, market indexes, and “investable cash”:
Note that the Personal Capital home screen features two important pieces of info for money bosses: a net worth report and a cash flow report. (My portfolio balance and net worth show a huge drops at the end of November because that’s when I started updating my accounts in anticipation of this project.)
Like Mint, Personal Capital automatically imports transactions and allows users to do some minor editing. You can’t change the transaction date (which you can do in Mint), but you can change the description and the category. Plus you can classify whether a transaction is business-related, tax-related, or medical.
Personal Capital’s strength is its investment and retirement tools. The app offers quick access to standard reports like this performance graph:
It allows you to look at each investment individually, guides you through an appropriate asset allocation based on your goals and risk tolerance, and lets you explore the stock market at large. (Honestly, I prefer Personal Capital’s reporting to the official Fidelity app, so I uninstalled the latter from my iPad.)
One useful feature in the Personal Capital app is the cost analyzer. The software looks at your investment portfolio and alerts you if you’re paying more than 0.30% in fees on any particular fund. Because fees are the second-largest barrier to good returns (behind investor behavior), this is useful information. Personal Capital’s hope is that you’ll pay them to help lower your fees, but you’re free to move things around on your own too.
The Best Retirement Calculator in the World?
Personal Capital’s best feature is its retirement calculator. I’m a huge fan. In some ways, it offers all of the strengths of my favorite online retirement calculators while allowing greater customization. Why do I like it so much?
- It bases your retirement needs on spending rather than income. As you’re well aware, I hate hate hate calculators that use income to project retirement needs. (SO STUPID!) Personal Capital’s planner automatically calculates your projected retirement spending (based on your recent spending patterns) but also allows you to make adjustments.
- Personal Capital also allows you to enter a variety of possible spending goals, such as vacations, weddings, education, and home purchases. It lets you do the same with income. The net result is a highly-customizable projection of your income and expenses on the road to retirement — and after.
- Instead of merely using a fixed calculation to determine the chances of retirement success, Personal Capital runs 5000 simulations and lets you know the odds of your plan allowing you to achieve your retirement goals.
The Personal Capital retirement planner allows you to alter base assumptions, such as life expectancy and inflation rate. It also generates a cash flow table so that you can see exactly how much money you’ll have when.
I like Personal Capital but I don’t love it.
While it’s my mobile app of choice, it’s not without its frustrations. It’s never been able to connect with my credit union, for instance, which means I can’t track transactions and have to manually update the balance now and then. (Mint and YNAB can connect to my credit union. Why can’t Personal Capital?)
There was also a period of time during which Personal Capital couldn’t connect to my Fidelity accounts for some reason. When that link was broken, the app was essentially useless to me. (To be fair, the same thing used to happen with Mint, which is another reason I never used that service.)
I also think the web interface for Personal Capital is weak, lagging behind the functionality of the mobile app. (Contrast this with Mint, where the web version is far, far superior to the mobile version.)
If you’re focused on investing and retirement planning, Personal Capital is the clear choice. It’s still a good option even if you’re in earlier stages of money management, but it’s less useful if you’re not well along the path to financial freedom.
The Bottom Line
Which should you choose, Mint or Personal Capital? I think it probably comes down to personal preference. I’m not a fan of Mint’s over-the-top advertising, so Personal Capital is a better option for me in that regard. Plus, I prefer the tools in Personal Capital to the tools in Mint. But I can see why others might prefer Mint.
If you’re looking for a money-tracking app, I think you should try both Mint and Personal Capital to see which is best for you. But for serious money management, neither is great.
While Mint and Personal Capital are fine tools for monitoring your accounts, they’re not actual money-management software. If as a money boss you’ve decided to track your spending, these are useful supplemental tools but they’re not good choices for ongoing expense tracking and budgeting. For that kind of work, you need something like Quicken or You Need a Budget.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at Quicken to see if it’s the tool I need to track my spending in 2017…
What about you? What’s your experience with Mint and/or Personal Capital? Do you prefer one ot the other? Why? And am I totally missing the boat by not opening my search to other apps? Which ones would you recommend?