Consumer advice

These Free Sites Help You Manage Your Money

Mint

Of all the sites I looked at, Mint had the cleanest-looking user interface, which translated into a site that was easy to navigate and use. The site heavily uses Web 2.0 technologies, which enables it to dynamically change how information is presented and lets you seamlessly input your information. Mint matches Quicken Online's extensive features and functionality, making Mint one of the more robust free personal finance management sites I looked at.

The main Overview page provides a lot of information; it might even strike some as information overload, but the page is laid out intelligently and provides a very good overall snapshot of your financial health. The top section of the page provides relevant alerts, such as if you have exceeded any of your budget categories or if you have any bills due soon. You can customize a number of the alerts to trigger, such as when your account balances drop below a specific amount or if any purchases are over a prespecified amount.

The left side of the Overview page lists all of your accounts. Mint can track bank accounts, credit cards, loans and investments. Below the account information is a cash flow chart that compares your cash (the combined balances of all of your bank accounts) with your credit card debt.

Mint also includes a Property section, which lets you manually add less traditional information, such as real estate, money or debt, vehicles, or other property such as appliances, artwork or jewelry. When you input the address of your home, Mint automatically calculates its estimated value, which you can edit if you disagree with the amount.

The Overview page also includes a Portfolio Movers & Shakers section. If you have investment accounts (retirement or otherwise), this section provides a brief summary of which of your securities and holdings have seen the greatest change (up or down) in the last seven days.

Below that is the Your Budget section. Budget items are presented in a bar graph, which are orange if you are over budget, green if you are under, or gray if no transactions for that category have posted for the month. You can add categories to your budget from any of your categorized transactions. I found that Mint did an acceptable job of guessing the categories to which my expenses should be categorized, but I still had to make a significant number of edits.

When you edit a transaction -- you do this on the Transactions page -- you can edit its description, assign a category or create a new category, and split the transaction amount between multiple categories (for example, $98 to "groceries" and $10 to "lottery tickets"). For transactions from vendors that repeat, you can set up rules that will automatically change how the name of the vendor appears and assign a category to it whenever transactions from that vendor appear (for example, a rule could be: "Always rename Shprt as ShopRite and categorize as 'groceries'").

In addition to categories, you can also assign tags to transactions; the default tags are "Reimbursable," "Tax Related" and "Vacation," but you can create new tags as well.

The Trends page displays a pie chart showing how your spending is divvied up among the different categories. If you use the tags feature, you can filter out tagged transactions. For instance, I wanted to see my spending for the current month, not including my home business expenses. The Trends page also includes a SpendSpace bar chart that lets you compare your spending in a particular category with the national average, by state or even by various major U.S. cities.

The Investments page includes Performance, Value, Allocation, and Comparison charts -- although it can display only one of these charts at a time. And the Performance and Value charts can track your investments only from the date that you added the accounts to Mint. The Allocation chart shows how your investments are allocated based on either asset type (for example, mutual funds, stocks or money market funds) or trading symbol. The Comparison chart lets you compare over a given period of time the sum of all your investments, your individual investment accounts or even the individual investment vehicles with the Dow Jones, S&P 500 or Nasdaq.

You can send an SMS text message to Mint and receive your account balances back. You can also set up Mint to send you e-mail and SMS alerts when certain events are triggered, such as when the balance of an account drops below a specific amount. Of the sites I looked at, Mint was the only one that also had an iPhone app (free) that provides scaled-down access to your Mint account.

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