(photo:Jing a Ling)
If I were leaving for college next week (and oh how I wish I were!) how much better my student money, or lack of it, might be managed second time around, with the help of Mint.com.
Hip 19-year-olds are already talking about it, alongside Facebook and Twitter and all the other must-have-at-my-fingertips websites and apps. (The site now has 4 million users.) Ten minutes spent tapping your information into the Mint.com website, and you can have instant access to the state of your finances. All at once, you can see how much you have in the bank, how much you owe, how much you’re over budget already, and why you really should spend what’s left on textbooks rather than iTunes.
But now that I’ve grown into the kind of person who pays her bills on time and reliably remembers to call her mother, can Mint really be trusted? And what can it do for me?
I signed up with Mint a few weeks ago, as part of my particular quest to become more in control of my finances. (I’ve been blogging about my experiences, including with Mint, and if you’re interested in taking the plunge, you can find more at Asking for Direction$.)
Digging Into Mint.com’s Security
But can Mint be trusted? It was one thing to set up your bank account online; yes, you have to type in a password every time you access your financial information, but hasn’t your family used Bank of America since your father was knee high to a grasshopper? Before you give information to a young whippersnapper website like Mint, you want to be really sure that it’s not going into unsafe hands.
Mint has a long ‘Privacy and Security’ section on its website. In the interests of research for this post (but not, I must confess, before I originally opened my own Mint account), I swallowed hard and actually read it from top to bottom. And I must say, it’s the most readable, plain-spoken legal document I’ve come across in a long time — if nothing else, Mint has some clear-thinking folks working for it.
Whenever you sign up to a website, you can pretty much expect the owners to use some element of your information for marketing and research, if only to hone special offers for you, and, as the Privacy statement makes clear, the Mint site is no different.
But here’s the thing: Even though you have to give your online banking user name and password when you register with Mint, this information goes to a long-established security company which handles similar information for institutions like Bank of America. Mint doesn’t retain much more than your email address.
More importantly, no mention of your financial account numbers is ever shown on your Mint page. So if a passer-by looked over your shoulder as you were checking your Mint details, or stole your laptop (and could figure out your Mint password), they could see how much money you have and in which institutions you keep it — but they wouldn’t be any the wiser about how to access it. Mint only shows you the best way to manage your money. It doesn’t have access to your money and it doesn’t move it for you. You alone can do that.
And as Mint likes to argue, using their website can actually improve your financial security, since their ‘alert’ system notifies you instantly about any unusual movements in your accounts.
Financial Snapshot, Investment Gateway
But you may be looking for more than simply knowing the state of your finances at a glance. Mint can help you there, too. As well as giving you useful suggestions about how to save your money more effectively, Mint is also a gateway to a large number of popular investment plans. In fact, that’s one of the main ways in which the company, which offers its service free to the likes of you and me, makes its money. Mint introduces you to financial products from companies who pay gleefully for this connection to potential and informed customers who are already in the right frame of mind to purchase.
For me, Mint remains a way to keep an instant snapshot of my finances handy. I haven’t yet used all of its potential for saving and investing (perhaps because my determination to be financially savvy is recent) and I’m still finding my way around. But I might because the site already feels like a friend, especially with its easy-to-understand features like the colorful little pie charts that show me how my money is being spent and its handy tips on how to save more effectively or avoid unnecessary charges.
All in all, it reminds me of those long ago TV commercials for a popular brand of “after dinner mints.” Everyone in the family likes them, because they’re not just for teenagers, or 30-somethings, or any-somethings. They are ‘most discerning mints’, for people at any time of life, everywhere.