Wisdom for Wives

"Be diligent to know the state of your flocks …"

Review: Mint Budget Software

Mint logoBack in September, I shared how excited I was that my husband and I had had a nitty-gritty money chat.  (The chat itself was actually not very exciting all, but I was very glad once we completed it.  🙂 )  We also agreed to try out Mint for keeping track of our spending. Since it’s been 3 months, you could say that this review is long overdue. Or, you could say that, I’ve had sufficient time to adequately evaluate the product, and this review just in time for a new year and a fresh start with finances. Yes. That is what I will say.

So! First of all, how does Mint work? It links to your financial accounts—bank, credit card, loans, etc.—and downloads your balance and transaction information into one place. (You cannot make any account changes [e.g., withdrawals, transfers] from Mint; you can only view the data.) Then Mint compares your spending, based on the transaction data, to the budget that you enter. There are several pre-programmed budget categories, and you can also create your own, as shown below:

Creating a Budget Category in Mint

Creating a Budget Category in Mint

My husband set up an account at Mint.com, entered all of our account information, and then I entered the budget.  Usually I accessed Mint from my desktop computer, but I also installed the app on my phone. After using the program for several weeks, here are my thoughts:

Pros:

  • Centralized account access: Mint allows you to see all of your balances and transactions all in one place. I don’t see the word “unlimited” anywhere (maybe I missed it?), but we entered six accounts and we could have entered more. (For comparison, the free version of Mvelopes allows you to enter 4 accounts). Mint even adds everything up to give you a total “net worth” (in quotes because our worth does not come from our possessions, as I wrote in the Where Does It All Go? post). But it’s very helpful to be able to see all of our financial information without having to log in to each account individually. And if you are working on paying off debt, the “net worth” provides an easy way to see your progress.
  • Weekly summaries: Mint emails a weekly summary that breaks down your spending by category, in a lovely pie chart. 🙂 It also tells you—both in numbers and color-coded bars—how much you’ve gone over budget, or how close you are to exceeding your budget in any category.
Sample Weekly Summary Email from Mint

Sample Weekly Summary Email (image credit:  mint.com)

Sample Budget Bar Chart (image credit: mint.com)

Sample Budget Bar Chart (image credit: mint.com)

  • Transaction categorization: Mint was able to automatically assign most transactions to the proper categories.  Wegmans purchases went to the Groceries category, Exxon/Mobil went to Gas & Fuel, and it even has a Coffee Shops category. 🙂 If a merchant is not recognized, you can select a category and Mint will assign future transactions accordingly. You can also change a transaction category that Mint has assigned.
  • Price: Mint is free, which is my favorite price of all! Other programs charge one-time or recurring fees, so Mint is very competitive considering everything that it offers. It does show ads, mostly for financial products and services.
  • Interface:  I really like all the options Mint gives you for summarizing and analyzing your finances.  You can view your spending by category or merchant, or create custom tags for your transactions.  In some cases you have the option to view the data as either a bar or pie chart.
Spending Over Time in Mint

Spending Trends Over Time in Mint (Modified Image)

You can even export the data to a csv file (which you can open in Excel) for all kinds of additional data slicing and dicing.  There are several other features that we did not use, like the free credit monitoring (we are already signed up for a program) and notification of upcoming bills (we have them memorized!). You can read more about the features here and here.  And now, for the

Cons:

  • Cumbersome budget entry: It takes three to four clicks to enter each budget item. Including monthly bills and discretionary expenses, I had over 40 items to enter. This got tedious after a while. Granted, now that everything’s entered, I won’t have to do it again. But I feel like the process could have been more streamlined.
  • Untimely alerts: You can select to receive text message or email alerts when balances fall below a certain level or when you deviate significantly from your usual spending pattern.
Mint Alert Options

Mint Alert Options

Unfortunately, we usually received such alerts five days after the event.  I was not necessarily depending on the low-balance alerts, as we already receive them from our bank.  But if the irregular spending had been due to fraudulent charges, for example, the alert would not have been very helpful.  And Mint does not alert you when you are close to exceeding a budget category (though you do get that information in the weekly summary).

I am still using Mint because I like its layout and organization so much, but I am on the lookout for a program that is more proactive with the budget alerts. Yes, there is something to be said for having your own self-control, but I need all the help I can get!

Thanks for stopping by,
Susan

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Where Does It All Go?

Budget Notebook

image credit: wikihow.com

As I discussed in last week’s post, a personal financial picture consists mainly of:  what you own (assets), what you owe (liabilities), what comes in (income), and what goes out (expenses).  If you have a good idea of these four things, I would say that you know pretty well the state of your flocks. I also talked about what net worth is (the “owned” minus the “owed”) and what it isn’t (the value of your life).  But even though, as the Bible says, life is not about our possessions, it does matter how we manage them.  So this week I will talk about the more dynamic duo out of the four: income and expenses.

Income

This probably seems pretty obvious; for most families, it’s the paycheck(s).  But there’s more to your income than how much goes into your bank account each week or month.  (If your family’s income is seasonal or sporadic, you can calculate a weekly or monthly average.)  It’s also helpful to know how much is withheld and deducted for taxes, health insurance, and other benefits.  How could that knowledge help? With some research (consult your HR, tax, or other professional as needed), you may be able to give your cash flow an immediate boost, or make changes that have a longer-term benefit.  For example:

  • If employer-sponsored health insurance is available to both you and your husband, are you enrolled in the more cost-effective plan?  Some employers impose a surcharge for covering spouses who can get insurance from their own employers.  Would there be any benefit in switching from one spouse’s plan to the other?
  • Are you contributing to your retirement savings plan to receive the maximum employer match?  Or, is it possible that you are investing too much given your current situation?
  • Could you benefit from increasing or decreasing your pre-tax contribution to your health savings account (HSA)?
  • Are you withholding too little or too much income tax?

If you and your husband don’t typically talk about money, these questions could be great conversation starters.  Or, if you’re like me, you like to say, “Hey! Look what I found!”  In that case, go ahead and gather all the facts and figures, then present your marvelous, well-researched suggestions to your husband.  🙂

Expenses

Knowing where your money goes every month can also boost your cash flow or impact the future for the better.  So-called “fixed” expenses like rent/mortgage take a little more effort to change, but they don’t have to be permanent.  Have interest rates or your credit score(s) changed significantly since you first financed your home or car? Would a re-finance be worthwhile?  Does it make sense to sell a car, or to relocate?  These are decisions you and your husband would make together, but you might have ideas that haven’t occurred to him (or that he doesn’t realize you are willing to consider).

If you do most of the family’s shopping for food, clothing, etc., you know that those expenses really add up.  So you can make a big difference in the monthly balances.  An important first step is keeping track.  Spreadsheets have been my tool of choice for years.  I have many times professed my love for spreadsheets, and there are links below to some real cuties (all Microsoft Office Templates).  Have you ever heard anyone refer to a spreadsheet as a “cutie??”

Monthly Budget with Bar Graph
12-Month Budget with Trend Chart
Simple Monthly Budget
Budget with Pivot Table and Pie Chart

But my husband and I are actually trying something new right now.  We’ve signed up for the free mint software and I’m in the process of entering our budget.  It is great for me because I can see all of the details, and my super-tech-savvy big-picture picture husband appreciates the UI (fancy IT term for layout).  After using it for a month I will come back with a review.  (I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am that we are budgeting together!  Miracles do happen.  :))  But you don’t need a fancy app or adorable spreadsheet to start keeping track of your expenses.  And if your relationship is not in a budget-conversation place right now, that needn’t stop you either.  When I kept track of what I spent on food alone, it was both humbling and eye-opening.  Start with what flows through your own hands.  Whether big or small, you can make a difference.

Thanks for stopping by,
Susan

 

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Check-In #3: Check Yourself

Green checkmark

image credit: iconarchive.com

A few weeks back–OK, several weeks ago–I offered my first suggestion for gradually getting “checked in” to your finances: keep track of your spending for two weeks. Since I pay for most purchases by debit card, my plan at that time was to log in to my checking account after two weeks and review my transactions online. Now that it has been (ahem) 12 weeks, at least I can say that I have sufficient data from which to draw some conclusions! And the data has been eye-opening.

I already knew that most of my purchases are for food, but what struck me is the frequency of my purchases. Even with a meal calendar–which was a boon to my weeknight sanity in August and September (I slacked off in October)–I am still going to a grocery store an average of two more times after my regular weekly shopping. I’m also stopping for a treat like fries or frozen yogurt, “for the kids,” perhaps more often than I should.

I don’t think of myself as an excessive or frivolous spender. I rarely go clothes shopping, for example. When I do, it is often at a place where the employees wear red polo shirts. But after taking a closer look at my day-to-day spending, I can definitely see room for more thoughtfulness. Which brings me to today’s check-in:
Keep track of your spending (again), for one week this time, and ask yourself a few questions at the end of the week:

  1. Does anything surprise you about the frequency, amount, or where you spend money?
  2. Are you intentional about your spending, or is it based more on impulse?
  3. Do you see any opportunities to save money by changing when, where, or how often you shop?

As I said before, I’d like us to get back on a budget as a family, but I think it’s important to first look at where I need to be more disciplined.  As wives, however little or much of the family budget we may have control over, we can ask the Lord to help us to be faithful with that amount.

~~His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:23a, NIV)~~

May the Lord help us to be good stewards of what has been entrusted to us, and thank you for stopping by!

Susan

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Checking In, Step by Step

Green checkmarkThere was a time in my marriage that you could have said I was “checked out” when it came to finances. Then one night, for some reason that I no longer remember, I sat down with the bills and added them all up.  I think I was surprised by what I discovered–that our expenses met or exceeded our income.  But my husband was not surprised.  He had already known, was already stressed about it, and had been warning me about it for months.

~~A wife of noble character, who can find … She watches over the affairs of her household.  (Proverbs 31:10a, 27a, NIV)~~

In my case, at that time, I believe it was probably necessary for me to get a crash course in my “affairs.”  I think that sometimes we need crash courses, and sometimes God lets us take baby steps.  In the coming weeks, I will suggest some gradual steps towards getting checked in to your finances.  And I will be doing them myself.  These days I’m very involved with bill paying, but it has been a while since I checked on our discretionary spending, on things like groceries and clothing.  And I know we need to get back on a budget.  So today’s Check-In step is:

Track your own discretionary spending for two weeks.  This could be done in a number of ways:

  1. Good ole pencil and paper–Carry a notepad and record the date, vendor, and total of each purchase.
  2. Use your smart phone–Use the notetaking app to record purchases.
  3. Let your phone be really smart–There are many apps for that!  But don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by all the choices.  The point is to just get started.  If you spend more than 15 minutes in the App Store, put your iPhone down and chose option 1 or 4.
  4. Check your account online–If you make most of your purchases with a debit or credit card (as I do), log in to your account in two weeks and add up all your purchases made since today.  (If you do use a card for most purchases and do not check your account online, consider doing so. I plan to talk more about that in a future post.  But it’s not a big deal.  I think it is more important for now to begin the practice of monitoring your finances, in whatever way works best for you.)

Two weeks may not sound like a long time.  And it’s not; it’s a baby step.  If there’s one area where you know you do a great majority of spending (for me, it’s food), then you could just limit your recording to that area.  Make a step, however small.

One objective for this Check-In is to start to be more mindful of where I am spending money.  Also, since I would like to talk with my husband soon about setting up a new budget, I think it’s important to focus on my own actions before talking to him about what I think we should do.

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