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

6 Comments »

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

 

20 Comments »

Flocks in a Nutshell

Close-up view of an accounting spreadsheet on a computer

image credit: microsoft.com

I talk quite a bit about “getting more involved in finances,” but what does that mean exactly?  How do we get a good picture of our “flocks?”  Are we all supposed to become financial experts?  That sounds pretty impossible for those of us who aren’t naturally inclined money managers.

But we can probably learn something from those who are naturally inclined, who prepare financial summaries for a living.  And maybe if we reduce personal finances into some manageable concepts, we can break those down further into bite-sized portions that people like me can deal with.  Over at the SBA and SEC websites, I found all kinds of information about notes receivable and accrued expenses. But there are four elements that probably apply to most households. They are, in layman’s terms:

1. What you own
2. What you owe
3. What comes in
4. What goes out

My thinking is that, if we have a good understanding of these four things, we’ll know pretty well the state of our flocks. In this post I’ll talk about the first two—what you own and what you owe—and I’ll talk about the other two next week.

What You Own (Assets)—These are anything of value that you have. Examples include:

Home, if you own it
Car(s)
Checking and savings accounts
Investments and retirement savings

What You Owe (Liabilities)—The SBA site calls these, “obligations to creditors,” and examples would be:

Mortgage
Car, student, and other loans
Credit cards
Federal and state taxes

OK, I know I said that breaking down finances would make them easier to manage, but I feel overwhelmed after typing that. 🙂 To make matters worse (or better, depending on your situation), here is another accounting term: “net worth.” That is what’s left after you sell all your assets and pay all your debts. But as always, Jesus gives us the right perspective on it all:

~~Then He said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) ~~

So if we know that our true value is not based on our net worth, what does it matter? Why bother learning these (possibly painful) facts and figures, especially if your husband is already handling them just fine?  

Well, as I talked about during the 5-5-5 Series, it might help a relationship (I said might) if both the husband and wife understand their financial situation. It may help the finances, as well.  Either way, each one of us is responsible for the stewardship of what God has given us.  So, as agonizing as it may be, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.   I do know that it’s not easy.  As I’ve said before, I don’t particularly enjoy talking or thinking about money.  And even though I have a good handle on our bills and expenses, only recently did I myself write down everything on the list above.  For you, the first step could be getting an index card and writing “Own” on one side and “Owe” on the other, then putting it away for a while. You might look up your home value online. Or order your credit report.  You could download one of the worksheets below, and then, little by little, add the information as you learn it.

Personal Net Worth Worksheet (Charles Schwab)
Personal Financial Statement Spreadsheet (SCORE)
Personal Net Worth Spreadsheet (Microsoft Templates)

The 5-5-5 Series had more tips for foraying into flocks, including praying for peace and wisdom.   It might seem impossible, but be encouraged.  You know what the Bible says about impossible.  🙂

Thanks for stopping by,
Susan 

4 Comments »

Change for the Better?

coins

image credit: office.microsoft.com

Well!  Paying with cash this past week wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be!  As planned, I used my debit card for my weekly grocery trip, then got cash for any food purchases for the rest of the week (except for our anniversary dinner).  Not only did I spend about 20% less than I usually do on food in a week, the experiment was a wonderful lesson in delayed gratification. Here is how we did:

  1. No mid-week food shopping at the grocery store.  We didn’t run out of food, and had more than enough to eat for meals and in-between. It makes me wonder why I always feel the need for those extra stops.
  2. No driving-thru to pass the time.  We have 50 minutes to fill while one of my kids is at an activity three times a week. Instead of amusing ourselves with food, we drove back home, ran errands, or one time we went inside to watch the lesson. (Earlier in the year, we would go to the playground to get some exercise ourselves. But with shorter says upon us, it’s too dark now.) The room was crowded, and my three-year-old wiggled like three-year-olds do, but it was a better use of our time than French fries.
  3. There was a lot less asking for treats. In fact, one evening after being out for errands near dinner time, I wanted to stop for a snack.  “But we didn’t ask!” one protested.  We weren’t going to a favorite spot, and he didn’t want to waste our limited funds on a place we didn’t like that much.  He wanted to save it. “Is this coming out of our food cash?” they wanted to know.  It did, and it honestly wasn’t worth it. The line was so long, we may have eaten sooner if we had just gone home.
  4. While there was less asking for treats, there was a great deal of discussion and planning of treats.  I would hear them say things like, “If we don’t get anything the rest of the week, we will have enough money for frozen yogurt on Saturday.”  That’s what they really wanted, and they were willing to wait for it, if required to.  When Saturday came and I handed over the last of the cash to pay for the yogurt, we were actually happy about it! It was a real treat, and we appreciated it.  I am always lecturing the kids about self-control, but I need to give them a chance to actually practice it!  And I need to practice it myself.
Does this mean it is actually possible to change?? It doesn’t seem like a big deal, does it? Spending a few less dollars on food.  But using my debit card for everything (and not being terribly thoughtful about it) is a long-held habit, so the fact that I was able to do something a little differently, at least for a few days, is somewhat encouraging. It’s encouragement that I need, honestly, because I do get very discouraged about other long-held habits (like worrying, or being impatient) that I want to change but haven’t.  But bit by bit, I know that He is working on me.  One day at a time.
~~For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you (and me!) will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6, NASB)~~

Thanks for stopping by,

Susan

P.S.  And yes, I am going to stick with using cash for food! 🙂

2 Comments »

Time to Break the Piggy Bank!

broken piggy bank

image credit: office.microsoft.com

As I shared last week, reviewing my spending over a period of time showed me how frequently I was spending money on food, without realizing it. The problem with going to the grocery store too many times per week is that, picking up “just a few things” often adds up to more than I was planning on spending. My Saturday grocery total is pretty consistent, but I haven’t been factoring in what I spend on mid-week trips. I also wonder whether I’m setting the best example for my children, for example, when French fries are used to pass the time while one child is at an activity, or as a bribe to a whiny toddler. (I’m not proud of it; just being honest. :)) But I see here that the kids and I both have an opportunity here to learn some self-control and discipline. My kids may also learn that anyone can change, including grown-ups.

~~Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6, NIV)~~

Now, I am a long-time debit card user, and while it is very convenient, I admit that the convenience comes with risk. As I’ve experienced myself, it’s very easy to swipe a card when you know (or, you think) that there’s money in the account. So what I plan to do this week is to use CASH ONLY (gasp!) for food purchases. I will get some cash from the ATM tomorrow, and that’s gonna be it for the week. It will have to cover impromptu groceries, frozen yogurt, chicken nuggets, whatever goes into our mouths.  I will allow two exceptions: 1) We went out of town this weekend, so I did not do my regular shopping on Saturday. I plan to do that tomorrow, using my debit card. 2) Tomorrow night we will go to dinner as a family to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary! (Praise our merciful and gracious Lord!) That will go on the debit card, too.

I will also get the kids involved. They’re going to know that, if we run out of money on Wednesday, there will be no French fries until next week! I’m already a little nervous thinking about it. But I’m also looking forward to it.  I’m curious to see how they respond.  I’m predicting that one of my kids will be very concerned about holding on to the money all week. Will they all be like that? (I already know the answer for the three-year-old). And where will I fall on the saving spectrum? I will let you know next week!

Thank you for stopping by,
Susan

5 Comments »

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