Way back in our working and saving days (which peaked between 2000-2005), the Mrs. and I started to become more interested in watching the progress of our early retirement savings project. So every weekend, we’d log into our separate Vanguard accounts and compare notes.
As this simple thrill wore off, we started a spreadsheet called “Net Worth” that automatically tracked the stock holdings in Vanguard and other accounts, as well as any cash in the bank and the value of our primary and rental houses. The spreadsheet grew fancier over time, adding graphs, goals, and historical snapshots.
It became quite exciting when we noticed that the ‘stash itself would often produce more income than we did with our work. Dividends and appreciation on stocks and real estate are usually small percentages, but when multiplied across large numbers, they start to surprise you.
We also started to have a look at our spending. We felt pretty frugal overall and thus had never used a budget of any sort. My feeling on the matter was, “Well, since I am spending much less than I earn, what’s the point of using a budget – I already know there will be no shortage!” The thing I was missing is that you should still know how much you are spending, because that tells you how much income your investments will need to start providing once you start your early retirement.
And as soon as you start tracking your spending, even the most hardcore frugalist will suddenly gain extra motivation to optimize it. “Hmm.. maybe I don’t really NEED to throw this extra bottle of wine into the grocery cart – I’ll save a few bucks and go on an alcohol-free health kick this week, and go for a new record in low spending this month”. Stuff like that.
When you’re shooting for financial independence, I really like the “track your spending” method better than the “budgeting” method. With a budget, you allow yourself certain quantities of waste and try to stay within them. With tracking, your goal is NO waste, so you challenge yourself to cut every category, except eating, to zero. In reality it does not happen, of course, but the mindset of relentlessly thinking over every single purchase and trying to optimize it away is the thing that lets you develop your Frugality Muscle over time.
So the years passed and the lines on the spreadsheet went up, and when they were high enough to pay for expenses with passive income, we quit our jobs and declared ourselves retired. (Of course, we’ve started little businesses and done smaller side work since then, but that was for reasons other than earning an income to live on).
Since then, we’ve gone into a slack period in the “thinking about money” department. The income to pay for our modest lifestyle is just automatically there. I buy everything with a cash back credit card, which automatically gets paid at the end of each month, from a bank account which automatically gets filled up each month from the rental income and investment returns. A few times per year we might review the portfolio just for fun, but there’s really nothing interesting going on in there right now, it’s on auto-pilot until I eventually start doing some more real estate deals in the next few years.
So when I started hearing everyone raving about this new financial tracking site called Mint.com, the Mrs. and I thought “that’s cool for the young Mustachians who are saving hard, or for people with spending problems who have to watch their budgets to avoid going deep into debt.. but it’s not for us.”*
But the raving continued and the screenshots looked very enticing. So we finally decided to set up an account with them and see what all the hype is about.
Synopsis: Mint is a website which can help you gather all of your financial information in one place, then analyze and track it for you very easily with some very beautiful graphs, charts, and reminders.
The service is free for users, as it makes its money by displaying ads for credit cards and other services which would be advantageous to someone with your spending patterns. Some of the affiliated companies pay a large commission to anyone who refers a new customer (something like $20-$100), so Mint surely makes a mint even without charging you a cent.**
As a lifelong technology addict, I can appreciate a really good user interface, and Mint definitely has it. It’s fun to use, and it seems to draw you in to set things up in quite an organic and natural way.
Once configured, it can automatically do things like watching your credit card balance for you, and sending you alerts (email, text, whatever) to let you know certain thresholds have been met.
Adm Karpinsk! You’ve spent too much on Beer this week! You must cut out that category for the rest of the month!
Mustache! It’s Mint again! Do you realize you only have $500 in your bank account, yet your credit card is about to auto-withdraw $600 next week!? Get on it, sucka!”
Mint will also automatically gather the balances from all of your various accounts (investment, bank, credit card, and any loans) and present you with an instantaneous net worth summary.
If you enter your house address, it will automatically estimate the value using Zillow (which you can fine-tune as needed), and balance the home value against the mortgage balance to show your equity in the home.
Mint is also surprisingly good at digesting your credit card statement and sorting out everything you bought into categories. It knows that “The Pumphouse” is actually a restaurant here in Longmont, and that Monsterbrew is beer and wine supplies.
There are many other whiz-bang features including smartphone apps that let you access your data from anywhere, but the real thing you might be starting to notice is this: Mint has finally provided a way for a normal person to be able to track every bit of his spending, and even keep up with a budget, with virtually zero effort.
Most of us aren’t going to save all of our receipts and type them into Quicken, and indeed, I only briefly look at my credit card statement at the end of each month, just to make sure every transaction is something I distinctly remember buying. So detailed spending tracking is something that is often started but abandoned due to lack of fun. Therefore, if it’s going to happen, it must be automatic, and that’s why I like Mint. Whether you use a spreadsheet, another software package, or an online service like Mint doesn’t matter, but you should definitely be watching over your ‘stash in one way or another.
What do YOU use? Has anyone found anything equivalent to or better than Mint in their quest? Mint users – how do you like it?
*We were also initially concerned about the security implications of putting all of your financial information in one place. But after learning that Mint only has read-only access to your accounts, and realizing that the real security lies in the underlying banks and credit cards which automatically protect you against fraudulent transactions done to your account, we got over it. It’s also a big operation that was bought by Intuit itself (and subsequently another bank) and now has millions of users, so it has had some battle testing. Overall, I have always been comfortable with internet commerce and have never seen any ill effects in over 16 years of participating in it.
**You’ll note that a lot of personal finance blogs do a suspicious number of reviews of rewards credit cards as well, because of this same lucrative commission structure. Not that there’s anything wrong with that from a Mustachian perspective – I’ve been a staunch rewards credit card user for ten years, with many thousands of dollars in cash back and free family travel collected over that time. The field remains competitive with very high signing bonuses and I maintain a list of the best cards on my own rewards card page here).