Managing your finances in 5 minutes a day

Mint tea
Mint tea, which will take longer to make than managing your finances.

A lot of people struggle to build a budget, track their spending, and really manage their finances on a regular basis. Money becomes a constant, wearying worry, just distant enough to be too much effort to deal with, and also distant enough to be easily distracted from. But your personal, or even business, finances don’t have to be a lot of work! Today I’m going to show you how to build and maintain a budget in less than 5 minutes a day, and how to keep up with your finances so you know exactly what you have and where it’s going.

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Review of Mint Financial Site

Mint Home is a total pain in the ass to set up. But once you have it set up, it is the greatest thing ever.

What Mint offers you is centralized reporting, monitoring, and analysis of your personal finances. It does this by logging into your online banking accounts, reading your transactions and balances, and categorizing and organizing everything to make it easy for you to understand. ((I imagine you’re thinking, “OMG this seems like a huge security risk!” You may never be comfortable with something like this, but I’ll tell you why I’m not too worried. 1) It was just bought by Intuit, the company that also makes Quicken. They’ve got a reputation on the line, plus some federal oversight, so I trust them. 2) I read through all their privacy, terms of service, and end user license agreement stuff. It looks legit to me, and after a couple of months of using them, still seems solid.))

Fracking Online Bank Accounts

If you've got a lot of accounts, Mint will take even more work to get Just Right.
If you've got a lot of accounts, Mint will take even more work to get Just Right.

It’s hard to say which feature I value most in Mint, but the ability to see all of my finances in one place is pretty wonderful. Regardless of which credit card or checking account we use, I have one list of transactions. I can see at a glance how our investments are doing, how much is in our savings, and what bills have come out.

But this also means I have to have every account in there to get the full picture, and I couldn’t rest until I had them all in. My investment accounts were the hardest as they had the most strict security, followed by a couple of credit cards. Error after error, setting and resetting security questions, every problem you can think of. And yet, once it’s done, it is simply wonderful.

If you’ve got a lot of accounts like we do, you’re going to be tempted to quit before you have even started. When you run into snags, it’s easy to throw your hands up and move on. You haven’t seen what the site does yet, so it doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Let me assure you, once you get this step done, it gets way better. Most of the accounts will stay setup forever, and while you might have to put some security answers in now and again, mostly everything will Just Work. Get past the initial setup and you will be rewarded.


Minty Pie

Once you have all your accounts in, Mint will have built a list of your last however-many transactions. You may need to spend some time tweaking categories and whatnot, but that’s kind of fun. You can select from a long list that Mint already has ((Pro tip: Don’t set transactions to broad categories, such as Auto, but to specific ones such as Auto Insurance. This will help a lot when you get to budgeting.)) or make your own–just try and be consistent. Once everything is categorized, you can begin to see some trends.

The trending tools in Mint give you two neat functions. First, you can see how much you spent on what. I’m not the type to keep a check register of every purchase we make, but one month I tried to do so. I needed to know where our money was going, so I tried to mark down every cup of coffee, every order of Chinese food, and every MP3 we purchased. It quickly got out of control and I just couldn’t manage it–I gave up. Mint does all of that automatically, based off our actual accounts, which is freaking awesome. And then it shows me all that in a delicious pie chart.

You can drill down into this to see how much you spent inside each broad category (for instance, inside Food & Dining we have: Groceries, Restaurants, Coffee Shops, and Fast Food), and you can also organize it by tag or merchant. What’s also neat is the ability to set this to bar graphs and compare it against other people (who use Mint, obviously) in your country, state, or in other places of the world. It helps put expenses into perspective if you see that, on average, everyone is spending way less than you on something. Or, as might be the case, if they’re spending way more than you, you can feel kind of good about it.

Trends will help you see where your money is going, and that will help you decide what your budget needs to be.

Realistic Budgeting

As a general rule, your budget should not look like a Christmas tree.

Something Mint has taught me about budgeting is how to make our budget realistic. It’s easy to set a budget and not stick to it, which is what I have done for years. Or, to put it more accurately, we would budget for the big expenses (rent/mortgage, utilities, insurance, groceries, etc.) but not for little ones (coffee, eating out, clothes). We didn’t have any way to save for those things specifically, nor did we have any way to measure and account for them. If we needed to, we took from savings.

Once we could see how we generally spent our money from the trend analysis, though, we could set some definite goals and limits. It’s important to be able to tell yourself, “No, I won’t spend more than $$ on <item I want>,” but it’s worthwhile to prioritize your desires and make sure you’re not miserable. For instance, I want April to feel free to buy coffee in the morning, but we can’t afford for her to buy a latte every day. We budget enough for her to get a regular coffee most days and limit ourselves to that. We don’t say, “No more coffee!” because that would be crazy.

Mint will also let you do rolling budgets and pre-filled budgets for extra-monthly expenses. Let me give two examples to clarify these.

A rolling budget allows you to roll the balance of a budget from one month to the next. We use this for most of ours, but the best example is on utilities. Over the course of the year, our utilities average about $141 per month. During nice months (like the one we just finished) though, it’ll be a lot less. We can budget $141, knowing that’s average, and when we only spend $80 on utilities, the other $59 can roll to the next month. This will add up until we hit one of those terrible periods where our utility cost spikes to $250 a month for 2-3 months, and since we budgeted and rolled money accordingly, we’re fine. Doing things this way prevents us from spending the excess (we could have just spent the extra $59 on something else, but then we’d be screwed later) because the money stays in the utility budget and is accounted for.

A pre-filled budget is ideal for expenses that only crop up occasionally. For instance, we pay a $22 trash fee every three months so the nice men with the truck will come and pick up our garbage. Mint lets me set that up and then fills a budget of $7 every month, so in three months there will be $22. This helps me save for the expense and keep us accountable.

We use rolling budgets for food, clothing, and some other things as well so we can do fun things. Maybe April can’t get the dress she wants this month, but the money will roll over and she can get it next month, or something. We have a pre-filled budget for Sam’s Club as well, where we spend lots of money on bulk items (and by buying in bulk we save more in the long run). We don’t need to go every month, but we spend a lot of money when we do, so it’s good to plan for that in advance.

Grow Strong in the Force

Keeping an eye on your finances, knowing where your money is going, and adjusting your spending accordingly to meet your goals are important keys to financial success. If you have ever reached the end of your bank account and been confused where all your money went, something like Mint would probably be really helpful for you. You don’t have to use this site, but from experience I can say that it’s a lot easier than doing all this by hand.

I was previously managing our finances through a Google Spreadsheet. I kept track of the big expenses throughout the month, kept an eye on what would be left in our checking account by the end of the month, and tried to coordinate everything between the different accounts. It worked, but I didn’t have a good overall picture of our finances or financial health. I couldn’t analyze the trends in our spending. Now I can, and that means I can make adjustments far more easily.

I’d suggest you at least drop by their site and check it out. Mint has been a HUGE help to me, and I think it could be helpful to a lot of other people I know too. Let me know if you have any questions or need any help with it.

From freedom came elegance

In an attempt to activate the Avant Window Manager, I deleted some system files (specifically, libc6) that are necessary for a great many things to run. “But hey,” I thought, “it’s Linux. This is no big deal.” Instead, it was an ideal opportunity to try a distribution I’d read some good things about recently, and since that distribution is based on Ubuntu (which is, in turn, based on Debian), there wouldn’t be a huge shift for me to get used to. Firing up ye olde web browser, I started downloading Linux Mint and burned it to give the distro a go.

The installation went smoothly, but it has been a bit of a bumpy ride to get it finished, due largely to the way I copied my backup over I think (overwriting some configuration files in the process). The restricted drivers tool that installed my video drivers didn’t activate 3D acceleration automatically, but a nifty tool called Envy was able to uninstall and reinstall them, doing all the configuration and activation on its own. Envy is one of the neater Linux tools I’ve seen among the various distros I’ve driven, and definitely worthy of praise (particularly if it can handle ATI drivers as well as it did my nvidia one; I’ll have to try that at work some time).

Still, I had to redo my video 3 times, and though I was impressed that the GUI never died on me (though it did downgrade to safe mode at 800×600), it’s not what I would call ideal. Package management is fantastic, however, and so far Mint has the best I’ve seen. Coupling the renowned Synaptic Package Manager from Ubuntu with their own Software Portal application, you can find nearly anything and install it with just a few mouse clicks. All dependencies and configurations are done for you, and its simplicity is startling to those used to compiling for kicks.

And, of course, coupled with its elegance, the Avant Window Manager is a crowning feature. Available on all distros, it just looks nice alongside Mint’s interface improvements (Gnome with a nice theme, to be honest), and since it was my original goal, I’m glad to have it working so easily through the Software Portal.

Unfortunately, I have the same problem with Mint that I had with Ubuntu 7.10 (yet do not have with Ubuntu 7.04), which is that my digital camera does not work. In 7.04, I plug it in, it is detected, and I can pull the pictures off, no problem. Now, nothing, and a lot of users have the same problem. There is supposedly a patch or way around it, but I haven’t been able to get it to work yet. I can transfer the photos to my computer via the laptop, but that’s sort of a pain and I’m not sure it’s worth having a distro installed that doesn’t do everything I want/need it to do (even if it is shiny).

In the end, Linux Mint is nice, but it is plagued by the same shortcomings as most Ubuntu releases and distros: by focusing on being cutting edge, some stability is lost. All-in-all, it’s a fantastic distro, but regression of features simply should not occur. I’ll dig around a bit more and try to apply this patch, but I’m not holding out a whole lot of hope. We’ll see what the morning brings.