'As Uncle Sam prepares  to move his gold from the mint...'

Earlier today a friend mentioned she’s trying to watch her spending. This is a thing almost everyone thinks about, and it’s something that I’ve worked pretty hard and have been fairly successful with. So once again I responded the way I always do when the topic comes up: “Do you use Mint?”

Now, I’m far from the most financially responsible person I know — I’m not a great saver, for instance, and I spend way too much money on coffee — but I wanted to share a handful of tricks I’ve honed with Mint that have helped me to be stay within budgets and avoid any debt over the last five years.

I feel like some weird faux Suze Orman right now, but whatev, here goes.

So what’s Mint?

Mint is a free website for tracking and managing your spending. You enter the online login info for your credit cards, bank accounts, loans, etc. and then Mint tracks your spending (and income) and automatically applies a categories — restaurants, clothing, car loan, so on — which you can then use to keep a budget.1

Mint on the iPhone

Mint works pretty well out of the box. But I’ve talked to enough people who say they’ve tried to use it only to give up in frustration that I think there’s a few things you can do to make it actually useful. I’ve been using Mint in this way since 2010, and it’s helped me not just to save money but to be substantially less stressed about money as well.2

I’ve used the same techniques when I was making very little money at a nonprofit and I use them now when I’m making more, and in all cases been super helpful.

How budgets work

For me, the magic of Mint lies in how you set up your budgets. When you set up a budget in Mint, you have the option to set it for any broad category (“Home”, “Food and Dining”, “Entertainment”), or a more specific subcategory (“Rent”, “Groceries”, “Movies”). As you spend money in those categories, the budget meter fills up, turns yellow when it gets close, and then turns red when you exceed it:

Budget

The most common complaints I hear from people who’ve tried and quit Mint is that they got frustrated keeping track of all of their budgets and couldn’t keep everything organized. So with that in mind, I’m going to use this first post to share the four things I do to make my budgets work. It starts by thinking of budgets in in terms of two questions: 1) is the budget the same amount every month? 2) Does it consist of the same transactions every month?

1. Start specific

Budget - Recurring specific My favorite thing about Mint is that it lets me understand how much money I have to spend on dumb stuff I want but don’t need, freeing me to spend that money without guilt or stress. The reason it does this is because I first track specifically everything that I know I need to spend money on.

There’s a set number of specifc things I spend the same amount of money on every single month:

  • Rent
  • Car insurance
  • Student loans
  • Phone bill
  • Automatic donations
  • Utilities
  • Haircut
  • Subscription services (e.g. music, Netflix)
  • Gas
  • Savings

I set those budgets for the same amount every month and every month the little thermometers fill up exactly the same way. Knowing that that money is gone no matter what makes me feel way more comfortable to spend the money I have leftover how I want.

2. …then get more general…

Budget - Recurring general Of course, there’s a bunch of things we tend to spend around the same amount of money on each month, but our spending tends to vary some. For me, that thing is food.

The thing for me is I just don’t want to fret about food. I know I’m going to need to spend a certain amount of money every month to feed myself, and month to month it tends to be about the same amount.

In Mint, “Food and Dining”” is a top level category that includes a bunch of subcategories like groceries, fast food and drinks. But rather than bothering to track by the specific subcategory, I keep it general here because I don’t really care how I reach my budget; I just care that I stay within it. Whether that’s from buying coffee, eating out, or buying groceries, I’ve decided I just don’t care.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care. I just mean to say that if there’s a broad set of things you tend to spend about the same amount on every month, and spending that money is basically non-negotiable, then set a broad goal.

3. …and then even more general.

Budget - Variable general

Once you’ve taken out the super specific items from #1, the recurring general expenses from #2, you’re left with everything else. Both how much of this money I have left and what I spend it on varies a lot from month to month, so these budgets change frequently, often times within the same month, both in size and scope.

But they often fall into three broad categories:

  • Entertainment (e.g. bars, movies, trips)
  • Shopping (e.g. clothes, electronics, or stuff for the home)
  • Anything else that pops up (e.g. airfare, car repairs, medical bills)

Basically any time I do stuff as oppose to acquire stuff it goes into entertainment, and then vice versa for shopping.3 And again, just like with food, I don’t care how I spend the money (drinking vs. movies for example), just that I stayed within the budget.

By not worrying about tracking the specifics, it means I don’t have to worry about any more budgets than I really need, especially when those budgets are going to change frequently month to month. Because I don’t need to buy plane tickets often, I don’t set up a recurring budget for “Airfare”. It’s just way easier.

Hold tight for more

Those four points are definitely the four most important things that have kept Mint useful for me over the years. In the next post, I’ll get into a few more granular tricks I’ve used that can smooth things out even more: splitting and hiding transactions, using cash and why it makes having a credit card great.

This is the first guide of any sort like this I’ve written up. So if you’ve got questions, feedback or tips of your own to share, hit me up on Twitter: @noahmanger.

  1. Mint is completely free, so of course they’re making money by monitoring your data and serving up targeted ads for credit cards and investment accounts. If this is a nonstarter for you, I totally get it. For no particular reason, I just don’t mind that much and the convenience and benefit (plus no cost) make it a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

  2. Putting this in a footnote because I don’t want to get off topic, but I want to add the (maybe obvious, maybe not) disclaimer that of course just using a piece of software can’t save your financial life if you’re stuck in serious financial hardship. People have money problems that I know I’ve never had. I will say, though, that the whole reason I started using Mint was because when I took my first job and was making hardly any money a tight budget was the only way I could get by, and Mint was crucial for helping me do that. So whether money’s tight or whether you just want to get your head around your spending, I hope this can help.

  3. I’ve thought about just setting up a single custom category for “Slush” that catches both, but for whatever reason I like to split them out, even though I’ll typically switch money back and forth.