MapQuest and other sites can get you where you want to go without having to ask directions. But a new website is aiming to help users manage their finances more efficiently.
Mint.com serves as an online financial management system. Mint "helps people see their money, where it is, how they're earning and spending it, and what they can do to save more of it," explained Aaron Forth, Mint's vice president of product, who is based in Mountain View, Calif. Mint (www.mint.com) enables people to aggregate and view their financial portfolios online no matter if their money is invested at brokerage firms, banks, or credit unions. Moreover, Mint tracks spending on gas, groceries, rent, and restaurants; compares how investments are doing in the marketplace; and even sends emails notifying users to pay bills.
Since debuting in January 2007, Mint has grown to 1.4 million users and tracks $50 billion in assets. It claims to have saved its users $300 million. In fact, Mint has proven so popular that Intuit, which makes TurboTax and Intuit financial packages, acquired Mint.com for $170 million in September 2009. Aaron Patzer, the founder and CEO of Mint, will continue to run it as general manager of Intuit and doesn't expect major changes in how it does business or helps consumers.
Mint's users continue to depend on their financial advisors and counselors; Mint doesn't offer financial advice or suggestions on where to invest money. Instead, it shows consumers their entire financial pictures. Forth said that Mint sees itself as a "software shop. We're not financial people."
One of Mint's goals is to demystify finances, which confound and confuse many people. It aims to help consumers tackle questions such as: How are we doing financially? How is my net worth changing? Am I making more money than I'm spending? "It's difficult to get a consolidated view of your finances," Forth noted.
But Mint isn't for everybody. In fact, it appeals only to people who do online banking. Mint is currently connected to the online banking systems of 8,000 financial services institutions, out of about 12,000 in the country. If a user's bank or local credit union isn't associated with Mint, the user can either ask it to hook up with Mint or vice versa.
Mint appeals to younger people more than to Baby Boomers because of its reliance on online banking; the median age of its target users is 33-years-old and includes 60% men and 40% women. Forth said that Mint appeals to several types of users: 1) People who are young and tech-savvy, 2) soccer moms who manage their household's finances but don't have the time or resources to analyze transactions, and 3) men between the ages of 42 and 55 who own property, are considering retirement, and can aggregate their 401(k)s, IRAs, real estate and investments to view all of their holdings.
Logging on to the Mint is easy for savvy internet users. All users do is enter the site; search for their bank; type in their name, email address, and password; and then add accounts from their credit card, brokerage house, or any other pertinent financial services firms. If dissatisfied with the site, the user can log off, expunge their account, and their data is removed immediately.
Confidentiality and privacy are major concerns in an age of identity theft. But Mint has that subject covered. Mint users are never asked their actual names; they always remain anonymous and enroll using only their email addresses. Mint never asks for a user's Social Security number, birth date, mother's maiden name, or any other identifying characteristics. Hence, a user's personal financial information cannot be breached. "You can't move money. We offer a read-only perspective," Forth said.
Mint analyzes how consumers spend their money. If during one month, users spend $400 at restaurants, $80 at espresso bars, and $300 on clothes, they might want to streamline dining out, cut back on lattes, and curtail acquiring trendy clothes. Since many banks are charging $30 or more for overdraft charges on debit cards, users can set up a consumer alert in which Mint sends email alerts when the balance hits $200, in order to avoid hefty overdraft fees. "Visibility and access to information can be a very effective driver of change in behavior," Forth noted.
Based on each user's spending habits, Mint recommends which credit card will reap the most airline miles, largest cash return, or lowest interest rates. It explains that choosing credit card X can lead to saving $124 a year. In fact, Mint's business model derives from its abilities to suggest credit card companies and financial service firms to users. Mint is paid a certain percentage by the firms when its users join a new company.
Yet Forth emphasizes that Mint's recommendations are based on its elaborate algorithms, not favoring one company over another. "Our algorithms offer no weighted factor on whether a company is a sponsor or not," he said. Because sponsors generate enough revenue to support its 35-member full-time staff, Mint is free to all users-it doesn't even have banner ads.
In essence, Mint holds the mirror to users on their financial portfolio and spending habits. "We show you things about yourself, your spending habits, and your financial resources," Forth said.
Why did founder and CEO Patzer name it Mint? "This is your money and we want to help you manage it, just like the U.S. mint." Sounding altruistic for a moment despite its for-profit status, Forth said the site is on a mission to "help people do more with their lives. You can't attain financial freedom if you're being charged high fees."
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.