Tools to Help You Track Your Dollars

Take the stress out of money management

computersavingEXCA week ago, I set out on a mission to figure out the best tool to track your dollars. After all, knowing where your money is going and how much of it is being spent is one of the best ways to protect against financial ruin. I recently tested three programs, Microsoft Excel, Mint.com, and Google Docs, to find the pros and cons of each. While all of these programs have value, one was clearly a cut above the rest: Mint.com.

Mint.com

By far one of the most extensive money-tracking programs, Mint shows spending trends, ways you can save money, and sends e-mail reminders about low balances and upcoming bills. But, check out what all of these programs have to offer, and read why Mint is the best.

This free program does most of the work for you. Once you input all your accounts including loans, debts, savings and checking accounts, and investments, your work is pretty much done.

One of Mint’s most useful and probably sobering features is its trend report which displays average spending in specific areas such as health and fitness, grocery shopping, entertainment, and utilities. Mint does this by looking at where each credit and debit card and online purchase was made. You can also re-categorize certain purchases if the default setting is inaccurate. The only drawback is that cash withdrawals are not categorized (unless manually done), which can skew your actual financial picture.

When you log in, alerts, which can include bill due dates, low account balances and what it considers abnormal spending, are posted on the homepage. For instance, I received an alert when I spent $296.56 in the past 30 days on “Health and Fitness” because I usually spend $85.

The Website also provides ways you can save money, including credit cards that would be more beneficial given your spending habits, and money market accounts with higher interest rates. Mint also has a free app for iPhone and iPod Touch users which can be synched to your Web account allowing users to check their finances on-the-go via one website. Other highlights include:

Itemized Budget: You can set a budget for each area of you life including utilities, shopping, and entertainments. Instead of checking your budget at the end of the month,
Mint tracks each expense and lets you know how close you are to exceeding monthly allotment.

Investment Portfolio Overview: If you have a brokerage account, Mint allows you to track how your investments are doing versus the S&P and other major indices. It also calculates your returns.

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    I’m not sure its fair to compare a full fledged money management application like Mint.com to spreadsheet applications with a budgeting template. A better comparison might have been Microsoft Money or Intuit’s Quicken which by the way recently purchased Mint.com. Both have some of the same essential features as Mint.com, including the ability to import information from your bank account, the ability to itemize expenditures, and detailed reporting features.

    The main difference between products like Quicken and MS Money and a product like Mint.com is that both Quicken and Money have desktop applications, which means an internet connection is not required to view your data and run reports. An internet connection is however recommended for downloading bank account information.

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