One of the joys of becoming a young professional is (eventually) making more money. Yet while a bigger paycheck means more freedom, it also means more responsibility. As so many lottery winners and former NFL players can attest, any amount of money can vanish overnight if not managed responsibly.
Luckily, there are free tools like Mint.com to help us stop wasting money and get a hold of our personal finances. With its beautiful Web interface and killer mobile/tablet apps, it’s no surprise that Mint recently crossed the 10-million-user mark. (And no, I don’t work for Mint! Completely objective user here.)
But what is surprising is how many people miss out on the best parts of Mint. Most use two or three basic features and ignore the treasure trove available to those who dig a little deeper.
Here are a few ways to save money and time with Mint that you’re probably missing:
1. Use Bill Reminders to avoid late fees
No matter how responsible we try to be, everyone forgets to pay bills from time to time. Rather than hoping our memories get better with time (unlikely), why not leverage technology when you can? That’s where automatic bill reminders come in, eliminating the need to remember what’s due and when.
Mint recognizes certain recurring payments as monthly bills and will automatically add them to your Upcoming Bills section. But to really dial in your reminders, click on the small and easy-to-miss gear icon to the right of the Upcoming Bills header (scroll down on the Overview screen until you see Upcoming Bills) and select Change Your Reminders.
At the top in green text it says, “These look like bills to us.” That means that Mint sees those transactions as recurring bills and can prompt you to schedule a reminder. Click on “Remind me” to have Mint automatically send you reminders when your bill is due. It will default to reminding you when the bill is actually due, but you can change the date by clicking on the link that says, “repeats (monthly) on the…”
Rather than being notified the day a bill is due (which might be too late), I set reminders for two or three days before the bill is due. After you’ve added a reminder for a bill, Mint will send you an email seven days before the bill is due by default, but to change or verify this setting, you can click on the small gray gear (again, easy to miss) at the bottom left of the Your Bill Reminders section. There, you can change how many days out you’ll get reminded and if it’s via email or text.
If you want to add or create a reminder that Mint hasn’t suggested, just click the orange “Add Reminder” and enter pertinent information like name, due date, amount, whether the amount varies, etc.
Late fees can cost up to $50 a pop, but this is a dead-simple way to avoid them.
2. Rely on Email Alerts to keep you on your toes
Different than bill reminders, email alerts are messages you sign up to receive from Mint that notify you of things like low balances, overspending or unusual spending. Rather than having to comb through all your accounts every week, you can have Mint watch your back and let you know if anything shady (or, ahem, irresponsible) is happening with your spending. Handy, right?
To sign up for email alerts, click “Your Accounts” at the very top of any screen on the Mint website. Then click “Email & Alerts” in the upper right of the next screen. Scroll down for all of the available alert options, including the ability to receive each alert as a text or email message.
Personally, I find the low balance and bank fee alerts to be most helpful; using them helps me avoid (or know to contest) expensive bank fees.
3. Auto-Categorize like it’s your job
Creating a coherent category scheme is the most important aspect of using Mint if you really want to save time and money. Everything you track or measure depends on categorized information, so if your categories are a mess, everything else will be, too.
One of the biggest time-savers Mint offers is letting you set rules for how to categorize repeat transactions. For example, I recently created a “Running” sub-category to see how much my wife and I spend on running gear and races. If we buy something at the store Fleet Feet, it’s definitely running gear, so it can automatically be categorized as “Running.”
To set this up, I navigated to Transactions, clicked on a Fleet Feet transaction (or whatever transaction you’re working on), and changed the category to Running. Then click “Edit Details” right below the Description field. In the window that opens, I checked the box next to Rules that says “Always rename Fleet Feet and categorize as Running.” Now Mint knows that Fleet Feet transactions are always Running transactions and will file them accordingly.
Personal finance might seem intimidating, but the right mix of tools and techniques can make balancing your budget as easy as checking your email. Sure, you could just use Mint as an expense tracker, but you’d be missing out on so much more!
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