I love budgeting (No, seriously) - MoneySense

I love budgeting (No, seriously)

How one website completely changed my outlook on personal finance.

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I’m not very good at saving money. It’s difficult and unpleasant and requires sacrificing things I like, such as beer and cookies.

However, I realize that in order to control my finances, I need to know exactly where my money is going, identify areas that can be improved, set targets and stick to them. It’s not rocket science. It’s called budgeting.

And I can’t stand doing it.

I’ve come to realize that I’m physically incapable of tracking my cash expenditures. I’ve tried keeping all my receipts, writing down each purchase, using smart phone apps and a few other methods. None of them worked because I’m not a details guy.

If I was important enough to have an assistant, he or she would take care of all that stuff and tell me at the end of the month, “Jody, you bought $128 worth of Tim Horton’s trail mix cookies. We need to bring this down into the double-digit range.”

Unfortunately, I’m not that important. However, an editor here at MoneySense recently told me about an online service called Mint.com that acts as your own little assistant. It keeps track of your online finances, including bank accounts, credit products and investments.

And the best part is, it’s free.

I signed up in early October and I have to say, I LOVE this site. I can set budgets, track transactions and see how much I’m paying in fees. It even breaks down my spending by category, which I can have represented in various charts and graphs, which is good. (I like pictures.)

Mint.com will also analyze your finances and suggest ways to save money, such as switching to a lower interest rate credit card or a higher interest savings account. However, this is how they make their money (they get a referral fee when people act on their recommendations) so a little due diligence is required.

So I can now track my spending on coffee, books, groceries or whatever I want. And when I go over budget, it sends me an email alert. It also sends me an alert whenever I’m charged a fee by my bank or credit card vendor, which can be very handy. If you have a problem with the fee, you can immediately call the institution to discuss it, as opposed to searching your monthly statement and possibly overlooking it.

So how does it work? Well, the initial setup was a big hurdle for me, and likely will be for most people. You have to provide your online banking information—including your password—in order to create an account. I had a real problem with this, so I spoke with Stewart Langille, Mint.com’s director of marketing. Here’s what I found.

Mint.com’s parent company Intuit (makers of Quicken, QuickBooks and TurboTax) actually house the data on their own servers in a secure facility, protected by 24/7 security guards and biometric scanners.

“The physical security is comparable to Fort Knox,” says Langille. “You have to pass through multiple barriers, and should you fail a security test you’re locked in a corridor with no escape. James Bond would have a hard time with it.”

The company uses bank-level data security for the transaction information they store. The website has received the VeriSign security seal, is tested daily by Hackersafe and uses the same 128-bit SSL encryption the Canada Revenue Agency uses to transfer personal tax information with NETFILE.

Because it’s a “read only” service, there’s no way to move money with Mint. And users register anonymously, which makes it that much tougher for would-be thieves to identify their victims should they actually succeed in stealing user data, which has yet to happen.

“That would be something that would be potentially devastating to the business,” explains Langille. “It’s never happened in the history of Intuit.”

If you’re still skeptical about handing a company your banking info—and you should be—consider this: Four of the Big Five Canadian banks allow Mint access to their clients’ accounts (CIBC is the lone holdout). While you won’t hear them trumpeting the virtues of the web site from the rooftops, their permission is an implicit endorsement of Mint’s security measures. Just imagine the resulting headaches for the banks if the site resulted in a slew of security breaches.

In my view, if it’s good enough for the big banks, it’s good enough for me.

Mint.com currently has no real competition in Canada, but RBC has its own version of the service called myFinanceTracker. However, it only works for RBC products. I imagine the other banks have similar ideas.

In any event, once my security jitters were overcome, the layout of Mint.com actually made personal finance (and budgeting) fun. (I know, I’m having a hard time believing it too.) But I’m engaged. I look at the site several times a day. And I’m even starting to re-think my cookie intake, which is just short of miraculous. The beer budget, however, is a different story.

More on that next week.

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