Hacking Mint to Account for the Unexpected; What I Learned from a Year of Spending and Saving

I like Mint. Truly, I do. There’s something empowering about knowing all of your transactions live in one place. But in trying to be all things to all people, Mint tends to overwhelm users with a daunting number of categories and sub-categories. Additionally, Mint’s basic set-up makes it difficult to account for irregular or unexpected expenses, whether it’s a busted taillight, a friend’s spur-of-moment-birthday getaway or coming to the realization that you no longer fit in some of your dress pants.

For me, those expenses are the most stressful ones to bear: What should I cut back on to pay for that car repair? Can I really afford this trip? Why do I feel bad about spending more than $50 on a pair of dress pants even though I literally don’t have any dress pants that fit?

Thankfully, Mint’s categories can be tamed. And using rollover budgets can help users account for unexpected expenses. I took a deep dive on a year of my spending data and took advantage of some Mint tools I had been neglecting. This allowed me to finally see how my real-world spending choices were stacking up against my carefully calibrated — and theoretical — personal budget.

1. Keeping categories simple and meaningful

I doubt many people need to know how much they spend on “Amusement” versus “Movies and DVDs.” Similarly, I’m sure most people would be happy to know how much they spend on their pet without breaking it down into pet grooming and pet food. I assume that Mint uses such oddly precise subcategories to help target advertisements to its users. More power to them — and I’m not one to complain about free products supported by ads — but it doesn’t work for me.

My main problem with Mint’s default categories is that they conflate needs and wants. For instance, paying my mortgage is not an option, but buying a new piece of furniture or a painting for the wall certainly is. Never the less, Mint defaults to categorizing all those expenses under the “Home” category.

In looking at all of my spending, I realized there were just a few truly major categories under which all of my spending fit: home, food, transportation, bills and utilities, health, and, finally, “shopping,” a catch-all category for all the “optional” expenses in my life.

MintCats

Caption: Mmm…pie chart. The “other” category above is where I track transactions related to the coffee club I help run at work. I suppose “caffeine addiction” could be its own category, too!

2. Using “goals” to account for savings

The second big issue I had to tackle was that I had never set up my saving goals in Mint, so my budget looked like I was running a huge cash surplus and presumably stuffing Benjamins under my mattress. Mint’s defaults are good at tracking spending, but you have to take some time to play around with the “goals” section to account for retirement and other savings. Obviously, it’s important to “pay yourself first” and save a significant portion of your income. I wish Mint prioritized this a bit more over tracking spending, but working through all the “goals” ensured that my monthly budget was in balance.

3. Putting all the “wants” in one big bucket

It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to deal with all those “want” expenses. I wound up shoving them all under the “Shopping” category and created a bunch of sub-categories that might be worth tracking over time. For instance, I spent a surprising amount of money on backpacking gear this year, so I don’t want to spend any more on gear for a while. Similarly, I bought a lot of new dress clothes, so I should be good on that for many months if not a full year or longer. Other major sub-categories included home improvement, charitable giving, and, finally, vacations and other trips.

OH MY GOSH IT’S MADE OF TITANIUM Shut up and take my money. (Source: Wikipedia)

Grappling with the spending choices I’ve made over the past year made me realize that my wants fluctuate a lot throughout the year and are hard to plan for. Throwing them all into a “shopping” category makes it easier to separate the money I “have to” spend to live from the money I “get to” spend on things I want and things I want to do.

I also included a lot of stuff in this category most people probably wouldn’t consider “wants” at first blush, including random Amazon purchases like oven cleaner, sunglasses, chapstick and gum. In thinking through how I wanted to categorize all those old purchases, I realized that, yes, I could live without oven cleaner; it’s simply a convenience I pay for to more easily clean my oven. Same goes for chewing gum and chapstick — I’m not going to suffer too much without them. Even sunglasses are not necessary for a full and happy life. Pants that actually fit might arguably be a different matter, of course, but ultimately, updating one’s wardrobe is also a “want.” (Mr. Money Moustache has a lot more to say — perhaps in more challenging terms — about the culture of convenience and what we perceive as wants vs. needs in life.)

4. Setting up Rollover Budgets to Adjust as You Go to Account for Unexpected Expenses

Mint is great at tracking monthly expenses, but it’s pretty awful at tracking infrequent expenses. For instance, whenever I paid my car insurance, I’d get an alert from Mint telling me that my spending on “Auto and Transport” was high this month. It’s like, “Mint — dude — I know. Chill out.”

Thankfully, there’s a work around. When you set up budgets, you can check off the box that says “S

All good, right? Of course not! Life happens. Just this past week, I got a parking ticket and had to pay to get my car out of a tow lot. A few days later, I got a speeding ticket. I’m generally a pretty careful driver, so this was a rare double-whammy. Naturally, I felt a bit stupid and shook my head at the prospect of being $300 “in the hole” on unexpected car-related expenses. But thanks to how I set up my budgets, I can take that $300, divide it by 12 and adjust my transportation expenses up by $25  a month.

But here’s the thing — now that $25 has to come from somewhere else. Given how I set up my budgets, it can’t come from any of my needs — man’s gotta eat and that roof over my head is pretty cool — so it must come from the “shopping” budget where I shoved all my “wants.”

parking sign

Caption: In retrospect, I should not have missed this no parking sign in Hyattsville, MD.

Alternatively, I could jack up the transportation budget $300 this month and drop other budgets by $300. Then I could return to “normal” next month. Either way works as long as one doesn’t blow up multiple budgets in a given month and, hey, that’s what emergency funds are supposed to be for, right?

I can imagine doing the same thing with other unexpected expenses, especially healthcare since it’s hard to plan on getting sick. On the flip side, if I get lucky with lower transportation expenses than expected or my utility bill plummets for a few months in a row, I’ll be able to see that “surplus” in my budget and can put it to work as more savings or funding more “wants.”

5. Clarifying Choices and Tradeoffs

Playing around with that big “want” category was also an interesting exercise in thinking about tradeoffs. For instance, this is a big year for friends getting married while last year was quieter on that front. That’s incredibly exciting and it also means that I’m probably going to count those weddings as trips or vacations under my catch-all “shopping” category for the purposes of budgeting. (Mint doesn’t let users create new root categories.)

It’s also useful to think about what I really want to do to my home. Are new kitchen cabinets and appliances worth it? Maybe. My dishwasher sounds like a wounded marine mammal, but replacing it costs just as much as a weekend getaway. Which expense should wait: the dishwasher or the trip? When I think about it in those terms, the dishwasher is fine and I feel better about getting another (noisy) year of use out of it.

Personal finance is just that — personal — and a reflection of all our weird idiosyncrasies. I’m glad I finally sat down and “tamed” Mint for my purposes.

I hope folks find this helpful!