Napa. Nice. I admire Patzer’s Facebook presence. It suggests that he leads a full life. He plans to head to Costa Rica for surfing and Spanish lessons. He ran a marathon. And on behalf of Mint, he will accept two 2009 Webby Awards in June. Mint also won second prize in the Edison Best New Product Award competition.
Mint absolutely deserved the awards — as well as the praise it has received from just about every quarter. The site helps you track how much money you have, how much you spend and how much you owe. Artfully designed, it comes off like a patient and discreet friend who knows your awkward financial secrets and stands by you anyway. “There are a number of people we’ve heard from that say Mint is literally the first thing they look at every single morning with their cup of coffee,” Patzer told me recently by e-mail. I’m not quite first-thing yet myself, but still: Mint opens on my desktop every weekday.
The service seems simple enough, though Patzer says there are five separate patents pending to the technology. All I know is that once you slip Mint the user names and passwords for your online accounts, the site collates your mortgages, bank accounts, credit and debit cards, I.R.A.’s, 401(k)’s and more. (Mint, which is connected to about 7,500 financial institutions in the United States, does not itself view or store the information.) Mint can also show trends in your cash flow. It sends you weekly financial summaries via e-mail, while also alerting you to anomalies like unusually high bank fees or sudden surges in expenses. Ordinarily, dealing with banks and credit- card companies requires personal vigilance. With Mint, someone seems to watch over you. And that love comes free of charge.
Mint’s seductive interface has a very gentle, almost-diaphanous graphic scheme that centers on a sprig of mint. (The tacit part of the conceit — “mint” as in U.S. Mint — is, visually, nowhere to be found.) Open the Mint window, and a translucent, vernal interface greets you. A sample pie chart shows, in laxative-ad hues, a mythical Mint user’s monthly expenditures: $1,200 in rent, $400 in groceries, $750 in auto. Halcyon.
Under the pie chart, amid tufts of pretty green grass, Mint presents options to “Understand Your Money,” “Pay Your Student Loans” and “Create a Budget.” You can visit your own accounts and survey them and customize the way that Mint categorizes them.
Significantly, the site also proposes seemingly advantageous ways to switch credit cards or take advantage of various other financial deals. This is where Mint makes its money: it advertises financial-service companies directly to users whose economic circumstances suggest a need for them. If you click on “Ways to Save,” for instance, you’re not given advice on how to darn socks or make stews you can freeze. Instead, logos and promotions for companies like American Express, Starwood and Discover come up. This makes Mint seem somewhat less benevolent. In fact, it’s downright sinister. Unlike other personal-finance guides, Mint does little, if anything, to discourage credit-card use; rather, it encourages users to find “better” cards. Hasn’t the option of hopping from one zero-percent mirage to the next helped to sustain America’s credit delusions?
My anxiety about Mint — that users come to budget and stay to borrow — is quickly allayed by a return to the main interface. Phew: no logos but Mint’s own. And Mint is suffused with a consoling, feel-good quality, as hard to resist as Citigroup’s old “Live Richly” campaign.
By my lights, the best Mint feature is one that lets you compare your own financial freakiness to other people’s. Bar graphs in a beachy palette compare how much you spend at Neiman Marcus or Trader Joe’s, say, with how much money people nationwide — or people just in your state — spend in those franchises. By running my expenses up against those of other household economies, Mint has permitted me raptures of smugness at the thought that, for example, I don’t own a car. It has also chagrined me for days with the realization that I’ve retained so many chump habits from 2006 and am still blowing way too much money at Starbucks.
Joy and chagrin — I’d say those are the emotions activated by Mint. Not bad, right? At least they supplant the anxiety, compulsion and misery that are my usual responses to personal finance. On the service’s testimonials page, users express a kind of soft-rock ardor. “Mint has truly helped my wife and I see light at the end of the financial tunnel,” writes one.
Such emotional reactions suggest that the site is, at its core, something other than a mere bookkeeping tool. After only a few weeks, I was regularly on Mint and essentially playing with it, as with a crossword puzzle: analyzing my spending habits, lowering my monthly caps on this or that category and calling my bank to contest Mint-flagged charges. This new diversion was — I noticed — distracting me from other sites, namely eBay and Etsy. That was rich. Where eBay had once turned shopping into a game, Mint had now turned saving into one.
Lately when I use Mint, I try to ignore what Patzer said when I asked if Mint had a house ideology: he described his crew as “quite a free-market bunch” and said that there are “a number of objectivists and/or libertarians at Mint.” Is Mint an Ayn Rand shop? Should I care? Mint offers a video of Patzer making an industry presentation in 2007. At that time, the occasion of his site’s unveiling, Patzer told the audience that he hoped with his advertiser tie-ins to achieve an “audacious” goal: to help America learn to save. I think Mint has helped me save. And if I’m saving so that the men and women of Mint can go wine-tasting — well, that shouldn’t bother me. Should it? Maybe profiting off people’s recent compulsion to budget is a new American way.