The Free Financial Planning Website Everyone Should Use
Okay, so maybe the term “financial planning” in the title is used a bit liberally, but nonetheless, budgeting, cash flow and expense management, and investment consolidation are pretty important parts of financial planning.
While I briefly mentioned this in a previous post about what to do if you hate apple trees, I truly believe that this website deserves its own post.
The site is Mint.com.
Mint.com is a free (yes, free) website, available to anyone who wishes to take greater control of their finances.
The site offers some amazing features, and this article will discuss some of the key benefits of the site, as well as how to use them to your maximum benefit.
Again, this is a service that I recommend my clients use, and when asked to, will actually take the steps to ensure that the relevant information is kept up to date so we can review the most complete information with them.
However, you can use this information on your own, with this post as a guide.
One of the most important parts of creating a financial plan is the ability to review all of a clients assets and liabilities at once.
Sure, it’s easy to diversify an IRA for someone, but much more difficult to diversify an IRA when you’re taking into account all of the other assets and liabilities they may have.
Mint.com gives you the ability to view all of your account balances, liabilities, and real estate assets on one screen, viewing your total net worth in a snapshot.
And while assets like real estate fluctuate in value, making it cumbersome to continuously update their value, Mint.com has linked to Zillow.com to provide the current market value of your holdings (which are manually adjustable in the event the zEstimate is too high or low).
And of course, the program wouldn’t be complete if it did not allow you to enter values of vehicles, artwork, gold, and other tangible assets you may have.
Cash Flow Analysis
The cash flow analysis of the site is what I believe to be the most important feature.
Say you enter your credit card or banking information into the site.
Mint.com will automatically breakdown your expenses into a hundred or so different categories, ranging from food, shopping, travel, to business expenses, taxes and pet care.
What does it do with this information?
Just breaks down your expenses and income into nice little pie charts, giving you the ability to view your spending and income on a monthly basis, and track trends in your spending month over month.
Do you know what you spent on food last month?
Didn’t think so.
In addition to breaking down your expenses into categories, Mint.com gives you the ability to create budgets for how much you want to spend on each category, and track how your actual expenses are stacking up.
While being able to track all of this information is great, it is really irrelevant without an ultimate goal in mind.
Maybe it is retirement. Maybe it is a college savings fund. Or maybe you just want to leave as much as you can to a child or grandchild.
Whatever the case may be, Mint.com gives you the ability to create a goal, will help you in choosing the dollar amount needed to fund that goal, and then provide you with a dollar amount that you need to contribute to your accounts on a monthly basis to reach it.
In addition to tracking your checking/credit card accounts, Mint.com can track your investment accounts as well (which can include IRA accounts, 401(k) and 403(b) accounts, taxable investment accounts, etc.)
Being able to view this aggregated account data is important, but what is really great is that you can view consolidated performance and asset allocation data.
This is important for two reasons.
One, you can help detect over-concentrated positions in your accounts.
You may only have a 3% stake in Apple shares in your IRA, but if you also have a 3% stake in your 401(k), and another IRA, and your taxable account, suddenly your overall portfolio is over-allocated to Apple shares.
Being able to see your account in this consolidated view is extremely helpful.
Second, you are able to compare your overall portfolio performance to a benchmark, such as the S&P 500.
While I do not believe that short-term trends in a portfolios performance are important, it is helpful to look back over the span of a year or two and compare how your portfolio did to a benchmark.
For as great as Mint.com is, there are certain key areas where the site does have some pitfalls.
In the aforementioned goals section, while the ability to set a goal is wonderful, how you fund that goal and the investments you use to fund it, are of equal importance.
In my personal account, I projected that I would send my son, Theodore James (Teddy), to a private university in 18 years.
The projected cost for four years of college at that point is $350,000 (sickening).
What what did Mint.com tell me to do? They told me to save about $20,000 per year between now and then.
How did it come up with that number? They divided the total cost, $350,000, by 17 years.
But is that the RIGHT way to do it?
The savings I set up for Teddy will be invested, and grow at some rate of appreciation.
in fact, if we assume a 10% rate of appreciation, the actual annual contributions needed are $7,500, not $20,000.
That is a very big difference.
Additionally, Mint.com does not provide any guidance on investment selection and management, effectively manage any tax liabilities you may incur on your investments, or what types of insurance may be most appropriate for you and your family.
Despite the shortfalls of Mint.com, this service is free, and provides a level of consolidation and comprehension that isn’t even commonplace in the advisor community.
And the great part is, whether you are just starting out, or you are 60 years old, this program can be extremely helpful.