Home Economics

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times unabashedly praises Aaron Patzer’s online personal-finance software, Mint. Her only complaint is how it makes money:

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.

An online service has certain advantages:

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.

Of of the secrets to its success is its game-like quality:

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.

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