Personal Capital vs. Mint: Decision Time

Sixth and final in the Thin Mint series of posts

Looking for a low-cost, easy-to-use personal finance tool? That was the aim of the Thin Mint Battle of the Apps, and now it's decision time. Throughout the competition, several contenders showed promise. But if your goal is to find out "how am I doing?" each month without a fight, the answer is… Mint*. (More on the "*" later.)

This isn't exactly an upset, since it was precisely what was predicted pre-match. But my requirements seemed more specific - and my tolerance for hassles lower - than other reviewers. Further, I wanted a winner I could stick with, because I knew the real prize purse would come with longtime use. So I decided to investigate for myself.

Mint Throws the First Punch

The battle got off to a good start, with Mint’s browser version easily meeting most “must have” requirements. The tool does a reliable job of automatically gathering the data needed to convey key spending and net worth trends and details - for the unbeatable cost of $0. Indeed, you might even say I was paid to use it, considering the $128.95 in found money it uncovered in just the first month

I was encouraged by the outcome of this first round. Unfortunately, Mint proved to be a lightweight for delivering investment insights. Admittedly, this was a “nice to have”, but I got to wondering about rival Personal Capital. With its reputation for robust investment functionality, would its budgeting feature be good enough to grab the overall title?

Personal Capital Puts Up a Good Fight

Personal Capital’s Portfolio Checkup proved to be impressive in both ease-of-use and feature set, as did its Retirement Planner. So I was really, really rooting for its budgeting capability, the final but most important requirement. Alas, the fight was over almost before it began. 

For starters, the automated downloading of account data was glitchy. One account was missing altogether. And if the report was to be believed, I'd made no credit card transactions between April 3 and 26. As if.

After substantial efforts to Google my way to a fix, I submitted a service request - then another 2 weeks later after receiving no reply. At the 4 week point, I declared a TKO. Clearly, this up-and-comer was not up to the ease-of-use challenge.

Personal Capital Comes Off The Ropes

But wait! Just as I began penning this very article, Personal Capital called to offer a free phone consultation with an investment advisor. Actually, I had received several such inquiries, but felt that as a CFP®  not likely to purchase their paid investment advisory services, it would be disingenuous to take up their time.

Two things changed my mind:

  1. I thought they would want to know that my initial glowing endorsement of their flagship tools was compromised by software quality and customer service issues.
  2.  “He who represents himself has a fool for a client, " Abraham Lincoln once said of attorneys. But I was willing to entertain the possibility it’s true for financial planners as well, and at least listen to their pitch. 

Three things came out of my call with the Personal Capital financial advisor:

  1. Customer service responded immediately with a fix for one problem… but not the other.
  2. That was enough for me to test the budgeting functionality. At first glance, it seemed to have the chops. But it was sufficiently clunky and counterintuitive to flunk the ease-of-use test.
  3. On the other hand, the presentation about the investment advisory services was sufficiently compelling to make me think Abraham Lincoln might be onto something. But that's a topic for a future blog post.

Split Decision

As much as I wanted Personal Capital to be the all-arounder that takes on all my minimalist money management needs, I had to abandon the fight and declare Mint the winner with an *. That is, it outperforms in the most important ways right now, but Personal Capital bears watching. If its strong showing here is any indication, it might not be long before it's time to stage a rematch.