The free personal finance app Mint.com has long been my favorite program for tracking how much money I have, watching where I spend it, and sticking to a budget. It works by connecting directly (and securely) to your bank accounts, credit cards, and other online financial accounts to give you both the big picture and fine details of your money all in one shot. It even works with Bitcoin. But there's one thing Mint can't track automatically: cash.
Try as many of us might to go cashless, there are plenty of instances in which cash still rules. The number of brick-and-mortar business that are cash-only may be dwindling, but some still exist. If you pay a babysitter or dog-walker, there's a decent chance cash exchanges hands. Annual tips, like those given to a doorman or building superintendent, really ought to be in cash, at least according to my social graces. And some service tips, like those at a hotel, for example, really can't be anything but cash.
If you're trying to take control of your personal finances. you need to learn how to accurately track the cash you spend or receive. Mint gives you a few ways to do it. People who earn a good deal of their income as cash (such as bartenders and waitstaff) and don't deposit it all in the bank have the toughest time working with Mint, though I'll outline one possible solution for them, too.
A Few Disclaimers
Before continuing, let me note that many dedicated Mint users have requested that Mint add a "cash account" option that would let them manually track incoming and outgoing cash, or any other money from account types that aren't supported by Mint, such as non-U.S. bank accounts. There actually is a Cash area on Mint if you log money spent or received as being cash, but it's not exactly the solution that many users want. I'll explain how it works below, in option 3.
Let me add, too, that Mint isn't accounting software. It's not a double-entry accounting system or even a financial ledger. It's designed, rather, to show you how and where you spend your money. So the importance of tracking cash in Mint is to know how you're spending that money, not how much of it you should have left in your wallet.
Three Ways to Track Cash in Mint
Option 1. The easiest way to track cash spent in Mint is to simply add it as a new transaction and let Mint automatically assume it came from your most recent, uncategorized ATM withdrawal.
In the Mint mobile app (there's a Mint iPhone app. Android app. and Windows Phone app ) use the plus icon you see on the either the Updates or Overview pages. When options appear, choose Add Transaction.
From the Web app, go to Transactions from the menu, and then click Add Transaction.
By default, the next screen will list this expense as being in cash. Tapping or clicking on "cash" in the mobile app brings up all the options you really need. (In the Web app, you can already see them.)
You'll see that by default the transaction is an expense, though you can change it to income. By default, it's cash, but you can change it to check or credit/debit card. Those options are to help you keep track of pending transactions.
Lastly, you'll see an option here to Split from last ATM. With this option enabled, Mint automatically assumes the cash you're spending came from your most recent uncategorized ATM withdrawal. That means if you pulled $200 from the ATM and immediately categorized the whole thing as "gift," Mint won't track the cash from that withdrawal. Smart.
If you flip back to the previous page, you can enter the amount spent and choose a merchant, or a new one.
Option 2. The other way to track cash spent in Mint is by manually splitting your ATM withdrawals or whatever transaction got that cash into your hands in the first place. This method takes more work, but it shows up very clearly in the end in your transaction summary.
From the Updates page in the mobile app, select All Transactions. In the Web app, go to Transactions.
Find the ATM withdrawal or the appropriate transaction that originated the cash. If it's an ATM withdrawal, by default it will be listed as uncategorized Cash and ATM. If you use the full amount for one thing, just change the category here. For example, if you took out $80 and spent it all on a haircut, reclassify the whole expense as Personal Care, and be on your way.
If you spent the cash in multiple places, you need to use the Split button.
Let's say I got my haircut ($80), bought some dog food ($22), and had lunch ($12). I would enter an expense line for each of those items and categorize them separately. At the bottom of this list, I'll see a balance of how much cash I should have left from the ATM.
Option 3. This option works best for people who earn cash and spend it without ever putting it into the bank. Note that it is not a good way of keeping track of how much money you earn. For that, you might want more fully featured accounting software. Or you could deposit all your money into a bank account and then immediately withdraw the amount you need (and then use options 1 or 2 above to track where you spend the money), but that's likely more trouble than it's worth.
Instead, create a new transaction, call it an expense, and de-select the box next to "automatically deduct this from my last ATM withdrawal." Enter into Mint how much you spent and the classification of the expense. Before you hit enter, take a look at your bank account total. Notice that the balance of your net worth doesn't change. In other words, Mint is letting you keep track of how you spend this money without deducting it from money that's still in the bank.
You can do the same with income. Add a new transaction and label it as income. Classify it however you want ("income" or "gift" perhaps), and save it. Once again, notice that your net worth hasn't changed.
You'll see a tab on the left side of the Web app called Cash Only. Go here to see all the income and expenses that you labeled cash and that were never counted toward or against the money in your bank accounts.
This system works all right, but it's far from perfect. For example, if you have too much cash on hand and you deposit it into the bank, Mint will see incoming money to your online bank account, but it won't know that it came from your existing cash, and there's no way to reconcile it, exactly. What you can do is create a new expense transaction in the Cash area for the correct amount and create a new classification for it. I called mine Manual Transfer. There's a reason you can't use the Transfer classification that's already in Mint: If you do, Mint rejects the transaction, saying you can't transfer cash! By marking the transaction a Manual Transfer, I know what it is, and the amount is removed from my cash on hand.
Far From Perfect, but Doable
Tracking cash in Mint sounds doable, if a little complicated, but the moment you're in the real world, you discover there are a bunch of circumstances Mint can't handle. For example, what do you do when you have some money left over from one ATM withdrawal and you make another withdrawal to get more cash to make a bigger purchase? Then it's hard to split your spending from the two withdrawals correctly.
If you find yourself getting hung up on the fact that Mint can't reconcile expenses or that not every penny of your cash has been accounted for correctly, then you probably want a different program. Check out the best accounting software for small businesses (including sole proprietors) instead. But stick with Mint to help you see the trends of how you spent your money, create budgets, and keep an eye on your overall net worth.