How to Use Mint Like a Champ: Manipulating Categories

If you read my last post on using Mint like a champ, you should now have a good idea of how to use Mint to track your expenses and income, cash or otherwise. Remember, that is what Mint is for: tracking income and expenses within budgets. I will now show in a series of posts how to manipulate Mint’s categories for more powerful budgeting and income/expense tracking.

First, some basics. Think of Mint’s categories like accounts on a double-entry ledger. Before you hit “back” because eek, accounting!, you only need to know this: each account can be credited (adding money) or debited (removing money) to result in a positive, negative, or zero balance. A $100 shopping expense would be a $100 debit against “Clothing”, leaving a -$100 balance in “Clothing.” A $1000 paycheck would be a credit toward “Income,” leaving a $1000 balance in “Income.” Separately, your various Expense and Income categories can be viewed as their own ledgers. Putting them together, expenses are applied as debits against “Income,” and the net balance is your net income. So a $1000 balance in Income with a $100 Clothing debit against it leaves a net income of $900.

Now let’s say that you processed these example transactions. And let’s say your Clothing budget were $50/month, so you decide to return $50-worth of clothing like a good little budgeter. If you used a card, Mint would automatically categorizes the return as an Income. If you got cash back, you may be tempted to categorize the return as an income when you manually enter it. At first glance of your overview page, you may think all is good and dandy because your assets would increase by $50, which is true and correct.

But look closer. And stop looking at your Overview page.

First, check your income:

Your income has increased to $1050/month. (But didn’t you only take home $1000?)

Now check your budget:

You’ve still blown your Clothing budget even after the return. You’ve apparently earned $1050 and spent $100, or 9.5% of your income, on clothing. In reality, you made $1000 and consumed $50-worth of clothing, or 5%.

This all happened because you or Mint treated the return as a credit toward income, increasing the positive balance. Now get this in your head and do what you can to never forget it: besides interest, money owed or given back to you is not a credit toward income—it is a credit toward expenses.

Why? Because you didn’t earn $50 twice. You earned it once, spent it somehow, and are un-spending it, thus bringing your expenses up from a negative balance and closer to $0 ($0 being the balance of your Expense accounts before you spent any money).

So from now on, treat money owned or given back to you as a credit towards expenses.

All we need to do to tell Mint to treat the return as a credit is to recategorize the return from “Income” to “Clothing,” or whatever the category the original expense is.

Now, the $50 return will be a credit toward “Clothing,” resulting in a -$50 clothing balance instead of -$100.

…your income, what you actually earned, that month would then remain at $1000 because the $50 is no longer applied towards it as a credit:

…and your Net Income and Budget would be true and accurate:

***

Consider this post a basic primer on using Mint’s categories like double-entry accounts. The next few posts will be on how to use this system for more complicated budgeting, like splitting bills and getting money you lent paid back.


Hi there! If you made it this far, you are probably serious about budgeting your money. How about budgeting your time? Personally, I’ve gone through about 500 different methods of planning my days—Agile, Getting Things Gone, RPM, 5 Minute Journal, Best Self—and using lots of different software—Evernote, OneNote, Drive, Wunderlist, Remember the Milk—to manage it all.

I finally said sayonara to digital planers and have switched to paper. Yes, paper. Like, made from trees. I still track my finances, diet, and so on online, but I plan every single day on a piece of A5 paper. I recently created a day-on-one-page planner spread that uses everything I have learned about goal planning, to achieve the best possible results one day at a time. I’ve increased my productivity 200%. Just let me know where to send it and it’s all yours to print, 100% free. You’ll get an explainer, too, so you’ll know exactly how to use it.

Let me know in a couple weeks if it works for you!

–Nicole

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48 thoughts on “How to Use Mint Like a Champ: Manipulating Categories

  1. We pay our house cleaner with cash. I don’t want to use your cash management system from the prior post (we pay for almost everything else with credit/debit card and I just don’t think we’re behaviorally ready to be as conscientious about logging transactions as we would need to be.). I guess I want a way for mint to use her as a merchant but know that this cash is already part of the prior ATM withdrawal. Possible?

    1. Yes–you can find an ATM withdrawal, and then click “split.” If you withdrew $100 and paid the maid $50, type $50 into the Amount box, categorize it as you like, click Split again, then I’m Done. The ATM withdrawal will be reduced to $50 and you’ll have $50 credited to the maid’s merchant account.

      the downside to this is if you withdraw $20 usually but pay the maid $50, you cannot split $20 into $50. In that case you’d have to recategorize two ATM withdrawals entirely and split $10 out of a third to get $50. But if you withdrew $50 and paid $50, you can also recategorize the ATM withdrawal entirely in one step.

  2. How do you bring in old transactions into mint. I just created an account yesterday, but I want to see all the bank transactions for the last 2 years. Currently I see only 3 months.

  3. Hey – nice posts. Have you found a way to work around the limitation on income budgets that they can only be months – not occasional or one time? Also on the budgeting theme – thoughts on how to set up a budget that assume you pay for part of it from savings (like tuition for example)

      1. So when you have been saving for many years for something like tuition and you then have to make big payments Mint makes it look like you have blown your budget even though you are spending from your savings account. I want to track the tuition spending and would like to budget for it because some of the expenses we are paying out of current income and some out of savings. Just trying to figure out if there is a way to trick the system as it does not seem to be build to do this. Thanks

      2. To address this, Roberta, I have created monthly budgets and set them to “roll over”, this way when I pay a big bill which only comes up once every few months it doesn’t through me off.

        For example, I pay my exterminator $99 quarterly. I set up a budget for “Exterminator” which is $33/month and set to roll over. At the end of month 1 it shows that I have spent $0/$33, at the end of month 2 the amount goes negative to -$33/$33 ($66 left to spend). In month 3 when my exterminator charges me the month starts at -$66/$33 ($99 to spend) and at the end of the month my budget is balanced at $33/$33 spent!

        Hope this wasn’t too confusing and helpful!

    1. Well no, Mint would make it look like your net monthly income is way off. As long as you explicitly budget the amount per month, your budget will be accurate. But your net income will be negative. Just makes sure your savings account is linked to mint.

    2. Hi Roberta,

      I know exactly what you mean about having single large expenses throwing off your budgets, even though you’ve set money aside to specifically cover those cases. I have also found it frustrating that you can’t create a budget for multiple categories. Oh, and “tags” … a potentially powerful feature that Mint provides, but you can’t create budgets with them! Argh! And then there’s the savings goals; a great feature that they completely crippled by tying them to a single account. Why should I need 6 savings accounts to save for 6 different things!? Insane.

      Anyway, I finally decided to take the matter into my own hands. I created a Google spreadsheet that imports your data directly from mint and lets you create budgets containing multiple categories AND tags. For your situation, Roberta, you can exclude specific transactions from budget calculations by assigning a tag to them (mine is called “xIgnore”) and then adding that tag to the Exclude list on the budget page. Very simple. This little project has taken on a life of it’s own, so I finally gave it a name: “Mojito – Mint with a kick” 🙂 I even created a tutorial for it.

      Feel free to check it out. It’s free. No ads. No steeling your data. No BS. http://b3devs.blogspot.com/p/about-mojito.html

      You basically get your own copy of the spreadsheet, and the mint data you import into it is yours. No one else will see it.

      Cheers, b3

      P.S. Nice post Nicole. Great info for people learning Mint.

  4. Would love to hear more about splitting bills, like a restaurant bill that I put on my credit card and then got paid back partially for, or for purchases that my job then reimbursed…

    1. I think mint has a function for job expenses that get reimbursed. But I’d have to look into it. As for your first concern, you can use the above method, as if the payback were a return. So if you put $50 on your card for Restaurants for you and a friend, then get paid back $25 in cash, you can enter a manual cash income of $25 and categorize it as Restaurants. So your total personal expenses on dining out will be $25 instead of $50 and you won’t have extra income.

        1. you’re not actually making any money, here. it would not show in net income because it’s not an income, it’s a credit toward an expense.

          if you took the $25 cash your friend gave and spent it on clothes, you’d have to enter a $25 clothing expense with no income to offset it, so you’d be -$50.

          1. I’m just confused because mint keeps counting these credits toward expenses as income on the net income graph. I have had several partial payments come back to me in cash this month and I enter them manually into the same category but my net income is off because it’s saying I made $200 more than I have brought in but really I have just had $200 credited back to me in existing categories.

            Thanks for all the help!!

            1. Well I misspoke a bit—your NET income will in fact change because Mint is seeing you’ve spent less, less than before you got the cash back. If you made $100 that month and spent $50, your net is $50. When your friend pays you back $25, your net is now $75. But your regular income for the month will not change. You still made $100 only. Make sense?

              Try doing a test with something obvious: take a look at what your INCOME (not net) is now, in Budgets. Then enter a $5000 credit toward food and dining, and see if your income goes up $5000. It should not. Then check your net income: you should be seeing a positive difference because suddenly you spend less in food and dining, and in fact have a credit towards spending there.

  5. Hello, I was able to find only 2 posts on Mint. Do you have more?

    I am looking for guidance on how to set categories effectively and adequately. For instance I have issues with managing a “savings” category which I have right now under “financial” but it ends up looking as an expense among other financial expenses. In the finance category I also have “mortgage” and “401 k”. Should I have a separate top level category “Savings”? Does that mean that I have to re-tag all the transactions? Not sure how I could move them in bulk.

    Thanks!

    1. Just these 2. First, Do you have a separate savings account? If so, how is money put in there? Direct deposit, or transfer from checking? If they are all the same kind of transaction, when you change one, Mint will prompt ask if you want to apply the change to all transactions matching xyz. You should categorize them as an Income. Regardless, no matter where it is, if it’s a positive amount, it’ll never be an “expense”, it’ll be a credit toward that category. If it’s under Financials, it’ll just make it look like you’ve spent less on insurance, loans, or whatever other expenses you have in there.

  6. Hi Nicole,

    Let me know if I’m overthinking this.

    If I get paid on, say the 30th of a month. Then pay my mortgage on the 1st of the month.
    Mint tells me that I have spent more than I have earned, since I am using money earned in the previous month.

    It’s hard not to think of MInt as a check register, but I think I’m slowly but surely transforming my thinking towards an income and expense program.

    I was also looking for sub categories, for instance separating Gas and Repairs for two cars. I have been using TAGS for this purpose. That way I can see which vehicle is costing me more in the long run, while still keeping track of my total budget for Gas and Repairs.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. As for your first point, when I run into similar timing issues, I simply change the date of one of the transactions to match the other’s month. So you can either say you got paid on the 1st or paid your mortgage on the 30th. However, if you are concerned with a bigger picture view, then the months these transactions happen is not important and you can leave them as-is; you can look at your Trends page and see your net income over time, say, a year, and still see where your money is going. It’s personal preference, as to how you use Mint. But since Mint is NOT a checking ledger, and IS an income and expense monitoring tool, then there should be no accounting pitfalls to changing your mortgage payment to the 30th.

      I’m not 100% clear on how you’re tracking expenses for the two cars, but you can create your own subcategories wherever you want. Click the category dropdown, then click Add/Edit Categories.

  7. What about reimbursements? Let’s say I paid $100 to see a doctor, and then deposited the $60 check I received as reimbursement from my insurance company. The $60 is showing up as income, but this isn’t money I earned again. Recategorizing the income from the deposit from “reimbursement” to “doctor” didn’t work. How do I prevent Mint from processing the deposit as income?

    1. as long as you categorize it anywhere outside of the income category, it should not show up as income in your trends page. don’t let the green color confuse you–that just means it’s a credit. what you are doing should work fine.

  8. Hi Nicole,

    I have just started using Mint. I went clothes shopping at two different stores and the total was $123. I put it under the category Shopping. But then I decided that was too general so I put it under the category Shopping: Clothing. Now it’s under both. If I put it under Shopping the amount disappears from Shopping Clothing, which is great. But if I leave it the way it is it’s affecting my budget. How do I transfer the changes to Shopping: Clothing and remove it from Shopping? Thank you,

    Beth

    1. Hi Beth! This part of the budget page is a little annoying—Mint will not break out subcategories from a main category if you have them both there. So if you spent $123 on clothes and $100 on other shopping items, you’ll see $123 under Clothing and $223 under Shopping. Not every intuitive, is it? So, you basically have to choose from either displaying only Shopping, or only specific subcategories under Shopping.

      1. What I have done as a work-around is create a sub-category called “General” or “Misc” under “Shopping” or other categories where it might be needed. This allows me to categories Miscellaneous Expenses in a given category without having to rely on the Mint catch-all Category.

  9. Thank you…your post helped me figure out the perfect way to categorize when I am being paid back for an expense.

  10. For mortgage payments, I think each payment should be split into principal and interest. Interest is an expense that should be classified under custom category, “mortgage interest”. The principal however, should be classified under custom category, “mortgage principal” as it is not an expense. Expenses decrease your net worth as is the case with interest. Principal payments however, do not change your net worth but rather change the allocation.

    If you prefer to use mint as a cash budgeting system, it makes sense to consider the whole mortgage payment as an expense. I prefer to use it to track changes to my net worth, and so the method I’ve proposed, though slightly more time consuming, is preferable.

  11. Hi,
    Nice article.
    What about a case where I spent $100 by the end of January for buying cloths, but I returned them early February so I got a $50 refund in Feb.

    If I categorize the $50 as cloths and not income, then this will report my expenses in Jan as $100 and my expenses in Feb as -$50 for cloths.

    What’s the best way to handle this situation ?

    Best Regard
    Joseph

    1. What’s wrong with having $100 in Jan and -$50 in Feb? That’s how I would do it. To me the most important part is looking at the last 12 months expenditures and that system wouldn’t effect that. Also, Adam, you said “Hi Jason”, but it was Joseph’s question! lol

  12. I’m new to mint. I have a monthly budget with ins and outs. That’s easy. But I also have savings I spend against each month. Say I saved for a trip and then those expenses came up when u went on that trip. It’s not against that months income. It’s against the savings I saved up for that trip. It’s there a way to set up separate budgets outside your monthly budget? Maybe add money as I save to that budget and expense against it as I spend it independent of the monthly budget?

    1. What I do in that situation is set up a budget and set it to roll over. Over the next few months the budget goes further and further below zero until the month of the vacation when it is at (for example) -$500 and then when I go on vacation it balances out. Does that make sense?

      1. Hi Nicole. Is there anyway Mint can show me a list of categories and sub-categories that I have transactions against ?

  13. I give money to my parents each month for a caregiver (i.e., Parental Care). I’m fine creating this sub-category, but which Category do you think I should put it in?

  14. Nicole, I am fairly new to mint and I am trying to categorize my transactions to be best for me. Is there a way for me to show that a Transaction is part of a bill or does that happen automatically and what about a payment to my loans for credit cards does that automatically pull since i have logged into those accounts or do i need to classify that a different way?

    1. under Transactions they will categorize as expenses but that’s it. if you want you can add a tag to the transactions, with any tag you like such as “Bills” or “Cell phone”

  15. I didn’t have all my accounts set up for a transfer, so I would go to the bank, debit one account to credit another, how can I balance this because it’s messing me up big time on Mint lol

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