Author’s note: I apologize if the following sounds like a review, it’s not suppose to be. My purpose is to point you to good free stuff available for your iPhone and from time to time I find an app that requires a bit more attention than the usual few lines I tend to give them normally. The app mentioned here happens to be one of those apps.

Also note that when I refer to the iPhone in this article I also mean the iPod touch as well.

Someone famous once said that there is nothing certain in life but death and taxes. I believe it. In fact, of the two, taxes is worse. You can only die once.

It seems that every year, even after getting a raise, we have less money. There’s no easy answer to why that is, and don’t point fingers at political parties or bank CEOs with fat pockets, though both have done and continue to do their share of making us all poorer. The problem, for me at least, is that I like to spend money. It’s like I have a hole in my paycheck where all of the monetary bits fall out, and, like lemmings on a fatal march, those dollar bits quickstep into restaurants and stores in trade for food that makes me fatter and stuff I really don’t need.

It’s always been that way with me. As a kid my father would give me a quarter for allowance. (Back then 25 cents bought several candy bars versus a tiny piece of one today.) I’d take that quarter and hightail it to the corner store and buy some cheap trinket that cost 15 cents and promised “hours of fun” then spend the rest on candy. It’s a wonder I still have teeth.

The trinket broke or was discarded in less than an hour and the candy devoured in even less time. There I stood, an hour and ten minutes after getting my allowance, and I was just as poor as before with only a chocolate smear on my lips to show for my allowance.

Even as an adult I had problems keeping money. I’ve always been able to make money. I’m not adverse to legally doing whatever it takes to keep some cash in my pockets, it’s just that you’d think that after all that effort I’d have more that a metaphoric chocolate smear to show for it.

Several years back I finally got tired of living from allowance to allowance, paycheck to paycheck and I did something about it.

No, I did not rob a bank.

I paid off all my credit card bills and started living within my means, which meant that, except for very large ticket essentials - house, car, emergency vacation- I would pay everything with cash. If I don’t have the money for it then I won’t buy it. It’s just that simple. It doesn’t mean that I’ve gotten rid of my plastic, au contraire mon ami. I keep a single credit card with a very limited cap. I never use it and it is there only in case I need money quick. I also use debit cards and try to keep close tabs on what’s being spent.

Paying everything in cash also means that I have to do without some of the things I use to think of as being essential in my life. Dinner and a show every weekend has been reduced to once a month, maybe. Clothes and shoes stay in my wardrobe a bit longer, even if they are a little ratty or out of date, while I wait for sales to replace them. Random spending is not so random anymore.

I’ve also started to seriously save and what I’ve managed to accumulate is not a lot, but I can get by for a month or two if needs be. (In fact, if you want to contribute to the Keep Vern in Snickers Fund, I’d be happy to take your donations.)

The net result of my personal fiscal revolution is that for the first time in my life I’m not so worried about paying bills. When I do spend I can do so without worrying about what I’ll have to do without. In essence, taking control of my finances has made me a happier person.

Am I deliriously happy? No. There are other factors in my life beyond money that affect my happiness, but I am definitely happier.

Am I rich? Let’s just say that I am firmly in the lower ranks of the thousand-airs. The really low ranks.

Do I now have tightfisted control over every penny I make? No. It’s still a work in progress and I still have a long ways to go, and sometimes I come dangerously close to falling off the wagon. Still, I make the effort and enjoy the consequences. That’s the key, I think, being able to enjoy the journey.

One of the problems I’ve always had when working with my finances is dealing with the details. Checkbooks have to be balances, deposits and withdrawals have to be entered, accounts have to be monitored. It’s such a pain. A necessary pain, but painful nonetheless. I have been looking for an app that will let me keep track of my accounts in real time, so I know if I really have the cash on hand to spend. Or not.

I had tried Quicken many years ago and found that it came close to helping automate some of the mundane financial tasks that I dislike so much, but close is only OK for hand grenades and karaoke. When I was using it, Quicken still required a lot of input from me, which sometimes didn’t happen, thus making the app less than effective. This was especially true when updating after a shopping trip. I’d have all these receipts that would accumulate by my computer, waiting for a Quicken session that came less often. I finally gave up on Quicken and have been managing my day to day expenses with guesswork and the occasional account balance check. It works, but not well enough.

There’s a Quicken iPhone app that’s suppose to help keep track of your finances while you’re out and about by checking your current account balances, however, all the negative reviews kept that app off my iPhone.

Last year my son told me about a website that was designed to help you manage you money better. He told the that Mint has helped him wrangle in his spending and that it’s a free service. Once you’ve established a Mint account you enter all your bank information for all the accounts you want to track. If you’re like me then you’d be instantly suspicious of any website that asks for such personal info, especially a free one. It seems like you’d be begging to get ripped off.

Still, I took a closer look at Mint and found that they have a lot of security in place to protect your information. The application only reads account data, which is allowed by banks anyway.

So, what good is just reading the data? Mint can do the data read any time you choose, instantly, so you can get current balances whenever you want without logging into several bank sites. Keeping a current balance is key to managing your money.

Mint desktop app

What’s more, Mint will flag you via email when an account balance gets dangerously low, which could result in overdraft fees, and that can really hurt. In fact, there’s so much information that Mint can give you that it’s a bit scary.

When you set up your account it asks for all sorts of personal info, no names, but it doesn’t matter, everything else is there, names are irrelevant at that point. You can keep track of credit scores, investments, loans, and much more. It’ll even tell you how much your home is worth (not a true assessment, but what is on public tax records).

If you can get over having so much information sitting in a single database somewhere in the ether then you’d find that it can be quite useful.

For instance, if you set up a monthly budget Mint will alert you when you are getting close to blowing your limit. The application sits in the ever growing computing cloud and so is available all the time and anywhere there’s an Internet connection. Budget and account balance alerts can be just the beginning. If your account takes a mysterious dip, for instance, you are the second person to know about it (your bank is the first) and can instantly check the cause.

There’s so much more to Mint, but one thing it offers that made me sign up is a free iPhone app that gives you full direct access to your Mint info.

Fire up the Mint app and within seconds you see where you are in your current account balances and monthly cash flow, how your budget is making out, and what’s shaking on the investment front. Touch any of those categories and you get a detailed view.

The Accounts section shows you all of your current balances and you can drill in further to show up to the minute deposits and withdrawals. Cash Flow and Budgets lets you see where your money is going, telling you to where and how much you’ve spent. And investments returns current investment totals and can offer up details that are updated in near real time.

Again, that’s a lot of private info to bandy about and I got to wondering what would happen if I lost my iPhone? Would some miscreant, having lifted my phone, now have access to all my intimate financial bits?

Well, yeah, he or she would. The Mint app does not require a password, but provides the option for a 4 digit pin. That’s a bit weak if you ask me. The minimum password standard these days is 8 characters and includes a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special characters like the ampersand.

Mint downloads your info onto your iPhone by insisting that you log in to your online account. I don’t know if this is encrypted or not, either on the iPhone or during transmission, but it would sure be nice if it was. Mint lets you log off from your online account as well, which removes the data from your phone, but it doesn’t offer the option to do this automagically. A better option would be to let you store and encrypt your online account info on the iPhone and automagically log in and download info from your online account whenever you fire up the app, then remove the info whenever you leave the app. Yes, it’s another password to remember, but this IS some sensitive info and you really want to protect it.

Mint does offer a means to wipe Mint data from your phone remotely, which is definitely a good thing.

I really can’t say this enough. Mint looks and works great and the free iPhone app makes it so enticing that you you can see the benefit from across the room. But this is YOUR FINANCIAL INFORMATION we are talking about and you’ll have to decide if the safeguards Mint has in place is enough for you. For some people it clearly is enough, but for many of us, it is not.

To add insult to injury I recently learned that Intuit, the makers of Quicken, has bought Mint and plans to kill incorporate it into the Intuit fold. After reading some of the comments it easy to see that there’s a lot of unhappy Mint customers out there. Apparently there has been much in the way of support from Mint since being involved with the merger, which can make an already skittish bunch bolt like a colt after a bee sting. I can’t blame folks for being nervous, after all, they have trusted their most personal financial info to Mint.

Worse still, Intuit’s founder, Scott Cook, as much as admitted that Intuit’s products, such as Quicken, was stale and that Intuit bought Mint to “infuse Quicken” with new thinking. That’s all well and good, but it leaves many unanswered questions. One of which is will Mint, both its desktop and iPhone application and the services that support them remain free. Mr. Cook says they will.

You’ll have to decide whether Mint is worth your trust. Mint works, though you should be concerned about security, which means you also have to decide it the benefit of Mint is worth the risk. I would much rather that Mint remained independent and a competitor to Quicken, but that’s water under the bridge.
I’m going to hang around with Mint for a while a see what happens. It is, after all, a free app on iTunes.

That’s a wrap for this week. Stop back next week for a look at more free iTunes stuff. In the meantime, check below for direct links to more freebies on iTunes.