Home finance and budgeting services can go a long way toward helping people take control of their money. Most software and Web accounts of this sort ask you to log how much money you have, or link directly to your bank accounts for automatic updates, and devise a budget for how you ought to spend it. Mvelopes (free to $9.95 per month for Premium) is one such online service that includes in its service some guidance and basic principles of money management. Mvelopes was designed around an older system of putting existing cash into physical envelopes (hence the name) that would be labeled with a spending purpose, such as groceries, utility bills, car repairs, and so forth. The concept is to spend only the dedicated amount in a given month, and if you underspend, “sweep” the extra cash either into the same envelope for next month or into another dedicated envelope, labeled perhaps “savings” or “vacation fund.”
Sound theory supports the basic premise of Mvelopes, but the technical implementation could be a lot better, particularly in design and usability. Minor inconsistencies and departures from the norm in the navigation prove frustrating. A lack of integrated tutorials left me flipping back and forth between several pages to learn what I needed and then put it into practice. (The video tutorials that do exist on those other pages bored me to tears.) Worse, not all my saves took during testing, which really got my goat. Mvelopes works all right, but sorely needs improvements, and considering the truly phenomenal service found in Mint (free, 5 stars), it’s hard to make a case for using Mvelopes.
Mvelopes is entirely online, but it has compatibility problems with Google Chrome. The site displayed a warning before I finished set up, so the issues are known. Seeing as Chrome is one of the most popular browsers, and our Editors’ Choice for browsers, it was with a heavy heart that I read the warning and switched to Internet Explorer. I returned to Chrome a few times just to see what might be broken in Mvelopes when using Google’s browser, and oddly enough, I couldn’t actually find any problems that only showed up in Chrome. That’s not to say I didn’t find problems at all—rather, they were prevalent in both environments.
I feel pretty secure using an online account to manage my money, whether it’s Mint or Mvelopes, which is verified by McAfee Secure. Both of these personal finance services don’t include any ability to make financial transactions. You can’t move or remove money through them—and neither displays your account numbers. The skittish might prefer YNAB ($60, 3 stars), a downloadable program that works entirely locally but can optionally connect to some of your accounts, too.
Mvelopes Free vs. Premium
The free version of Mvelopes includes the complete envelope budgeting system, integrated credit card account management, support for mobile apps (iOS and Android), and the ability to manage up to 25 budget envelopes and integrate up to four online financial accounts. The Premium version, at $9.95 per month, adds integrated bill pay features, including mobile bill pay, an integrated “debt center” for managing and reducing personal debt, unlimited envelopes and financial accounts, email alerts for account transactions, and live chat support.
A different money-management service that’s free and also offers bill pay features is Pageonce (4 stars), which has better usability and stability than Mvelopes.
Getting Started and Basic Features
As mentioned, Mvelopes works by getting users to establish an allocated spending plan for themselves. When I first set up my Premium Mvelopes account, I spent a lot of time thinking through how I would spend my monthly income—maybe even too much time. An automated wizard gives you a guided tour of some of the features, but I didn’t feel that it adequately explained what I needed to know.
An Mvelopes Assistant screen points to four steps for getting started (Add Accounts, Define Incomes, Create a Spending Plan, Fund Envelopes), but doesn’t tick off the items as you complete them. You can select a checkbox to not have this module appear again, but I’d prefer it if the steps were marked off when I completed them, so I would have some acknowledgment from Mvelopes that I was doing something right. There is no such positive feedback.
Another problem is that the tutorial videos and other help files don’t reside directly within the workspace. You have to open a new page to access them, and they bored me to tears when I watched them. Mint, meanwhile, provides an interactive guide that explains how each piece of the site works as you’re getting set up, and it’s all integrated directly onto the page you’re using. It couldn’t be more relevant or well timed.
While Mvelopes provides some suggested categories for a budget, such as medical care, gifts, and utilities, I found I had to create a lot of new categories because Mvelopes couldn’t anticipate my needs. Mint, on the other hand, comes preloaded with dozens and dozens of categories—and certainly, you don’t have to use them all. All Mint’s categorized are nested appropriately, too, so there’s a hierarchical structure that makes sense. Plus, Mint asks about your housing situation and lifestyle in order to target some of the categories you’ll want to include in your budget. For example, renters have slightly different monthly housing payment categories than home owners or condo owners.
What Mint doesn’t do is push you into setting up a budget from the get-go the way Mvelopes does. Instead, Mint focuses first on money you have already spent, importing a history of your credit card and checking account transactions. Budgeting comes into play a little later, after you’ve seen how you do spend money. I prefer this order for its practicality. It lets me budget based on realistic data. Mvelope’s approach, which is to set up the budget first, relies a lot more on guesswork and wishful thinking, not historical data. When I connected my credit card to Mvelopes, I didn’t see any transaction history from the past, only new charges from that day forward.
Not everyone will agree with me on my preference for Mint’s method, of course. There are certainly many benefits to thinking about how much money you should be spending before you examine how you do spend it. But I like to get to the eye-opening part first.
Design and Usability
Mvelopes primary sections are Transactions, Accounts, Budget, Bill Pay, Debt Center, and Reports. That’s the top navigation. I can tell what each of these sections should do based on their names, but in use, I got lost and confused over and over again in all of them.
Sometimes the problem was button names and locations, or the fact that it seemed like clicking a button would trigger the action when in fact I was supposed to be dragging and dropping components around the screen. See the slideshow for an example. Other times I’d try to log a transaction or set up an account, hit save, and nothing would happen. The form or box didn’t close automatically as I would expect it to, and when I manually closed it, the data was lost. Sometimes the delete button is to the left of an entry, and sometimes it is on a topline bar. The lack of consistency is maddening. In short, it appears as if very little usability testing has been done on Mvelopes. Over time, I’m sure a dedicated user would learn her way around, but I felt so frustrated at such an early stage that I didn’t have any desire to stick it out.
In testing, I logged some spending (clothes), which already appears on my credit card statement and which nearly matches the budgeted amount. When I entered the amount as a transaction, however, Mvelopes listed it as a new credit card transaction, one that hadn’t yet been recorded on my account. I couldn’t see a simple way to just note “this existing credit card transaction should be connected with this charge.” That’s the level of detail that Mint simply handles.
At What Cost?
Mvelopes has sound principles at its foundation, but it doesn’t implement them in a way that helps users get started quickly and efficiently. And what does that “cost” in lost time or opportunities? You’re better off with Editors’ Choice Mint.com, a site and service that aces in all the areas where Mvelopes falters.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc