November 03, 2010

Did you know that, on average, a customer shopping at New York's Tiffany & Co. or B&H Photo Video is going to spend more than they would at, say, Barnes & Noble or Kmart? Thanks to Mint Data, now you do.

And that's not all.

The beta site, launched last week by Intuit's online personal financial management service Mint.com, aggregates the collected (and anonymized) spending habits of the site's 3 million users and shows how those people spend their money. Those spending habits are broken down into three general categories — restaurants, shopping and average monthly expenses — and can be sorted by popularity, average amount spent or location.

While an intriguing diversion, the information provided doesn't do much more than tell you where the average Mint.com user spends his or her money and how much they spend on average. It's not a big surprise that California's bay area has the highest average living expenses, or that your typical New Yorker spends less than $5 at a Dunkin Donuts.

Generally Mint's new site simply lists where money is spent and how much. Whether that data can be applied to anything useful to consumers or banks is yet to be seen. A more mature offering than Mint Data is Citi's Bundle.com, which shows spending habits on a somewhat more granular level, and incorporates a social aspect to personal financial management by allowing users to answer other users' questions or give each other advice. Mint does some of the social stuff as well through its own MintLife.

As a public-facing utility, aggregated spending data doesn't do much more than provide interesting information that can be mapped out in comparative graphs. But the raw spending numbers presented by Mint Data don't do much to tell a story beyond the fact that people spend money, and that most often, they spend it at different businesses. While it's good to know the average purchase at Rioja, a restaurant in Denver's Larimer Square is $114.68, we don't know how many diners' dinners are on that check or if it's a per-person cost. Nor can we determine cost based off the restaurant's lunch menu versus its dinner menu.

Simply, the Mint Data provides ballpark figures on how much the service's average user is spending and where. It's not necessarily useful at a consumer level — or at a commercial level — because the data doesn't drill down deep enough to tell a meaningful story about how people spend their money.

Personal financial management is a topic we hear more and more will be a trend that shapes customers' future interaction and loyalty with their chosen financial institution. Perhaps anonymized aggregated data about how people spend money is a natural side-effect of the old adage that information wants to be free.

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