No one taught me to budget in law school. The financial aid folks said little more than “good luck paying off your $70,000 in debt,” and I was on my way. Years later, done with law school and thankfully bringing in some income, I was at a total loss as to how to start paying off student loans and daily expenses, set up a budget, and save for my future. That is, until I discovered Mint.

Mint is a user-friendly online personal finance and budgeting website. The NYT Magazine’s Virginia Heffernan reviewed Mint, saying:

The site helps you track how much money you have, how much you spend and how much you owe. Artfully designed, it comes off like a patient and discreet friend who knows your awkward financial secrets and stands by you anyway. . . Ordinarily, dealing with banks and credit- card companies requires personal vigilance. With Mint, someone seems to watch over you. And that love comes free of charge.

Whether you are working at a law firm, at the public defender’s office, starting your own law practice, waiting tables while you look for legal employment, or in law school and planning ahead, this site can become your new best friend.

Why young lawyers should be budgeting

I think we all know why we should be budgeting.

Most of us have tens of thousands of dollars in law school debt. Many still have debt from college. Whether you are living with your parents, a significant other, or a roommate, you are probably paying some kind of bills, and probably more than you want to, right now.

And we all have big plans for the future, right? Pay for a wedding, buy a new car, upgrade to a computer that does not crash every week, contribute to a mortgage payment . . . . The list goes on and on. Whatever your income is, whatever your expenses are, we should all be budgeting.

I think what holds us back is fear. Fear of what we might learn when we add it all up and see how much we’re spending on food, or clothes. Fear of being able to get ourselves out from under that debt with no job, or even with the greatest job in the world.

Join me in my New Year’s Resolution. Start budgeting and managing your money.

Why budget online?

This article is geared at young lawyers because we do everything online.

We are on email, Facebook, Google, blogs, and doing internet research for the majority of our day. When I was a teenager, my mother taught me how to use those old school bluebooks to keep track of my expenses, and that format still works for her. I, however, don’t remember how to write by hand without getting major wrist cramps. I like computers. I want to use my laptop to manage my money, just like I use it for almost everything else I do.

Online budgeting means that 90% of your work is done for you. The sites pull your expenses, income, loans and investments from all of your bank accounts, giving you the hard data to work with, without the pencil pushing our parents had to do in order to keep track of every receipt from the dry cleaner’s or grocery store.

Online budgeting sites also help you make financial planning a part of your routine, since you can sign in and monitor all of your financial accounts on one website, over coffee and a bagel before you start your day.

Why Mint?

There are a dozen different good quality online budgeting sites. I chose Mint for its great reviews from sites I trusted (like PC Magazine), and for its look and features. And did I mention that it’s free?

The set up is easy and intuitive. In fact, in their review, PC Magazine said “I can’t recall a financial application easier to set up than this one.” The look is also fresh and calming—which helps counter the initial panic you may be feeling (if you are like me) at the daunting task of managing your money.

The website prompts you to enter in all of your financial accounts and assets, from credit cards to savings accounts, financial loans to cars and houses owned. Worried about typing in all your financial passwords for the site? PC Magazine notes that this is “understandable.” However, “Mint.com uses bank-grade security—it doesn’t even have access to what you type in—and since you can’t move money around in your accounts, neither can anyone else.”

Once all of your accounts are entered, Mint.com categorizes all of your expenses, and then allows you to re-categorize them further so you can be better analyze your spending, set a budget and plan ahead.

For example, Mint.com tells how much I’ve spent each month on small skim lattes at the coffee shop closest to my office, helps me set a budget for that coffee shop, updates every 24 hours with my new latte purchases, and then nudges me gently via email (or text, if you prefer) to let me know that I’ve exceeded my coffee budget, again.

I can also choose to get email alerts when I have a payment due on my student loans or a credit card, if there is any unusually large spending on an account, or if my balance is too low.

The site also allows you to create tags for expenses like “business expenses” or “taxes” so you can evaluate a group of expenditures in varying categories. This is especially important for young lawyers starting their own law practice, or any other kind of side business. By keeping track of all your business expenses, from office supplies to CLEs, you’ll better be able to determine your financial position come tax preparation time.

Almost “fun”

Mint may not be “fun” in the way that skiing or watching a movie, or hanging with friends is actually enjoyable. However, the website is a practical, easy-to-use, essential tool for any young lawyer, and using it to manage your money online will help you have a bit more “fun” everywhere else.

(Photo: Alan Cleaver)