The following is a letter I wrote to Mint.com (as friends and readers know, one of my favorite sites/tools) this evening about the Jewish Economics Survey and an idea a couple friends and I have discussed in the past. Hopefully they'll respond positively to the idea; meanwhile, I thought it was worth sharing with readers here, many of whom have expressed great interest in the JES and the future plans for it.
I've been using Mint.com for a couple of years, and countless friends and family (whether through me or others) do as well, and we all love it. It's truly changed our lives - when I was laid off in July 2008, barely a month after my second daughter's birth, Mint helped us not only cut down our expenses without feeling any negative effects, but actually cut down on some of our debt and really get ourselves organized.
While I was unemployed, I had more time to spend on my blog, which caters primarily to the Orthodox Jewish community. Within the Orthodox Jewish community there is often a large but ignored financial squeeze on families due to some of the inherent costs of living within such a community - more expensive housing, due to the need to be close to synagogue; private religious school tuitions; Kosher food; etc. In addition, many Orthodox Jews marry young - my wife and I were married shortly before we turned 21. This often translates into an even greater difficulty when it comes to managing finances, as young couples and families are both unprepared for the financial difficulties that come with marriage and raising a family, and many are still in college or graduate school during the early years of marriage, adding to the pressures.
As a favorite topic of mine on the blog was always economics, I determined to write about the difficulties a young couple might face, and decided to ask a few friends in similar situations to compile a little data before writing. As I developed what questions I wanted to ask those friends, it turned into a larger questionnaire, and then a survey - for singles, couples, parents and grandparents. I decided to post the whole thing on the blog, figuring I'd get at least a handful of responses which would be useful as well. The survey took on a life of its own, and resulted in hundreds of people submitting their information over a few months, two presentations including one that was filmed and reviewed by a Jewish cable TV channel, a couple other interviews, etc.
While the primary purpose of the survey was (and is) to prepare people for various stages of life across different demographics and in different communities by seeing what people in similar situations typically spend, one of the great outgrowths of the survey was how simply answering the questions the survey posed made them more aware of their own expenses. About half of all respondents noted that just taking the (basic) survey made them more aware of their own expenses, and most seemed to feel they had a better realization of just how much they didn't know. Many took the suggestion at the beginning and end of the survey to use Mint.com to help manage their finances, and some wrote in months later, thankful for the suggestion and noting how much it helped them really get a handle on their finances.
Thankfully, in July 2009, I found a great job in a wonderful start-up company which focuses on bringing great ideas to life. (Too bad Mint didn't come out now!) Unfortunately, as the company has grown and my own responsibilities have increased, this has left me with little time to work on the survey, so it's been put on hold temporarily. In addition, as wonderful as GoogleDocs is, it simply hasn't remained stable enough for the survey, sometimes randomly reordering the questions or having other glitches. However, I and the people who've helped me out think the project is a really important one, and want to make sure that we turn it into something strong and useful. One of the trickier aspects of the survey is that people's finances change over time - prices go up, prices go down, situations change... what a person responded in March may have changed by September. In addition, even when they're responding, people sometimes forget or estimate wrongly some of their expenses.
We started to wonder: What if we could help the people taking the survey, but at the same time, have them help us? Let's help them track their expenses - but allow us to use that information to help other people, too. Of course, we would need everyone's private information to remain that way - while it was amazing that so many people voluntarily shared information with the original survey, that was on a more basic level. After musing how it's too bad we don't have something like Mint, we realized - why not ask Mint?!
Our idea is to partner with Mint in creating opt-in opportunities within Mint. Let people choose to take part in projects such as ours by allowing their information to be relayed securely and anonymously through a trustworthy site such as Mint.com. Let projects such as ours design specific categories and subcategories within Mint.com that are applicable to the communities we live in and are working to assist, and teach Mint to recognize vendors common to such communities. Seeing the trends and issues within such communities can help not only to prepare those people for the issues that await them as they move through their lives, but also can help communities to solve problems by working together to address those issues.
We think this is something that would be a great opportunity not just for us, but for any community or sub-community that wishes to carry out projects like this to help one another. In addition, communities can simply encourage their members to take part - even if the data won't be used, the members themselves will gain from that extra awareness Mint provides them with. And of course, Mint itself will be adding countless new members as projects encourage people to use Mint to help themselves and for the projects' sake.
We would love the opportunity to partner with Mint on this project, and believe that this can be a mutually beneficial relationship that could positively impact the lives of entire communities.
Thanks so much for your consideration,
Jewish Economics Survey, Creator