Maximum Money Software

Right off the bat, we find Steve and Angela admitting that they're different from many computer users in one interesting respect: neither of them uses Quicken or Microsoft Money, the two most popular money-management packages in the world.

Both Quicken and Money have plenty of great features and can do everything from keeping track of your credit cards to checking in on your retirement accounts. Both programs step you through a lengthy setup process; when you're done, you're presented with what amounts to a dashboard for your entire financial life, from your current net worth to your potential retirement.

So what's the Duo's problem? Angela's reasoning is simple: Her accountant rocks, her income picture is complicated, and her time-tested, paper-based system works just fine within those two parameters.

Steve, naturally, has a windier explanation to offer. First, he, too, has a simple setup he's used for years. It boils down to three spreadsheets: one that tells him where he is financially, one that records all his income, and one that records all his deductible expenses. At the end of the year, he puts it all together in something resembling readable fashion and ships it all off to his accountant. Second, he finds in this field as with so many others that classic problem with software: It makes you work the way it wants you to instead of the way you want to.

But his third reason for holding out--data entry--is just about a nonstarter these days. In the bad old days of money-management programs, you had to enter pretty much everything about all your accounts by hand. Now you don't. Today, most financial institutions let you download your information so you don't have to type it in. At the end of the year you can pump everything into tax-prep software like TurboTax.

There are still some financial entities that'll require typing--U.S. savings bonds, for instance, don't leave much of an electronic footprint for these programs' purposes. And, of course, online banking still can't dope out your handwriting, so if you're still writing checks by hand, expect to input at least some of the pertinent information yourself.

Steve was pleased to see that some credit card payments get categorized automatically--though not always correctly. For example, Quicken put a Baby Gap gift card he and his wife gave into the clothing category. Good guess, but it really wasn't part of their clothing budget for the year! And there's another problem, minor but annoying: If you sign up for online access to your account at some banks, it's free unless you do bill paying (and sometimes even then, of course), but if you get that access through Money or Quicken, it can cost three bucks a month.

Steve also ran into some problems while setting up accounts. For some reason, Quicken insisted that JavaScript wasn't enabled in his browser (Internet Explorer) and made him take some awkward steps to set up Web access to his info. And in one case it somehow screwed up that access, so he had to call the mutual-fund company and get it to reactivate his user name and password--and even that took an entire day, since the mishap occurred on a Sunday, and the company wasn't staffed. He's reminded of the old adage: Never install software late at night or on weekends. That's also a good time not to tangle with your financial records, quips Angela.

What else do you need to know about money-management software? Find out in the next segment.

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