Checks And Balances
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Financial well-being is important not only to your business but to your personal life as well. Keeping track of what's going on in your personal accounts will give you more security when making daily decisions--whether you're buying a new suit, planning for a vacation or saving for your child's education. Staying on top of what goes in and out of your checking account, what's charged to your credit cards, and what's funneled into savings or investments is what personal financial management software is all about.
The most popular personal money management program is Intuit's Quicken. This program has been around for more than 14 years and has served as the benchmark for other financial management programs. Microsoft's Money has long been trying to catch up with Quicken in terms of market share and features. These two programs are the only real players in a market that has become reliant on strong relationships with financial institutions, such as banks and credit card companies, to satisfy users' demand for high-level online banking, investment tracking and trading, and credit card information.
This software category has changed tremendously over the last decade--evolving from a basic checkbook register to a tool that allows you to do everything from planning your taxes and monitoring your investments to tracking a loan and keeping a household inventory. Both products reviewed here are in their latest incarnations and are state-of-the-art. Unlike Microsoft Money 98 Financial Suite, which can only run on a Windows 95 system, Quicken Deluxe 98 is also offered in a Windows 3.1 version.
Checking It Out
The checkbook register is the core of these programs. From here, you can enter payments and deposits while tracking which categories and subsets the transactions belong to. For example, an expense can be listed as "Healthcare: Dental" or "Business Supplies: Computers." Deposits are set up in a similar way, making it easy to track where your money is coming from and going to. This data feeds into the extensive charting and reporting features for visualizing and reviewing your income and expenses. Predetermined charts and graphs make it easy to track income vs. expenses, monthly cash flow and budget. If you're diligent in giving transactions the appropriate category descriptions, it'll pay off big at tax time--Quicken 98 can interface with all the popular tax software and can directly import the data into the correct fields of your tax schedules and returns if you spend the entire year doing your books appropriately.
An obvious subset of the checkbook register is the registers of all your other accounts (i.e., savings, credit cards, investment accounts, etc.). The beauty of keeping tabs on your finances via computer is that the scheduled transactions that occur every month, such as automatic withdrawals and direct payments, will all be entered without your having to think about it. (This can sometimes be a disadvantage if you tend to forget the withdrawal is going to occur and then come up shortchanged. For this reason, these programs alert you to upcoming scheduled transactions.)
Further automating the management of your finances is online banking. Both programs let you interface electronically with major banks to view your account statements.
But these programs are far more than glorified checkbook registers; they are tools to help you get in charge of your money. Let's take a closer look at each program to see which one best suits your needs.
Because I'm a die-hard Quicken user, I thought it appropriate to first embark on the competition's features in order to fairly compare the two. Installing Microsoft Money was painless--there were no glitches, and I was up and running within minutes. Microsoft guides you through the process of finding any files you want to convert to this program (including Quicken files and old Money files). The conversion process took about 10 minutes, and all my account information appeared clean and clear as day. My checkbook register included all the categories and memos as posted in my Quicken account.
The Money 98 interface is very different from the Quicken interface I'm used to. Instead of relying on graphical icons, Money 98 uses a more text-based navigational system that relies on pull-down menus. I found it less intuitive than Quicken's.
Still, Money 98 cannot be considered difficult to use. On the contrary, I was easily able to find my way around all my accounts. One feature I especially liked was the Bill Calendar for tracking bills and deposits. Here, a calendar shows you when your bills are due, and a graph gives you a balance forecast. While handy, this function is only beneficial if you're up-to-date on all your transactions.
To make this product more compelling than its competitor, Microsoft has provided many additional features. First there's Goal Planner for financial planning. Money includes 21 customizable wizards for working on short-term and lifetime plans. Then there's Microsoft Investor, which links into the Microsoft Investor Web site for tracking portfolios and researching investment opportunities. Subscribers to this service have the ability to search through 8,000 stocks and mutual funds to determine whether an investment meets certain criteria. Next there's Money Insider for articles and information from reliable financial experts.
Money 98 encourages users to get on the Internet. It includes an easy sign-up for the Microsoft Network, and the opening page directs users to links on the Web.
Although the Money 98 Financial Suite is geared toward investors, those more interested in basic financial management can get the stripped down version of Money 98 for $29.95.
Something worth noting: Money 98 works with a slightly larger number of banks than Quicken. You may want to compare the lists of financial institutions before making a decision on which one to purchase.
With Quicken Deluxe 98, Intuit is also looking at capturing the serious investor. But for those less interested in investing, there's Quicken Basic 98 ($39.95). Another version of this product may also appeal to you--Quicken Home and Business 98 ($89.95). This product helps small-business owners manage personal and business finances with a single program. You can do invoicing, track reimbursable expenses and more without having to learn a cumbersome accounting program.
A major difference between Money and Quicken is Quicken's emphasis on household issues, such as recording a home inventory, tracking home and auto loans, and even looking up insurance quotes on the Web. There's also online investment tracking and trading, and plenty of links to market information. Quicken Deluxe even includes an area for keeping important financial records, so family members can easily access all the information they need in case of an emergency.
At the core of this product, however, are your accounts. And Quicken does a great job of giving users all the tools they need to effectively and easily manage their money. The graphical interface is easy to navigate, and improved functions make banking nearly enjoyable.
As with Money 98, Quicken auto-fills memorized transactions so you're not forced to retype data that already resides in your computer. Then there are the new alerts for upcoming bills or other events, such as important tax dates or times when your account balance is getting low.
Both programs have a lot to offer. There's no doubt that either would be an effective tool for getting your personal finances in order.
Microsoft Money 98 will likely appeal to those with a stronger need to work with their investments. Quicken 98 is just as capable on that level, while also adding lots of household functionality.
Small-business owners who want to start using a program for business may want to consider using Quicken (or its more robust sibling, QuickBooks). This way, there's no learning curve when converting to a computer-based bookkeeping model.
Quicken Deluxe '98 (Excellent)
List Price: $59.95
Pluses: Easy-to-use graphical interface, key home financial management functions
Minuses: None of note
Money 98 Financial Suite (Good/Excellent)
List Price: $54.95
Pluses: More financial institutions for online banking.
Minuses: Interface not as intuitive.
New and Notable Software
- E-ttachment Opener: This program solves the common problem of not being able to read e-mail attachments. Often when a file comes over the Web, there's a decoding problem. That's where DataViz's e-ttachment Opener comes in. You can also use this program to preview or print files, as well as to decompress files. E-ttachment Opener works under Windows 95 or NT 4.0 and costs $49. Call (800) 733-0030 or visit http://www.dataviz.com
- Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition: This product includes six applications--Word 97, Excel 97, Publisher 98, Outlook 97 (with a free upgrade to Outlook 98), Small Business Financial Manager 98 and Expedia Streets 98 (a mapping program). Publisher 98, Microsoft's desktop publishing application, has become even easier to use with more design sets, color schemes and wizards. Similarly, Outlook, Small Business Financial Manager and Expedia Streets 98 have all been upgraded. The product costs $450 ($220 to upgrade). Visit http://www.microsoft.com
- S-Bridge version 3: If your business runs a small LAN with an Internet connection, you want to keep your system free from any potential viruses or unsolicited e-mail. Computer Mail Services' S-Bridge is designed to protect your LAN from junk mail and any viruses that may enter your system via file attachments.
Another bonus for small-business users: S-Bridge allows you to retrieve messages via a dial-up connection to a single Internet mailbox. This means a single e-mail address can be used by multiple users and routed by S-Bridge. Call (800) 733-0030 or visit http://www.cmsconnect.com
Cassandra Cavanah is a contributing editor of Portable Computing Direct Shopper magazine and has reported on the computer industry for nine years.