Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Financial Software, Made Simple

If you’re budget-conscious and highly organized, you’re probably already a devotee of Intuit’s Quicken and Microsoft’s Money, two computer programs that allow fiscal fanatics to digitally organize their finances and assess their spending.

But both software makers realize that there are only a limited number of customers for complicated, deep financial software. So, both are moving this year to simplify things for the rest of us who aren’t as enamored by ledgers and numbers, but still might like to get a better handle on how we spend our money. This week, we reviewed new versions of these top financial programs that omit or play down their most intimidating features, focusing instead on simple budgeting and online bill payments.

Quicken Photo
Quicken 2007 Basic, $30, focuses on budgeting and bill paying.

We tested Microsoft Corp.’s Microsoft Money Essentials — a $20 download at that was released about two weeks ago. This is a new, light version of Money, with a limited feature set. We pitted it against Intuit Inc.’s $30 Quicken 2007 Basic, which became available yesterday. The new Quicken retains the product’s full features, but sports a fresh interface that emphasizes budgeting and bill paying for those who don’t want to delve further into such things as investment tracking and planning.

Both programs did a good job of minding their target audiences: normal people who want a simple program without dizzying charts and confusing set-up processes. Microsoft Money Essentials offered a cleaner interface with less clutter on the screen, but we could see more information at a quick glance on the Quicken Basic home page, which we preferred. And overall, Quicken seemed to offer a more detailed, yet still easy-to-use, program that we think is more appealing to users.

These software programs work best for those who already use, or wish to use, online banking to its full capacity, including paying bills online. Using a debit card from your bank also helps. That’s because both programs rely heavily on downloads of your bank statements to figure out where your money’s going, and, debit-card entries on these statements are fully identified. By contrast, people and companies you pay by check are often unidentified on the electronic bank statement.

We were impressed by the setup processes of both software programs. Both guided us, step by step, as we entered our user information, including selecting the name of our bank from a list and entering our online banking log-in information. Quicken offers a list of more than 4,500 financial institutions, while Microsoft says it offers 4,347. If either program doesn’t carry your bank, you’d be unable to use it, so this is an important issue.

Microsoft Money Essentials required our Windows Live ID (Hotmail or Live Mail user name and password) during setup, which was easy for us but might be a pain for users without such an account. Live ID is recommended as an added layer of security and offers another way for your bank to share data with Money Essentials, but is not critical.

Upon opening Money’s homepage for the first time, we noticed our bank’s checking and savings account balances listed in the top left box (credit-card accounts and investment accounts can also be listed here), while the top right box showed bills and deposits. Two more neat boxes below these showed a categorized pie chart of our spending and a spending tracker that could be personalized to closely monitor spending on certain things.

All of these boxes can easily be rearranged and other boxes can be added, including the latest mortgage interest rates and reminders. A neat pull-down menu asks you to choose a task from a list that includes entering a transaction, recording a bill or deposit, seeing your report or viewing your budget. This task-chooser helped us find a starting point each time we opened the Money Essentials program.

Five menus line the top of this program’s screen: Home, Banking, Bills, Reports and Budget. We entered the Banking section and viewed a list of our checking account’s latest transactions, including withdrawals and checks. In the Bills menu, individual items can be selected and paid online with one button click after the initial setup.

The Budget section seemed like it might offer one of the most practical applications for regular users. A budget can be automatically generated based on your bank account, but we created our own by entering a list of income information (entering the income amount and how often it was replenished), budget categories, expenditures and spending tracker categories. This data is then reflected back on your Home page.

Screen Shot
Microsoft Money Essentials, a $19.99 download, focuses on simplicity and a clean interface, which is appealing to first-time users of personal finance software programs.

Quicken 2007 Basic asked us for more information about our budget and regular bills as we walked through the setup process, so we had to be ready with all of our data in hand when we began. But this saved us time later — prearranging our budget into already formed categories that were visible when we finished the setup.

In Quicken’s Home section, three large panels labeled “+ In,” “- Out” and “= What’s Left” gave us an easy to read overall view of our funds each time we opened the program. Just below these panels, we could see a list of scheduled bills and deposits, as well as a small calendar on the bottom right.

This calendar was one of our favorite features. It marks in bold each date on which a transaction took place, helping users to see at a glance when account activity occurred. Mousing over these bolded dates displays the activity of the day, such as “Credit card payment, – $1,000,” and “Paycheck $1,200.” Withdrawals are distinguished in red type; income is reflected in black.

You can also view this calendar in a larger view, and every single date shows the balance and transactions of your account, which we found helpful. Microsoft Money Essentials also has a calendar, but it only labels dates with a note about which bills need to be paid when, crossing them off when you’ve paid the bill.

In this same Quicken Home view, three more graphs can be viewed with a click: an Account Balance Graph and two pie charts labeled Spending by Category and Spending by Payee.

On the far left side of Quicken 2007 Basic, a column with three sections is neatly organized into Cash Flow Center, Investing Center and Property & Debt. At the very bottom of this column, your net worth according to those three categories is shown.

A Quicken budget can be created in a manner similar to that of Microsoft Money Essentials, but it was slightly more detailed — including an available budget report that specifically analyzes your spending by category.

Overall, Quicken 2007 Basic is a product we think will be used for a longer period of time compared with Microsoft Money Essentials, which is much more limited. Microsoft Money 2007 Deluxe, which is more comparable to Quicken Basic, is available starting at $50 before a $20 mail-in rebate.

Both of these programs made a good attempt at bringing the work of budgeting and financial assessment down to a regular person’s perspective. But if you’re more serious about using personal-finance management software, Quicken 2007 Basic is the way to go.

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