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Tech-Related Resolutions for 2009

A year ago in this space, I wrote about a tech-related New Year's resolution I'd made for myself -- to spend less time online chasing down every stray morsel of information:

I'm going to try to clean out some of the clutter -- prune my RSS feeds, delete some Web bookmarks and make more use of one of the underrated commands of an e-mail or RSS program, the "Mark as Read" command that removes new material from your reading list.

So how'd I do? I certainly feel like I've become more efficient with my time online. My RSS subscriptions offer a higher signal-to-noise ratio than a year ago, thanks to my pruning efforts. I've brought a little more order to my work inbox by (more or less) sticking to a two-month rule: either I answer the message within two months, or I file it away in the appropriate folder. In all of my e-mail accounts, I've been a lot more diligent about unsubscribing from mailing lists that no longer deliver significant value.

But (you can probably guess where I'm going) I don't think I'm spending any fewer hours online. Instead of filling last year's quota of Internet use in less time than before, I seem to have upped that quota. I'm filling the same bucket of time with more bits of Web data than before, a bit like how an expanded highway soon fills up with more traffic.

So I may have to renew that resolution for 2009.

I also have a second, more concrete goal for this year: Find a better way to track my spending, my debts and assets, and my (crumbling) investments.

I've been using Intuit's Quicken for years, and I have to admit -- it's just not working for me. Part of the problem is that I've gotten stuck with Quicken for Mac OS X, an appallingly obsolete program that either can't download account statements or does so grotesquely slowly; as a result, I often have to type in new transactions myself. But the other part is that the whole ritual of reconciling accounts makes less and less sense to me. The only errors that ever come up at reconcile time are my fault, when I type in the wrong number -- not the bank's.

I also find that I don't need the same level of oversight on my day-to-day spending and my long-term financial projects. For the former, I want to see my patterns of consumption, but I'm not sure that I need to keep records of every purchase I make from now until the end of time. For the latter -- things like those crumbling investments, my mortgage, my retirement plan -- long-term record-keeping matters more than the discrete details of every transaction. I.e., I can't imagine maintaining a spreadsheet to track the first category of financial activity, while I can see myself doing so for the second.

There's got to be a better way, but I'm not sure what. Maybe Intuit's long-delayed Quicken Financial Life will restore that program's reputation on the Mac. Maybe I'll switch to a competing Mac personal-finance application. Maybe I'll use one of the free, Web-based financial trackers, such as Mint, Quicken Online and Wesabe, to manage everyday transactions, then set up a separate spreadsheet to track those longer-term financial projects.

You're welcome to vote for one of those options or suggest a better way in the comments. But I'd also like to read about your own resolutions for this year: In what ways do you want to change how you use technology?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 2, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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Comments

I am still struggling with both budgeting and to do management. As you said, Rob, it seems pointless to record every miniscule purchase. Also, one forgets some of them regardlessly.

I've yet to find a to do application to synchronize two laptops (MacBook Pro and MacBook Air) and my iPhone. Google Tasks, my latest effort, has proven unreliable. Sometimes I can't access the server. Mobile Me does not send to do lists to the iPhone or the web version. DoBot Todos, which is on my iPhone, is an awkward program that does not sync back to my computers.

Ironically, I was pleased with the time management and budgeting software available for the Mac a decade ago. In a way, things have gone down hill.

Posted by: query0 | January 3, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

It looks like most of these web-based money management tools are evolving pretty quickly, and as an engineer at one such website, www.justthrive.com , I can say that even long term planning tools are already available to some extent.

My opinion is that the main advantage of using online tools comes in their direct access to data that your spreadsheet or offline application doesn't. This enables features such as personalized advice on the best account/credit card currently available to you, automatic tracking and categorization of your spending/saving trends (no more input errors to reconcile), and a variety of other features. Thrive, for example, tells you in simple terms how you should spread your money across your accounts, how long you can survive without a job, an estimate of your credit score, what price house you can afford, when you can retire, and many other useful bits of information. And of course, these tools are all free, as you mentioned.

Of course I'm a little biased, but I definitely recommend at least checking out Thrive, or a few of the web-based personal finance tools to compare and see what fits you best. It's up to you if you want to complement it with a spreadsheet, but for most people, I suspect that the utility to effort ratio of using online tools for money management is extremely high.

Posted by: UsmanAtThrive | January 3, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Regarding actually-existing tools --

I stuck with "Quicken 4 Deluxe" in Windows for years. Finally, five years ago, I gave Windows itself the heave-ho. Since then I've been using GnuCash, in Linux. Linux itself has not been turnkey, hassle-free... it is sometimes a delightful puzzle... but GnuCash has been faultless. GnuCash is an optional installable piece of both Fedora and Ubuntu. I don't know how GnuCash compares with the state of the art, but for my purposes it's at least as good as Quicken 4 Deluxe!

Posted by: amturnip | January 3, 2009 7:09 PM | Report abuse

I still use Quicken just for adding up income and deductible expenses (by category), and for that purpose it is adequate, especially for someone who doesn't want to use a spreadsheet. On the other hand, for tracking investments, I have found that the best program available at reasonable cost is Better Investing's Portfolio Manager 5 ( http://www.betterinvesting.org/public/store/store/software/portfolio+manager+5.htm ) It does just about anything most individual investors could need, its help files are thorough and clear, and support by email is prompt and friendly. (I am a user of the program only -- no conflicts of interest!)

Posted by: GordonDR | January 4, 2009 4:55 AM | Report abuse

If you run a SMB, we just released Merchant's Mirror (http://www.merchantsmirror.com). It's web-based and works with all major browsers. Our goal is actually to provide small business owners a chance do their accounting.

One of the major problems we've had to deal with in the world of SMBs is the fact that the online accounting provider that we used at the time didn't support Mac (amazingly enough, you can be online and still not support certain OSes in this age). At all. So in the end, we went down the path of creating something for everyone.

If you'd like to know more, feel free to contact me through here or the product site. Regards!

Posted by: darkmoon | January 4, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

We stopped using Quicken for Mac years ago and switched to Checkbook by Splasm, and never looked back.

> The only errors that ever come up at reconcile time are my fault, when I type in the wrong number -- not the bank's.

Humph. Your bank never makes mistakes? Mine does, and reconciling with Checkbook has found their errors.

Posted by: bug451 | January 5, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

I use the standard PC Quicken on my Dell desktop. When I travel, I use a MacBook Pro. Running the PC version of Quicken using Parallels Desktop works just as well on the Mac as on the PC, including (reasonably) fast downloads of transactions.

This won't address your issues of dealing with details on individual transactions, which I agree with, but at least would let you use the best version of Quicken.

Posted by: emsingel | January 5, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

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