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Quicken Essentials: A hard reset of Intuit's Mac business

When I put together today's review, I tried not to write like myself. No, not in the sense of my throwing in too many parenthetical remarks (oh, really?) or an excess of em-dashes -- if you say so -- but in the context of my having used various versions of Intuit's Quicken software since 1997 or so.

That experience has left me with a profound dislike of most recent Mac releases of Quicken but also an excessive familiarity with its mind-set. Let me put it this way: When I spend too much at the farmers' market, I feel a little Quicken guilt about my cash purchases there escaping that program's scrutiny. (It's probably for the best that I never went to the absurd extreme of setting up a cash-only "Rob's wallet" account in that program.)

quicken_essentials_portfolio.jpg

Intuit's new Quicken Essentials for Mac breaks with that heritage in good and bad ways. This $69.99 application looks and acts like a normal Mac program and exhibits much of the clean, refined design of Mint.com, the Web-based personal-finance site that Intuit bought last year. But it also junks many long-standing Quicken features, not all of which appealed only to Quicken extremists.

It would not have been too hard to itemize the features missing from the new release and pronounce it inadequate on those grounds alone. But I happen to read my colleague Michelle Singletary's work and know that the contingent of Quicken experts is dwarfed by the population of people who desperately need some financial guidance.

So at the risk of going easy on Quicken Essentials, I tried to assess it from the perspective of somebody who just wants to know where the money came from, where it's going and if the monthly bottom line will be positive or negative -- not someone attempting to run a freelance business through the program. This wasn't a huge stretch for me, as I have often cursed the complexity of previous Quicken releases when I just wanted a simple chart of my cash flow.

(To get a third-party comparison, I also tried out IGG Software's iBank, since I'd once publicly wondered if that application would benefit from Intuit's inaction. Unfortunately, that did no better than the old Quicken 2007 Mac release at the crucial test of downloading account information for me.)

My verdict: Essentials isn't that bad for basic financial management but still needs serious work. In the end, I wound up arriving at about the same verdict as veteran tech writer Glenn Fleishman reached in his expert-oriented review for the Seattle Times; he concluded, "the program feels much more like a sketch of what a full Quicken update might look like."

Longtime readers may recall that at the start of 2009, I noted that I desperately needed to extricate my financial records from the obsolete Mac edition of Quicken. So what did I do? Several months ago, after I'd reviewed Mint.com for the second time, I elected to keep my test account active and use that for day-to-day financial management.

Quicken Essentials doesn't change that; it's just too useful to be able to check my records from any (secure) Web-connected computer. But I will migrate my old Quicken data over to Essentials -- so if I have to check any records, at least I won't hurt my eyes in the process. And if Intuit fulfills its goal of offering a unified, connected line of desktop and Web applications, I will someday be able to switch between a copy of Quicken and Mint.com, just as I can choose to read a Gmail account in a Web browser or a standard mail program.

I've got a Web chat coming up at noon today, during which you can either commend me for making the right call or explain all the ways I have lost my mind. In the meantime, so that I might have a better sense of what to focus on in my next review, how much do the following features matter in in a personal-finance application?

* just stop me from missing payments or bouncing checks
* help me stick to a monthly budget
* log every one of my purchases, just in case
* monitor my investments
* help me prepare my taxes every spring
* gauge my (hopefully ever-increasing) net worth

Rank them from 1 to 6 and explain your vote in the comments, and I'll do the same there myself.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 5, 2010; 10:08 AM ET
Categories:  Mac , Productivity  
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Comments

My list:
1. help me stick to a monthly budget
2. log every one of my purchases, just in case
3. help me prepare my taxes every spring
4. Just stop me from missing payments or bouncing checks
5. monitor my investments
6. gauge my (hopefully ever-increasing) net worth

Is anyone out there using Fortura Fresh Finance? My bank is not compatible with mint.com, so....I'm using Fortura.

Posted by: rjrjj | March 5, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

As promised, my list of personal-finance priorities:

1. just stop me from missing payments or bouncing checks [Far more the former than the latter; I have some kind of mental block about remembering when bills are due.]
2. log every one of my purchases, just in case [I'm a little OCD about that.]
3. help me prepare my taxes every spring [Being able to search for charitable donations and work-related expenses--see reason no. 2--is a big help.]
4.help me stick to a monthly budget [I'm not so concerned about keeping spending in particular categories within limits as I am about trying to end the month with more in the bank than I started.]
5. gauge my (hopefully ever-increasing) net worth
6. monitor my investments [Our conflict-of-interest rules limit my investments to mutual funds that don't warrant much day-to-day attention.]

Overall, what I appreciate the most about personal-finance apps is the sense of... not control, but awareness that I get from being able to see, in broad outlines, "this is how much money I have and this is where I spent it." Not having that sort of 10,000-foot view of my finances leaves me feeling like I'm driving at night with the headlights off.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | March 5, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Just log and categorize my purchases, and create annual cash flow reports when needed at tax time.

The rest of the stuff I don't need or is too much hassle, like exporting data to TurboTax. Fidelity sends me statements -- I don't need Quicken tracking that. Any automatic payments are set up by the payee with automatic withdrawal, such as PEPCO.

What this all says is that, years ago, I found Quicken too much of a hassle to do anything but tracking purchases. I am sure it is better now, and maybe I should give it another shot, but if Vanguard and PEPCO are willing to take over some of these tasks, fine with me.

Posted by: BaracksTeleprompter | March 5, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Boy, this is discouraging.

I haven't organized my finances for years, and I was thinking of using the new quicken when it came out. Now, maybe it's back to Excel (or Pages). I may give the Moneydance app a try.

Like most of my friends, none of us could stick with quicken for long. It was either "too much" or "doesn't do what I want it to do".

Maybe it's Pie-in-the-sky, but I always felt that a Quicken-type program should be able to do a general assessment of my financial health. If your just out of college and starting a job and don't have a 401K, well that should put up a yellow flag. If you're ready to retire and have all your money in high-risk stocks, well, that should be another flag. Can I retire with the money I have right now? Can quicken do any of that?

Posted by: tokrueger | March 5, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Rob,

Are you calling me "absurd"? I've been using Quicken for just shy of 20 years (DOS and Windows), and before that I started by keeping track of my cash in a bound ledger and my checking account in a paper register for 16 years.

Slowly over the years, I added more accounts and asset types, so now I keep track of essentially everything financial in Quicken.

From a record keeping perspective, I average about 5 to 10 minutes every day to enter my transactions manually. The only things I download are related to 401K transactions from my paycheck and daily stock prices. I suppose I could download more than that, but the workload feels small and manageable without bothering with that.

As far as using an online financial tool like Mint? Over my dead body! There's absolutely no way I'm putting my entire financial life online where some data breach would expose every detail in an instant.

We could debate the trustworthiness of a piece of desktop software, but it feels distinctly like the lesser of two evils.

While I've never lived with a formal budget, keeping track of my finances with Quicken has provided timely insights into my spending habits over many years, and that's probably been it's biggest benefit to me. More recently, the bill reminder features have helped me avoid losing bills in the paperwork piles on my desk!

Posted by: scottr2 | March 6, 2010 12:24 AM | Report abuse

I want a money management program that works with Excel. I do my overall budgeting in Excel ... I can map out my cash flow, interactively see how, say, refinancing the mortgage and adding that trip into Hawaii would impact my end of the month status, etc. Also, I frequently take Quicken reports and paste them into Excel so I can really analyze them, but I have to patch up all of the totals and sub-totals. Would it be too much to ask Quicken to at least not be Excel hostile?

The other thing I would like is a search function that does not default to search forward, when the typical search is for a backwards search. And why does it default to searching all accounts? If I miss type, say, "Giamt" when it is entered everywhere as "Giant" it spends several minutes opening and closing all of my accounts searching in vain. There is no way to stop the search.

Is this too much to ask?

Posted by: REMurphy | March 7, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

A question about "Essentials". If I install it, will it irreversibly take over for Quicken 2006? I want a path backwards if I do try it.

Posted by: REMurphy | March 7, 2010 7:53 AM | Report abuse

@tokrueger: What you're talking about is one of the things that Mint.com does pretty well; its entire business model is based on suggesting ways for users to improve their financial health. (The site then collects a commission on financial products purchased through the program's links, so its recommendations of specific products--as opposed to the general principles behind each one, such as "you're overdue to open an IRA"-- warrant a little skepticism.)

@scottr2: I used to go through the same routine for many years--there wasn't much Internet downloading of anything when I started using the app, much less bank statements. And, yes, typing in every transaction is absurd. Not only is it a colossal waste of time, considering that your bank already has that data, it also invites data-entry error. I can't tell you how many times I got hung up on reconciliation because I transposed two digits somewhere. Never again!

@REMurphy: No, your old data is left intact. The Quicken File Exchange Utility makes its own copy of your Quicken Data file, then crunches through that to generate a separate Quicken 2010 document (plus a log of the file import specifying what was and wasn't brought over into the new file and how things like categories were mapped to Quicken 2010's formats). At the end of the process, the old Quicken Data file is exactly where it was before, without even a change to its modification date.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | March 8, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Rob,

Sorry, I guess my "joking" reference to your statement describing the absurdity of keeping track of cash wasn't obvious. I've been doing it so long via paper or electronically that it is nearly effortless - besides which, there is no bank account involved, therefore no downloading is even possible...

I guess I am also reluctant to stash all of my financial passwords inside one application, in order to enable the downloads for every account. That reluctance tracks well with common advice to not store web site passwords in the browser, so why store them in Quicken?

Posted by: scottr2 | March 8, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

I started with Quicken back in the '80's on a PC. Became a Mac convert in 2002, but have always kept Quicken going on a PC. I'm now using Quicken 2008 for Windows on my Mac through Parallels. Even though I would love to get rid of Windows, it doesn't sound like Quicken Essentials measures up. Here's how I rank your list:

1. Log every one of my purchases, just in case - I like to know my account balances at all times.

2. Just stop me from missing payments or bouncing checks - almost all of my payments are automatic deductions, and I use scheduled transactions to automatically enter payments into my register, so I'm not worried about missing anything or bouncing a check.

3. Download transactions from a couple banks - this wasn't on your list, but I do this for my credit card accounts - saves me a lot of data entry.

4. Monitor my investments - I do automatic downloads from my investment accounts into Quicken. Sure, those companies send me statements, but Quicken allows me to consolidate all those accounts to see the total picture.

5. Gauge my (hopefully ever-increasing) net worth - closely related to my #4.

6. Help me prepare my taxes every spring - not a big deal for me, but it would be if I had significant business expenses to track.

7. Help me stick to a monthly budget - I'm very frugal by nature anyway, so I've never felt the need to use Quicken's budgeting feature. If I don't like my account balance (#1), I just cut back on my spending.

Posted by: lwchaney | March 9, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

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