Personal Finance Software
Whether you're stuffing your life savings into a mattress, dropping every dime into a savings account, or spending your money as fast as you make it, you need to know where your cash is coming from and where it's going.
We took a look at five personal finance programs -- SweetCocoa Software's PigMoney 1.1, Snowmint Creative Solutions' Budget 4.3.3, Reilly Technologies' Moneydance 2003, Max Programming's iCash 1.4.3, and Intuit's Quicken 2004 -- most of which include excellent features for a wide variety of people. Unless otherwise noted, all the programs we reviewed print checks, create financial reports, and provide functions for balancing your checkbook.
In the end, Quicken remains the program you can bank on, but PigMoney and Budget are excellent alternatives for people who don't require all of Quicken's specialized financial features.
If a very basic Excel spreadsheet is the first step in financial record-keeping, SweetCocoa Software's PigMoney 1.1 is the second. It's a perfect solution for younger savers who are just starting to keep an eye on all their baby-sitting or lawn-mowing money.
You create new transactions in PigMoney by clicking on one of the program's three main transaction buttons -- New, Edit, and Delete -- and then entering details, such as payment amount, payee, and category, in the transaction window that appears. PigMoney has an autocomplete feature similar to Quicken's; it remembers items you've entered and enters them automatically as you begin to type them again. As you enter each new transaction, a small window displays a list of expense categories sorted by the amount spent; below that is a pie chart detailing each of your expenses by category. The amount of information in the window can swamp PigMoney's interface. If you have many different expenses, the expense list often ends up disappearing behind the corresponding pie chart. However, this isn't a problem for finance amateurs with simple budgets.
PigMoney has no check-printing capabilities, includes no way to balance a checkbook, and, like many of the programs we looked at, made importing financial information we downloaded from a real bank account a frustrating experience. Beginning budgeters don't usually need to print checks and import bank transactions, but if you're setting up your first real bank account, being unable to reconcile PigMoney's account data with your monthly bank statement is a serious problem. So as good as the program is for people in the earliest stages of saving, it's not currently capable of expanding to meet growing financial needs.
Of all the programs we looked at, Snowmint Creative Solutions' Budget 4.3.3 was the most unique. Unlike most programs, which use a ledgerlike check-register metaphor, Budget uses a conceptually vivid envelope metaphor, providing the digital equivalent of cashing your paycheck and then distributing the money to different expense envelopes.
To set up your budget within Budget, you create envelopes for your bank accounts and each of your expense categories. Every time you spend money, Budget transfers it from your available income envelope to the appropriate expense envelope. If you have regular expenses such as auto insurance or rent, Budget will automatically distribute a portion of your paycheck to the proper envelope each time you get paid. For example, if your rent is $1,000 per month and you get paid $700 per week, Budget drops $250 into the Rent envelope every time you get paid. The beauty of Budget -- and the way it differs from other financial programs -- is that it actually shows you how much money you have available to spend, as opposed to showing your current bank balance.
To help you organize similar items, Budget allows you to create group envelopes, which contain a collection of other envelopes. So if you want to keep your telephone, gas, electric, and water bills in one place, you can create a Utility envelope that contains separate envelopes for each of your utilities. Once you've created a group, you can easily add existing envelopes to it by dragging and dropping them on top of the group. This useful feature keeps the program from getting visually disorganized, which could be a problem if you have a large number of envelopes.
Budget includes very few reporting tools, but it does give you a quick overview of your current financial status. Selecting a group envelope and then clicking on the Stats button brings up a window in which you can view either a bar graph or a line graph of that specific group's expenses. If you select the window's Table view, you can quickly see an envelope's deposits and expenses, as well as the total percentage of your income that a particular envelope is eating up. Unfortunately, aside from these very basic printed reports, Budget's reporting capabilities are pretty thin. It doesn't have any year-end tax reports or any easy way to determine the current value of all your assets. If you require these features, you may want to consider another application.
Budget's only other shortcoming is fairly minor: its weak stock-tracking capability is simply no match for Quicken's. But when it comes to keeping track of your money according to the way you've earmarked expenses, Budget is superb. It's a perfect option for people who prefer to plan spending and saving but don't have many investment or reporting considerations.
With its wide range of features, Reilly Technologies' Moneydance 2003 is the only program we looked at that was nearly as complete as Quicken. Like Quicken, Moneydance uses a check-register format for data entry and provides fairly extensive support for tracking a wide variety of stocks and mutual funds. The program supports plug-ins, which allow developers to extend the program's capabilities. Even though Moneydance has a wealth of features, its user interface was confusing and occasionally quirky.
Once you've created your first account file, Moneydance opens a customizable navigation window (the documentation refers to it as a home page), which displays your current net worth, a calendar of upcoming transactions, a list of overdue transactions, and current currency-exchange rates; from here you can access all your bank and stock accounts with a single click.
This home page is where the program's first quirk appears. Clicking on any of your accounts in this window typically opens a register where you can view account information and enter new transactions. But clicking on the item for stock prices opens a window where you edit information on currency-exchange rates. The program actually presents this as a feature, since it treats all your stocks as "currencies." But every new stock you enter appears at the bottom of the currency list, and the window gives no indication that it's there. For most users, especially those who have no interest in currency rates, this is a very confusing way to handle stocks. In fact, we had to call the company to figure out that this "feature" wasn't a bug.
We did find a bug when we tried entering a new transaction in the account window, which offers a checklike interface for entering new transactions. However, when we selected the account we wanted to use for the payment from a drop-down menu, no account name appeared in the account field -- it remained blank. Reilly Technologies acknowledged the bug and said that it plans to fix this problem in the near future.
Moneydance categorizes your transactions in an unusual and confusing way. Unlike Quicken, which treats categories and accounts as separate entities, Moneydance treats every category as an account, so if you want to get detailed information on where you're spending your money, you need to create accounts for gas, groceries, entertainment, and the like. The strange thing about this is that after you've made a few payments, the account displays a positive balance. When it comes to expenses, this is downright absurd; it's the kind of accounting logic that personal accounting programs should avoid or, at the very least, hide from those of us who tremble at the thought of balancing a checkbook.
Finally, Moneydance ships with no predefined accounts, so you'll have to create them all from scratch. Combine this with the program's bugs and quirks, and what you get is a frustrating user experience.
Max Programming's iCash 1.4.3 is a conundrum: an elegant-looking Aqua application that's extremely confusing to use. iCash consists of a single window with five tabs at
the top -- Balance, Accounts, Transactions, Queries, and Reports. You access all of the program's features by clicking on the tabs. Clicking on the Balance tab and then clicking on a specific account or category gives you a quick view of how much money you have in an account or how much you've spent on a specific expense category.
Like PigMoney, iCash provides no easy way to balance your bank accounts. You can put a check mark in the boxes next to each transaction to signify that a check has cleared on your bank statement. But there's no way for you to enter your bank's beginning and ending balance information and then verify that what you've entered in iCash matches your bank statement. We got the sense that this application was only half finished.
iCash ships with a set of predefined bank accounts and expense-category settings. The trouble begins when you start to create any new transaction. Try to enter a new transaction and you'll discover that there's no payee field, so if you want to keep track of who gets your money, you'll need to put that information in the notes field. Try to create a transaction for which you have no category defined, and you'll have to jump back to the Accounts tab, create the category, and then jump back to the Transactions tab to re-create the initial transaction. This amounts to a huge hassle, especially if you're just beginning to set up the program. And while iCash is aimed at users who don't have complicated banking needs, the program itself seems too complicated.
Intuit's Quicken remains the preeminent personal financial program, the one that best suits users of all stripes and that almost all the other programs seek to emulate. There's a reason for that: Quicken is intuitively easy to use, and it provides an amazing collection of financial tools at a relatively low price.
Quicken 2004 is largely unchanged from previous versions of the program. New features include integration with iCal, which makes setting up reminders of upcoming transactions easy; an Emergency Records Organizer; and several tools for managing your stock portfolio, most of which link to online information (such as investment research and stock analysis) and all of which require an Internet connection. So unless you've been desperately waiting for these features, upgrading will be unnecessary.
The beauty of Quicken's new integration with iCal is the reappearance of transaction reminders outside the Quicken application. In the old days, before OS X, Quicken could remind you of upcoming financial events every time you fired up your Mac. Quicken 2004 automatically creates a calendar event in iCal that will remind you of an upcoming bill, whether or not you open Quicken. Note, though, that Quicken doesn't automatically set an alarm for the iCal event, so if you want notification of pending bills, you need to edit the iCal event to add the alarm.
Quicken's most significant new feature is the Emergency Records Organizer. This tool -- a database in which you can track a wide variety of personal information -- centralizes your most pertinent information in one location. You've probably got this data scattered all over the house or, worse, stored in your head: the location of your will, say, or your home owner's insurance-policy number. You can record all this information in the Emergency Records Organizer, and then print all or individual parts of the data for safe storage and emergency reference.
When it comes to financial-planning tools and investing, there's never really been any software comparable to Quicken. It still includes great tools for analyzing your personal cash flow or figuring out how much you can expect to save if you refinance your mortgage. But when it comes to investing, most of what's new in the program consists of links to data on the Quicken.com Web site. Granted, you can now access this information more easily from within the program, but in reality, the same information is available from a variety of Web sources, many of them free, regardless of whether you own Quicken -- so why pay for the data? For most people, even though Quicken offers some integration of Web-based investment information, the new investment features aren't significant enough to warrant the upgrade price.
Also, we did confirm one fairly major bug in the program that will trouble you if you're an investor who likes to sell stocks short: Quicken doesn't report the capital gains accurately. Short-sell 1,000 shares of a stock at $3.00 and then buy 1,000 back to cover the short at $2.50, and Quicken's capital gains report states that you've realized a gain of 50 cents. It should be $500, a fact that could leave you feeling woozy when the IRS comes knocking at your door.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Quicken 2004 is by far the most comprehensive financial package available for the Mac, and on a feature-by-feature basis, it clearly leaves all the other applications in the dust. However, both PigMoney and Budget are good choices for people with less-complicated financial needs.
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