Intuit's Quicken is terrific for finding how much you really spent on clothes, lattes, and computer equipment last year, and it lets you back up your records with a few mouse clicks. But you're missing out if you use it only as a paper substitute. With online banking, you can eliminate the drudgery of typing transactions and mailing paper checks, and you can keep a close watch on your money.
Here's how to avoid the pitfalls when using online services for your bank and credit card accounts. Although I'll refer to procedures for Quicken 2004 ($60; 800/811-8766, www.quicken.com), other recent releases also support online banking features.
Direct to Quicken
Online banking saves time by letting you transfer transactions directly into your Quicken account via the program's Direct Connect feature or by downloading and importing files from your bank's Web site. Either way, you'll always have accurate records on hand for budgeting or if the IRS comes knocking.
Before you use Direct Connect, you have to register with your bank to obtain a customer ID and password. To enable online banking in Quicken, select Window: account name. Select the account name and click on Edit. In the window that appears, click on Edit Online Access. The Quicken Assistant walks you through the steps.
You'll need your bank's routing number (the nine-digit number at the lower left corner of your checks) in addition to your account number and customer ID.
Each time you connect, Quicken queries your bank's server for new transactions and displays them in the Download Transactions window, where you can accept them into your register. Quicken automatically notifies you if a transaction matches one you've already entered by hand.
Tip: At some point you may change your mind about the type of access you want. If the option is grayed out, go back to the Edit Online Access window and use the Quicken Assistant to change your setup.
If Direct Connect isn't an option, you may still be able to download transaction files from your bank's Web site. (Go to find.macworld.com/0007 to see what type of online connectivity your bank supports.) Typically you specify a range of dates, and the bank sends the corresponding transactions to your Mac in a special text file. The procedure for importing the transactions depends on which file format your bank uses.
QIF (Quicken Interchange Format) wasn't designed for exchanging data with banks online but is compatible with older versions of Quicken. When you open a QIF file using Quicken's Import QIF command (File: Import QIF), Quicken transfers the data directly into the foremost account register without checking for duplicates -- you have to weed them out manually. In other words, it won't match a cleared check with the mortgage payment you already entered in the register.
QFX (Quicken Financial Exchange) is based on an XML specification developed jointly by Intuit, Microsoft, and CheckFree, the company that processes electronic bill payments for Intuit. It supports a broader range of transactions than QIF (tax forms, for example).
Some banks give you the option of downloading QFX files from their Web sites, a feature Intuit calls Web Connect. Unlike QIF, Web Connect requires you to enable accounts using the Quicken Assistant. When you download a Web Connect file to your Mac, Quicken launches, processes the transactions, and displays them in the Download Transactions window, just as it does with Direct Connect.
QFX files are text only, so they're fully Mac compatible. But Quicken 2004 won't run automatically if you use Safari to download -- you have to open the QFX file manually in the Finder or in Safari's Downloads window, or import it with Quicken's Import Web Connect command (File: Import Web Connect). You can use Microsoft Internet Explorer if you've still got a copy of it on your computer. Quicken 2003 users can also use a handy AppleScript to prepare QFX files for import -- see find.macworld.com/0008 for details.
A Troubleshooting Treasure
Alas, whether you use QIF or Web Connect, downloaded transactions often require considerable tweaking -- the payee names in my credit card accounts are often cryptic ("BestRest#42," for instance). If you're as obsessive about details as I am, you can spend almost as much time editing as you would entering the data from scratch. Fortunately, I've discovered a shareware gem called QIF Master ($16; www.thewoodwards.us/sw/), which does the work for you.
QIF Master reads QIF or QFX files, edits the transactions according to your rules, and produces a QIF file ready to import into Quicken. For example, if you're a Big Mac junkie, you can set up a rule that looks for transactions starting with "MCD" and changes the payee to "McDonald's."
QIF Master also lets you specify default memos and categories, and you can tell it to pause and let you confirm changes. If your bank lists generic payees for handwritten checks (mine uses "Fed Clearing Debit"), that pause gives you a good opportunity to insert something more descriptive.
When QIF Master encounters a transaction that doesn't match an existing instruction, it lets you define one on-the-fly. Once you've set up instructions for most of your payees and vendors, updating your register takes only a few minutes from download to import.
If you've ever had to fork over a late fee because you forgot to mail a check in time, you'll appreciate the benefits of paying bills electronically. Many banks let you make payments from your account on their Web sites for free, but you still have to download the transactions or enter them manually.
Some banks also let you pay bills directly from your Quicken register. As with Direct Connect and Web Connect, you have to enable bill payment in the Quicken Assistant. Fees vary, but the charge is usually less than $10 a month. If your bank doesn't offer direct payment, you can subscribe to Quicken Bill Pay (go to find.macworld.com/0009), which costs $9.95 per month for the first 20 transactions and $2.49 for each additional 5 transactions. Although 50 cents a transaction sounds expensive, remember the 37 cents you'd have spent on a stamp. Electronic payments can also save you hefty late penalties. For me, that's worth the additional 13 cents.
With either service, you need to type each payee's address, account number, and other information only once. Recurring bills like rent are a snap if you use direct payment along with automatic scheduling, which lets Quicken remind you when a payment is due or automatically enter the transaction in your register.
Direct payments are reliable if you take simple precautions. Banks send paper checks to payees that don't accept electronic transfers, so the bank usually requires around four days of lead time for all payments just in case. It's also a good idea to review your bills periodically to make sure your payee's address hasn't changed, and always double-check the amount and date of the payment. Most banks will take responsibility for snafus that aren't your fault, and some will handle late fees if they make an error. Banks don't recommend direct payment for tax or court-ordered payouts, because the penalties are usually more severe.
The Bottom Line
If something goes awry when you're banking online -- say you get an error message when you try to download transactions -- try calling your bank's technical support first. You can also visit Macworld.com's Intuit forum (www.macworld.com/forums).
In more than six years, though, I've yet to experience a problem I couldn't solve with a phone call or two, and I can't imagine doing without online banking. Give it a try, and you'll also wonder how you ever managed without it.
Le Mot Juste on Your Mac
Don't know a poule from a pool? Wondering whether you mean to insure or ensure a package's arrival? Luckily, a host of reference resources -- from foreign language dictionaries to encyclopedias -- is available for OS X. Here's a sampler:
> Ultralingua Dictionaries ($30 per language; www.ultralingua.com). Load these foreign language dictionaries on your Mac or Palm. Buy only the modules you need -- for example, Spanish, French, German, and even Esperanto.
> Houghton Mifflin eReference ($35; www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/eref/).
This package wraps up The American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, and Roget's II: The New Thesaurus. You can access them both from within Microsoft Office.
> Lexico CleverKeys X (free; www.cleverkeys.com). Don't want to shell out a dime for basic reference needs? This utility gives you access to Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com definitions from contextual menus or OS X services.
> Write Brothers Word Menu ($35; www.wordmenu.com).
Explore words in a number of ways, from traditional lists to a visual Fractal Browser.
> Ultralingua Eureka Encyclopedia ($30; www.ultralingua.com). Search for topics by keyword among 300,000 entries, or take advantage of Eureka's thematic organization.
> Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2004 ($70; http://store.britannica.com). This DVD or CD-ROM bonanza includes three encyclopedias, Merriam-Webster dictionaries and thesauruses, an atlas, and historical timelines. (See Reviews, January 2003, or find.macworld .com/0011.) -- scholle sawyer mcfarland