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Web-ifying Personal-Finance Programs

I'm starting to worry that I've been stuck in an abusive relationship with personal-finance software.

Programs like Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft's Money can provide a valuable service. At the most basic level, they satisfy everybody's urge to keep score (why didn't I think to throw that phrase into today's column?), tallying up where your money came from, where it went, and those trends cause your net worth to ascend or descend over time.

But Quicken and Money also seem to be many people's least favorite programs. Making effective use of them requires an accounting mindset that escapes or scares many people. In fact, two of the editors who worked on my column said they had never even tried these applications. Pumping enough of your economic vital statistics into these programs to get an accurate perspective on your finances can be a daunting task. And once you finally have the hang one version of Quicken or Money, forced-retirement policies from Intuit and Microsoft will push you to buy a new release.

(Mac users may feel an extra level of resentment over being stuck with Quicken for Mac, one of the worst OS X programs on the market; Intuit may be a little delusional in thinking that its victims customers will wait around for a promised rewrite of Quicken coming this fall.)

I've put up with all these things for the sake of satisfying my control-freak instincts, but I still feel like I'm pushing a large stone uphill every time I fire up Quicken. My wife doesn't know why I bother at all. (Then again, my dad did his financial management the miserably hard way, plugging everything into a series of Excel spreadsheets -- perhaps the apple did not fall far from the tree.)

After spending a couple of weeks test-driving three Web-based alternatives -- the free Mint and Wesabe, plus Intuit's $2.99/month Quicken Online--I'm finally thinking that there's got to be a better way.

Compared to my traditional personal-finance practices, all three sites' greatest feature may be one they leave out: Since they assume or require that you'll only get your transaction data from a direct download off your bank, credit card or mutual fund's site, they eliminate the monthly ritual of reconciling statements. Not only do they refrain from guilting you about not consecrating your financial records in this manner, they don't even allow that.

And so I'm intrigued. I'm going to spend a little more time trying these Web apps to see if they might work for me, either on their own or as a counterpart to a simpler deskbound Quicken alternative (suggestions for one are welcome!).

Meanwhile, here are some other thoughts on these Web-based programs:

* All three sites could offer better help, especially Mint and Wesabe. Those two provide only brief frequently-asked-questions pages, then point you to their user forums for other queries. You may have better luck turning to each site's blog:
Mint's Mint.edu, Wesabe's Wheaties for Your Wallet and Intuit's Quicken Community.

* Quicken users contemplating a move to Quicken Online need to read that site's lengthy "How is Quicken Online different from other versions of Quicken?" tech-support article first.

* If you want to check your finances from your phone, only Wesabe offers a mobile-phone edition, although Mint and Quicken Online say their regular sites can be used from an iPhone.

* If you're worried about being able to get your data out of this site, note that Mint offers .csv file downloads, while Wesabe lets you download data in seven different file formats and provides a software framework programmers can use to connect other programs to Wesabe data. Quicken Online doesn't offer any export option at all.

* Quicken Online and Wesabe connect directly to your financial institutions, while Mint uses the services of a third party, Yodlee--which itself offers a simpler Web financial planner called Yodlee Moneycenter.

* While Mint and Quicken Online seem the closest to offering a full-fledged Quicken or Money replacement, Wesabe may have the greatest upside. The people running the site appear to have the right priorities, they're taking care to listen to users and, if enough people add their brainpower to it, it could become a powerful tool for optimizing not just your financial services but your daily spending--the social network it may have the most in common with is not Facebook but Yelp. (Although Wesabe co-founder Marc Hedlund told me yesterday that a third of the site's users never look at its community-sourced tips.)

* One part of the review isn't complete yet: a test of how easy it is to delete your data and close your account at each site. I will save that for a week or so, in case people have any questions about how each site works, and then I'll report back here on how hard it was to extinguish my presence at each site.

But as I wrote above, that doesn't mean I might not return to one of these sites. You can help me out with that: If you've switched from Money or Quicken to a Web-based financial planner, which one did you choose and how has it worked for you?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 22, 2008; 1:45 PM ET
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Comments

I hope you write a column soon about how you go about extricating yourself from MS Money (or Quicken)...:)

I am in year 12 of the Book keeping by software experiment, and would love to throttle back, but dread time needed to do so. May have to just pull the plug.

BTW, still using Money 2002. Upgrading is of little to no value.

Any security concerns?

Posted by: JkR | May 22, 2008 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Am still using Money 2003 too and I have found no compelling reason to upgrade.

Each time I read about these online finance sites, I am tempted to switch to them. But then I remember how quickly these guys can go under and take your data with them. Sure Wesabe's "Bill of Rights" looks promising but if they go under will their creditors uphold the bill of rights? Won't they just sell the data like SunRocket did with customer data?

So while the software engineer in me knows that even Money 2003 could be secretly transmitting my financial data to Microsoft, I still feel a little more secure using a desktop fat-client to track my money.

Posted by: Bart | May 22, 2008 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for putting this out in public! I've so far been scouring the web for info. I used Money (home & business) 2003 until my PC crashed and burned and I switched to Mac in 2005. I have been searching since then. I am trying http://www.mvelopes.com/, and I was a beta tester for Quicken online (I didn't like it on the PC, but hey). Mvelopes can access all accounts except my CU credit card, Quicken cannot access my or my husband's CU accounts. Banks and credit cards are deal breakers. I can check investments on those sites. I was about to put Money on my iMac, but I will now give Mint a try. Thanks for the tip.

Posted by: Katherine | May 22, 2008 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I'd suggest you consider a desktop program, YNAB (www.youneedabudget.com). It comes with a detailed plan for using a budget, not your check register or account balance, as your key tool for financial management. My wife and I have been using it for about three months, and it has helped us plan our spending much more wisely. In addition to online account management through moneycenter.yodlee.com, the YNAB Pro program is just what we needed.

Posted by: Jay | May 22, 2008 4:14 PM | Report abuse

I feel locked into Quicken for MAc just because I started with it years ago and can't imagine getting all the data into another program! What are the opportunities for migrating from Quicken for Mac to some other service?

Posted by: Eric | May 22, 2008 4:20 PM | Report abuse

I feel leery of posting my financial data online. I don't know who might be peeking into the database, or what company may buy it out.

Posted by: Susan | May 22, 2008 6:04 PM | Report abuse

OK, enough seriousness. You talk about all these on-line money programs being a possible replacement for Quicken/Money, but never address my situation! I've been searching for a suitable replacement for MYM (that's Managing Your Money DOS pre-Y2K crisis) for too many years to count. Nothing beats it for simplicity, stability, and all around goodness.

I've tried many iterations of Quicken/Money and they just take too much of the money management and thinking out of my hands. That I don't want - I want the information there for me to manipulate and think about; I would like to have some more manageable tools available, but I found the current crop of programs are too complicated to use efficiently. Just an old guy's opinion.

Posted by: George | May 22, 2008 7:00 PM | Report abuse

I've been using Quicken on the PC for more than 17 years! No software is perfect, but Quicken does a more than adequate job, and I only feel compelled to upgrade every couple of years.

I started off just keeping track of my cash and checking, and over the years I've added many other accounts. If you try to start off keeping track of everything right from the beginning, you will likely be overwhelmed by the amount of work involved.

Over the years, my routine has developed so that I average spending less than 10 minutes every day on data entry, and I spend whatever moves me (from nothing to hours) on analysis.

I spend significant effort keeping my home computing secure, so I'm not remotely tempted to place my critical financial data in the hands of a third party Web site that doesn't need it, not even Intuit.

Posted by: scottr | May 23, 2008 1:22 AM | Report abuse

I use Numbers, part of iWork, to track my finances. It's very nice.

Posted by: wiredog | May 23, 2008 8:23 AM | Report abuse

wiredog: "I use Numbers, part of iWork, to track my finances. It's very nice."

I remember managing finances in a spreadsheet. I even attempted a revival when Numbers came out. It's an arduous path that's sure to disappoint.

Posted by: driver guy | May 23, 2008 9:30 AM | Report abuse

I've used MS Money since 2001 and use it track my household finances, mortgage and all investment accounts. I'm in the program on a daily basis.

I switched to the Apple OS a few years ago and tryed Quicken for Mac (awful!), and a few of the online programs, but none of them offer the features that MS Money does. I use Boot Camp to run MS Money on my Mac.

I have to same concerns as other posters. What do you if the finance program's web site goes away? I'll stick with my setup until something better comes along.

Posted by: davey | May 23, 2008 10:39 AM | Report abuse

I agree that it's important to be able to get your data out of the site--or out of whatever program you might use. That's why I listed the export options available at Mint and Wesabe, and why the absence of any at Quicken Online pretty much rules that site out for me.

@wiredog: Very interested to read that you use Numbers. When that shipped, I couldn't help noticing that it can read OFX files, but until your comment I'd yet to see any evidence that people were using it as a personal-finance tool. Can you give us a little more detail on how you've set up Numbers for this job? (At the moment, I'm having trouble imagining how you'd use it to chronicle daily expenses as you would in Quicken or Money... but it does seem plausible to track and analyze major long-term trends, like your net worth.)

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | May 23, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I am REALLY glad you wrote these pieces -- I've been lost on what kind of financial program to use. I used an older version of Quicken a few years ago, and the biggest problem I had was the miscategorization of transactions. I remember how difficult it was to change them, and so I just gave up. I really wanted something to help me track my spending -- I don't own a home and my investments are small and long-term, so I don't need as much help in that area. I tried Mint yesterday after reading your article and really like it. I did run into a few problems and looked to the forums for help. I emailed a question yesterday about having trouble hovering over a menu in the Categorization feature (it wouldn't stay put) and got an answer this morning (works better with Firefox, apparently). The vast majority of the questions and reported bugs I saw in the forums received responses from admins, which is cool. Then again, issues posted last fall still hadn't been resolved. But for now, Mint is easy and pretty cool, and does exactly what I need it to. Thanks, Rob!

Posted by: cbr | May 23, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I used to *religiously* use MS Money back in the day (for about 5-6 years). One day I quit doing it and just kept my numbers in my head.

It didn't hurt all that much and here we are in 2008 and we're still in the same financial shape we were during our MSM years.

Our problem, as it turns out, isn't sticking to a budget, but defining one (well, I guess sticking to one would be part of that problem!). Anyway, we started using Quicken Online recently and find it's pretty good (save for the fact it doesn't offer ANY budgeting features!). It's simple enough to use and keeps us honest with a What you Earned - What You Spent = What you Saved/Overspent calculation.

Posted by: Sam F. | May 23, 2008 3:12 PM | Report abuse

The big problem with nearly any 'personal finance' program available is that they all too often take what you called an "accounting mindset" just to get started. I think that stems from the early days of computing when programmers simply went with what they knew worked which was of course line-by-line "accounting". The end result is that all we end up with is a way to record what's happened to our money, while not gaining in any measurable way.

In order to get ahead we need to plan of course and both Quicken and Money fall short regardless of how many new features they keep adding. Features by the way, which only seem to serve as a way for them to force us to pay more and upgrade.

Like "Jay" above I happened upon YNAB (youneedabudget.com) and it's straight forward approach of allowing me to plan out where my money needs to go has had a dramatic effect on my money. Backed by an online community that stands at the ready to help new users combined with a company that actually asks for and implements user based features into the software, it's hard to beat. All of that without any forced upgrades.

Posted by: Steve | May 24, 2008 8:49 AM | Report abuse

I also am a user of YNAB (YouNeedABudget). I was a Money user for years. Money is great for historical data, but does not help much for looking forward. YNAB is more helpful because it's based on a budget and looking forward. I've only been using YNAB for a short time, but have found it to be easy to navigate. There is a change in mind-set that you have to go through, but it's worth the effort. Another plus is the awesome forum for YNAB. Just about everything is covered in there and if not, a quick answer is not far away. Check out YNAB. You won't be disappointed!

Posted by: internettie | May 24, 2008 9:19 PM | Report abuse

I was interested and surprised by Geoge's comment (22 May @ 7 pm). I too used and still do use MYM although I was fortunate enough to latch onto MYM 3 before Tobias got out of the business. I don't remember whether 3.0 is pre Y2K or not. I would presume George is still using MYM 3.0 as I am and I see no reason to change to the "time swallowing" Quicken (although I did experiment with using it several years ago).

Posted by: Vince | May 25, 2008 12:39 AM | Report abuse

I am puzzled that so many are dissing Quicken. I have used it for probably 10 years. The key to quicken is to use it with credit cards/banks that allow electronic download. Set it up and download regularly, and all your transactions are there. Furthermore, once you have trained it a bit, everything is categorized properly. No manual entry is required at all. The info stays on your computer, you can update the software when you are ready, and all the info can be imported to Turbo Tax, making tax prep very easy. It is all just as easy as keeping a checkbook register, without having to use a pen. What's to hate?

Posted by: victoria | May 28, 2008 9:51 AM | Report abuse

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