But first: context! I like money. Not just having it; I enjoy planning and investing and researching. I'm far from a financial guru, but I follow the financial news and have a pretty solid idea of good personal budgeting. I think a lot of people might buy Quicken in order to get away from some of the aspects of money management, but for me, it was almost going to be a kind of entertainment.
That said, despite the fact I enjoy money, I've never, ever been good about balancing my checkbook. As an intuitive and abstract thinker, I'd much rather come up with goals, plans and models than make sure I know precisely how much money I have to the last cent. I tend to make sure that I have "enough" in my checking account, periodically sweep the surplus to an investment account, and otherwise don't worry about it very much.
I have a really good overall idea of my financial situation, but I'm not so clear on the particulars: how much I spend on food, whether my gas expenses go up or down in the summer, how important plane trips to Chicago are in the overall context of my budget. One of the most exciting thoughts of Quicken was getting this capability, so I could pull raw data into charts and graphs to see just where my money was going.
My parents had recently gotten Quicken and seemed fairly happy with it. I spent some time online looking at different personal finance offerings. There are some free options, most of which are extremely elaborate Excel spreadsheets. I'm also intrigued by GNU Cash, which has just recently added support for Windows; that said, they make it clear that the Windows version is still very much a work in progress. The only two serious contenders out there are Quicken and Microsoft Money. I wasn't about to fork over money for another Microsoft product, but I did do some research online, where I found that the two products were considered roughly equivalent, with a slight edge going to Quicken (mainly due to its longer period for free online access).
I was going to buy a discount version of Quicken 2007, but then I noticed that they offered a free 60-day money-back guarantee if you did an electronic download from their web site, so I went ahead and did that.
In summary, these are the things I liked about the product:
- Memorized transactions - it can detect when you have a recurring payment or credit, and set up a rule to expect that in the future.
- Reporting is actually quite good. After it gets all the raw data, you can quickly view all sorts of helpful charts, such as spending for a month divided by category, growth in net worth over the past year, etc.
- Online update - automatically retrieve account information from your bank, credit card, etc. This is phenomenal - when it works!
- Stupidity of the matching algorithm. Sometimes it's good - if you've manually entered a payment, then later on you download that payment's record for your account, it will know to replace the first with the second. However, it doesn't work in reverse; if you download a payment before you've entered a recurring bill, there's no way to indicate that you paid the bill. I ended up just clicking "Skip" on these, but it's still a pain.
- Utterly bizarre lack of support for CDs. (That's Certificates of Deposit.) I can't believe that Quicken has been sold for, what, almost two decades now, and still doesn't really do CDs. After spending way too much time hunting around online, I found the "approved" way to approximate this: you need to act as if the CDs are bonds, set a bond price of $1, enter the actual amount as the number of shares, and input the maturity date. So you can do it, but come on, why on earth not just have a simple entry for CDs? This is one of the most common investment tools out there next to savings accounts.
- "One Step Update", while a great idea, is semi-permanently broken. Some banks just don't support it. Others do, but in such a way that if the bank's web site ever changes, it breaks the update. I spent more time fighting with this tool than doing anything else - in all honesty, it would have been much quicker to just download the transaction information from each web site and insert it manually, but since I was paying for this feature I wanted to make it work.
- Have I mentioned the dumb matching algorithm? I can't understand why, when I have a recurring expense for Rent for $1134, and I download a check transaction for $1134, it doesn't even occur to Quicken that this check might be for my rent.
- Poorly integrated "Planning" feature. This is part of the reason why I opted for the "Deluxe" version instead of the basic one. You can theoretically use it to plan for retirement or other major events - I used it to "plan" my condo purchase. But it's basically a separate application which just lives within Quicken. It infuriated me to see that I'd need to manually enter my salary information again, when I'd already set it up in Quicken. And the planning itself isn't any better than the free tools you'd find online.
- Initial setup is more complicated than it should be. The first step is to do budgeting - enter your expected recurring expenses for things like your rent, utilities, and so on. Which is all well and good, except that thanks to Quicken's idiotic matching algorithm, the very first time you download transactions, it won't have the slightest clue that they're for the expenses you spent so much time entering. Sometimes these are understandable. My utility bill fluctuates from month to month, so I can see how Quicken wouldn't necessarily know that my scheduled "Pacific Gas & Electric/$20" got downloaded as "PG&E/$17.87". But it should freaking give me some way to say, "Oh yeah, that recurring expense was actually paid by this line item. Please recognize these things in the future." What I ended up doing was deleting all my recurring expenses - the ones Quicken was so excited about me manually entering! - and having it re-generate them from the downloaded ones, so it would recognize them in the future. Which, once again, is dumb - since you can import the last three months or so when you set up, it should have done the monthly budgeting stuff after it got the raw data and saved me the hassle.
I'm saving off my data, uninstalling the product, and applying for that refund. I still like the idea of financial software, and may try again in a couple of years to see if they've gotten it yet. Until then, though, I'll be returning to my slightly fuzzy but far simpler view of my finances.