Personal Finance Software 2009 Buyer’s Guide

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Given the current state of the global economy, now is probably a great time for you to consider organizing your household budget — and maybe even your investments — with some personal finance management software. The question thus becomes: Which finance app offers the most bang for your buck, especially when some of them are available for free. We separate the toxic assets from the sound financial instruments in this buyer’s guide.

THE CONTENDERS

*It should be noted that Microsoft has discontinued MS Money and will no longer offer it for sale or trial download.

JUDGMENT FACTORS

In each of the following categories, the contending software applications will be graded as the overall Winner, Pass, or Fail. A rank of Winner will confer two points, a rank of Pass will confer one point, and rank of Fail will confer zero points. The overall points-winner will be crowned as Editor’s Choice for 2009 Personal Finance Software from NotebookReview.com. The judgment factors are as follows:

  • Ease of Setup – If you can’t get the program to run, it’s not worth your time.
  • Data Import – The first step to analyzing your finances is getting your personal data in the application, assuming that’s both possible and easy.
  • Transaction Categorization – It’s not enough to copy your bank statement into a finance app; you’ve got to categorize every transaction to chart your spending and saving. The ease with which you can categorize your debits and credits is the key consideration for every piece of finance software.
  • Convenience – The promise of a holistic financial application is that is can save you having to manage multiple accounts through multiple interfaces. Whether software delivers on that promise is another story.
  • Financial Analysis – Your bank data is uploaded, the transactions are labeled and sorted, now what? Your personal finance app should break down your cash flow to illustrate where your money is going, and how you can improve your balance sheet.
  • Budget Guidance – So now you know where your money has been going, but what about how it should be spent and saved? While there’s no substitute for a true financial adviser, your finance software should offer some guidance towards fiscal responsibility and success.
  • Spam Factor – Any piece of software with access to your spending habits is prime data-mining material for “partnership offers” and other quasi-spam intrusions. Does your app resist the temptation or hark back to the days of the pop-up ad?
  • Security – These applications have access to your bank account; how well do they lock down that data, if at all? You might want to know.

EASE OF SETUP

Winner: MS Money Plus

MS Money offered the most support during setup, walking us through each step and offering wizards and tutorials when we (inevitably) strayed from the traditional setup path.

Pass: Quicken Deluxe 2009, Wesabe, Mint

Each of these programs did an acceptable job of helping us install and set up the app with minimal frustration or time spent, but each had a few minor hiccups that let MS Money outpace them. Wesabe gets extra marks for a help forum, but the sheer volume of activity in that forum indicates how often the (admittedly useful and ubiquitous) online help is necessary.

Fail: AceMoney

There are no tutorials or serious help files, and you essentially have to load, rename, and customize a sample data file to completely understand or explore the program after installation.

DATA IMPORT

Winner: Mint

Mint’s data import was almost perfect. If there is a flaw in Mint’s import system, it’s that the app expects you to have already set up passwords for online access to your banks, credit cards and investment accounts. If you haven’t, Mint doesn’t do a lot to prompt you for these details, but that’s a minor gripe compared to how quickly and easily Mint can locate and absorb your financial data.

Pass: MS Money Plus, Quicken Deluxe 2009

MS Money did a perfectly adequate job in this respect, except that it took about four times as long as Mint did to download our bank data. Quicken did very well until it simply could handle our credit union’s multiple password challenges, and then dropped into an endless loop of manually forced downloads. Fix that bug, and Quicken is back in pass territory.

Fail: AceMoney, Wesabe

Wesabe simply didn’t offer direct download from our credit union, and AceMoney doesn’t offer directly download from anywhere. Fail.

CONVENIENCE

Winner: Quicken Deluxe 2009

Quicken was, quite frankly, the only application on this list with a robust online bill-payment feature. If you want to both observe and manage your finances from one application, Quicken is almost the only software that can handle the task.

Pass: MS Money Plus

MS Money claims to have some measure of online bill-pay; we just couldn’t get it to work. That said, you can manually enter transactions, even if you handle them elsewhere, so MS Money can keep current with your cash flow.

Fail: AceMoney, Mint, Wesabe

These apps can offer very pretty, very well-rounded bank statements, but they don’t let you directly pay any bills or make any transactions or transfers from their interface. Put simply, they don’t offer one-stop shopping for financial management.

TRANSACTION CATEGORIZATION

Winner: Mint

We called Mint’s data import almost perfect, but with transaction categorization, we can drop the almost — it’s perfect. You can intuitively organize, sort, and bulk-categorize loads of transactions with ease. We’d kill to have a similar process in any of the other financial apps listed here.

Pass: AceMoney, Wesabe

AceMoney had a nice, if crude, find-replace feature that made categorization fairly simple. Wesabe uses Web 2.0 open-ended tagging, which has some interesting potential provided the user doesn’t screw it up. Both were adequate to the job.

Fail: MS Money Plus, Quicken Deluxe 2009

We’re sure that somewhere, buried in some sub-menu or configuration file, there’s a way to do bulk categorization with these apps. We just couldn’t find it, and we’re betting the same goes for most users.

FINANCIAL ANALYSIS

Winner: Quicken Deluxe 2009

Name an analysis tool, it’s probably in Quicken. The number of charts and graphs and cash flow projections you can generate would make a CPA feel all tingly.

Pass: MS Money Plus

If we hadn’t seen Quicken, we’d think MS Money had enough financial analytics, but compared to Intuit’s miniature version of the Federal Reserve war room, MS Money looks just average.

Fail: AceMoney, Mint, Wesabe

With these apps, you get a few basic graphs and charts tracking past spending, with no way to project future cash flow or schedule future debits and credits. Not much help for longer term planning.

BUDGET GUIDANCE

Winner: MS Money Plus

The reason we most lament the discontinuation of MS Money is its excellent budget guidance, offering two different budget models that help you to organize your spending and savings. Both of these models are available in advisory form on the MSN Money Web site, but we will miss having an application that helped us sort our dollars and sense into a reliable spending plan.

Pass: Quicken Deluxe 2009, Wesabe

Quicken has some basic spending and savings guidance tools, but you’re left a bit on your own to calibrate them. The default settings are fairly respectable. Wesabe, meanwhile, places advice in the hands of its associated forums which, once you get the hang of navigating them, are chock full of some very sincere and helpful budget advice. We were happily surprised with Wesabe’s community and wish it was tied into other finance apps.

Fail: AceMoney, Mint

There is no guidance. Set your budget however you see fit, even if it’s totally insane. Since you can’t project out costs past the current month, you’ll never see the fiscal train wreck coming if you set your budget caps wrong.

SPAM FACTOR

Winner: Mint

Mint wins this category not because it’s free of upsells, but because its upsells are surprisingly useful. Credit card offers tuned to your actual buying habits, so you get the rewards and interest rates best suited to your lifestyle. An actual functional referral system that benefits the marketer and the customer? We were more than a little shocked, honestly. Plus, you know upfront exactly how Mint makes money, so you don’t have to take their promises — or upsells — at face value.

Pass: AceMoney, Wesabe

AceMoney is utterly spam free, and Wesabe has no obvious upsell component, which leads us to suspect they make their money through sold data analysis and market research, all of which is apparently anonymized..

Fail: Quicken Deluxe 2009, MS Money Plus

MS Money is one giant backdoor for MSN’s financial content — advertisements and all. Quicken not only upsells you on products from its partners through a feature called Quicken Picks — which is a bit like your bank teller trying to sell you an MP3 player from behind the counter — but it practically beats you over the head to sign up for a Quicken Visa card. Both were extraordinarily disappointing.

SECURITY

Winner: Quicken Deluxe 2009

Every product we reviewed (except AceMoney) boasted of encrypted upload and downloads, but Quicken’s centralized password management was a slight cut above the rest.

Pass: Mint, MS Money Plus

Both offered encrypted, direct download of financial data where the user couldn’t easily screw it up, and there were no obvious hiccups to be found.

Fail: AceMoney, Wesabe

AceMoney placed the entire upload onus in the hands of the user, where breaches are bound to eventually occur. Wesabe did the same to us, only with the added benefit of asking us to upload our data manually via the Web, which is not exactly known for being hacker-free.

CONCLUSION

2009 NotebookReview.com Editor’s Choice for Personal Finance Software: Quicken Deluxe 2009

Quicken is far from a flawless application. Much like Windows Vista, it’s capable of so much there are simply more places for the application to break down, as happened with the direct downloads from our credit union. Also, the sheer volume of Quicken Visa upsells is rather annoying. That said, none of the other applications offer the combination of analysis and online bill-pay features provided by Quicken. You truly can manage all your finances through Quicken Deluxe 2009, and none of the other contenders could really make that claim.

Runner Up: Mint

If you’re just dipping your toes in the water of home finance planning, Mint is the perfect starting place. First off, it’s free. Secondly, it is the single most user-friendly personal finance application of all those we reviewed. We’d gladly pay to use a more full-featured version of Mint, especially if it integrated online bill-pay and cash flow projections.

Not Ready for Prime Time: AceMoney, MS Money Plus, Wesabe

Technically, MS Money tied in our points system with Mint, but since A) Mint is free where MS Money is pay and B) MS Money is discontinued, Microsoft’s entry gets kicked to the curb. Wesabe is still too wet behind the ears for us to recommend users dive into the app, but their forums are top notch and we highly commend you to their usage. AceMoney is simply a barebones app that can’t compete with these more robust offerings, even the free online ones.

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