Thursday, August 20, 2009

Review of Quicken Online

We've been waiting (and waiting...) for the new version of Quicken for the Mac. In the meantime, the folks at Intuit have been plugging Quicken Online as "a great way to get started", and as an alternative solution for those who can't wait for the next desktop version of Quicken for the Mac. And hey, it's free! I've taken a look at Quicken Online for a while now, and while there are certainly some neat features in Quicken Online, there are also some glaring omissions.

Quicken Online is designed to automatically download transaction information from your bank's online access. Setting up your accounts is straightforward -- you provide your financial institution and your login details, and Quicken Online finds the available accounts (checking, savings) and downloads the last 90 days worth of transactions.

What's Good

Automatic Categorization of Transactions
One of the neat features that Quicken Online does is it automatically tries to assign a category to each of your transactions. When I set it up with my checking account, it correctly guessed that Safeway transactions should be assigned to the Groceries category, that the AT&T bill should go into Utilities, and that Starbucks should be dining. There were transactions that it couldn't categorize, and it was fairly straightforward to assign a category. As you continue to use Quicken Online, it learns about the categories that you assign to transactions, so it can use the same category in the future.

Quicken Online comes with a starter set of categories:

You can add categories and rename the ones from the starter set. For example, the starter set has a category called "Childcare/Daycare", which I renamed "Daycare". I also added a category called "Cell Phone". User-defined categories are in blue.

Automatic Detection of Recurring Transactions
Another neat feature of Quicken Online is that, when it loads up the last 90 days worth of transactions, it examines them for recurring transactions, putting them in a section called "Upcoming Transactions". I found that it made mostly sensible entries into this list, including things like utility bills and my mortgage, but excluding transactions that repeat irregularly, like groceries and dining out. There were a couple of things it got wrong (for example, I have some bills that come once every 2 or 3 months, but it guessed that they were monthly).

Basic Tracking of Expenses
In addition to downloading transactions from your financial institution, Quicken Online allows you to enter transactions on your own. This is, of course, important, since you need to deduct that amount from the available balance in your account if you're going to avoid overdrafts. Quicken Online also has reminders for your upcoming transactions.

Quicken Online comes with a "Trends" section, allowing you to see how well your income and your expenses match up across different time periods (one month, three months, etc.). It also has a "Goals" section, where you can establish budgetary goals for different categories and track how closely your actual expenditures for the month.

What's Missing
Customization of Categories Lacking
While you can rename any of the starter set of categories and create categories of your own, there are some issues.

The most glaring omission is the lack of sub-categories. For example, while one of the starter categories is Utilities, there is no way to subdivide that further into types of utilities, like electric, phone, or water. Desktop versions of Quicken have had this ability for many many years. Sub-categories are very useful in grouping like types of categories together. In addition to utilities, typical categories that can get subdivided are Auto (fuel, service, registration) and Taxes (local, state, federal, property).

Also, one odd thing is that you cannot delete any of the starter set of categories. You can rename them, but you cannot delete them, even if you have no intention of ever using them. While most people could use most of the categories, I'm sure that anyone using Quicken Online would be able to find categories that they would just as soon delete.

No Split Transactions
This is possibly the most glaring omission in Quicken Online. I've been using desktop versions of Quicken since the mid-90's, and one of the features they've had for all this time is the ability to split the amount of a transaction into two or more categories. An obvious example in today's world would be going to the grocery store, buying some groceries, using a debit card, and getting $20 cash back. If the total bill came to $120, you'd want to split that into two categories -- $100 for groceries, and $20 for cash. Quicken Online doesn't let you do that. Each transaction is only allowed to have one category.

And, of course, the obvious
It probably goes without saying, but Quicken Online doesn't allow you to do our favorite kind of budgeting, envelope budgeting. (See here about why it's our favorite kind).

Final thoughts
Overall, Quicken Online has some features that are probably a little better than just looking at your account at your financial institution's web site. Being able to enter transactions and predict future expenses is a fundamental part of preventing overdraft. If Quicken Online supported split transactions and sub-categories, it would probably do about 90% of what I would want to be able to do with my desktop Quicken.

A final thought on security
As I mentioned at the top of the post, Quicken Online asks you to enter the login information you use to access your accounts at your financial institution. While Intuit is a corporation that has been around for a while, and they obviously have some security-minded people working for them, when I was handing over this information there was a little voice in the back of my head going "are you sure you want to hand this over?"

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mac Quicken 2010 will support migration of data from Windows Quicken

There's a new blog posting on the Quicken site about our favorite vaporware, the new version of Quicken for the Mac. The big news on this posting is that the new version of Quicken will support importing data from Quicken for Windows. This seems to be a much requested feature out there - there are a lot of PC-to-Mac switchers out there who are keeping an old PC around or running VMware so that they can keep running Quicken under Windows.

I think the bigger reason many people are still running Quicken under Windows is that Quicken for the Mac is a big ball of hurt. It remains to be seen whether the new Quicken for the Mac has the bugs worked out and key features of our Windows counterpart, or if the development team is still focusing on fully integrating cover flow into the Quicken interface.

Update 4/12/2010:
Stumble here from Google? Be sure to check out our ongoing blow-by-blow review of Quicken Essentials for Mac.

Update 4/25/2010:
I've taken a look at the Quicken File Exchange Utility, the separate application that's used to convert data files for use in Quicken Essentials for Mac. Read all about it!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Why not just use Quicken's budgeting, part 2

In my previous post I wrote about how envelope budgeting does a good job of preparing for large, periodic expenses, like property tax or car repairs. Today I'm going to argue that using Quicken can fool you into thinking that you're taking charge of your money, when you really are just tracking your money after it's already spent.

I first started using Quicken back when I was young, dumb, and single. I was making good money, I didn't have much in the way of expenses, and I frankly didn't balance my checkbook terribly often. Quicken was a huge leap forward for me. It was super easy to enter in transactions, it felt really good to assign categories to expenses, and that happy alert box you got congratulating you for balancing your checkbook was very validating. I geeked out for a while, creating an elaborate taxonomy of expense cateogories, and there was even a brief period where I was keeping track of my cash expenses down to the penny. (I had a lot of time on my hands).

Fast forward a few years, and things are more complicated - I'm married, I have kids, a mortgage, and some much more significant expenses. I still dutifully entered all of my transactions into Quicken, categorizing away, balancing monthly, but it was just arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We were falling into debt, and quickly.

How could this happen? Wasn't balancing my checkbook keeping us in control? Well, no. Sure, I could run a report and tell you how much we were overspending, and it what areas. In fact, I would do that from time to time. My wife loved it, as I'd run this sort of report, reality would come crashing down, and I'd be just a delight to be around for the next couple of days. "We can't go on like this! How could we spending all of this money?"

Using Quicken to enter and categorize transactions was giving me the illusion of control, but there was no control. Sure, I could do some forensic accounting, and I could tell you to the penny how far in the red we were, but on a day to day basis it was not helping us manage our expenses.

In order to have control of your money you need to know what you're doing with it before you spend it. At the time that you're spending some of your money, you need to know that it's not going to mess up the rest of your month. Envelope budgeting does this for you. Relying on Quicken's built-in reports is like getting in your car and driving for a while, and then using your GPS to figure out just how lost you are.

Monday, August 3, 2009

What Quicken Gets Right - Keyboard Shortcuts

Last week I mentioned that there are some things that Quicken does get right. Looking at the things that Quicken does right is helpful, in that it can be the basis for evaluating Quicken alternatives.

Keeping your finances in order isn't something that many of us enjoy doing. One of the things that makes Quicken successful is that there are some features built-in that make data entry quicker. QuickFill transactions, mentioned last week, are helpful in that they automate redundant data entry, like the grocery store or the gas station -- something you wouldn't necessarily make a scheduled transaction, but which come up frequently enough.

I'm a big fan of keyboard shortcuts, and Quicken has a few I use all of the time:

Check numbers. Use the plus key (actually, you can use the equals -- no need to use shift) to get the next check number in sequence. You can also use the minus key to go back one number in sequence. This gets a little out of whack if you've wound up entering any checks out of order, but is generally very useful. In fact, what it's sometimes most useful for is finding those times when you've written a check but forgotten to enter it -- the sequence number doesn't match, alerting you to a missed entry.

Dates. Hit the letter 't' to change the date to today's date. As with check numbers, you can use the plus (really, equals) and minus key to go up and down dates. If you're entering a date manually you can usually leave off the year. The only time this doesn't work well is if it's early January and you're entering a transaction from late December -- it'll assume December of the new year, not the one that just ended (boy, that'd be a nice little fix). There are other shortcuts for beginning or end of week, month, or year, but I don't use those nearly as often as jumping to today.

QuickFill. As I mentioned last week, if QuickFill has matched an entry that's close but not quite there, you can use the up and down arrow keys to cycle through other entries that match the letters you've typed in so far.

Categories. The up and down arrow key trick that works for QuickFill also works when entering categories. If you've got sub-categories, once you've got the main category matched, enter a colon to bring up the first subcategory. You can either start typing to match the sub-category or again use up and down arrows to cycle through.

Forgetting changes. If you're in the middle of entering a transaction and you realize it's all a big mistake, before hitting return to record the transaction, hit escape and all is forgotten.

Math. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Quicken's ability to do math when entering a dollar amount. For example, if you've got a few numbers to add up for an amount field, type in the first one, then hit plus -- a little adding-machine-like tape pops up and you can do math. When you've got the figure you need, hit return and it will be entered. This feature came out with Quicken quite a number of years ago, and I used it all the time when it first came out, but I must admit I don't use it very much anymore.

Those are my favorites -- any more out there?