When it comes to fiscal responsibility, Bush and I have a lot in common. And we’re both just as likely to be shocked-and-awed when we realize how much money we’ve spent, as we are to employ strategic misdirection in order to make it all look like — Oh no look! WMD’s! Budget deficit? What?
I’ve tried out a number of “services” designed to help me get better control of my budget. All of them seem to suffer from a few basic flaws:
- I am lazy
- I do not like balancing my checkbook
- I do not like paying bills
Unfortunately, none of those seem to address that problem. And while a few made noteworthy attempts, they all suffered the same fate – no updates, and inaccurate data. I’ve written before about Microsoft Money, which came the closest to what I needed. It downloaded statements from my bank account, reconciled transactions, and kept track of bill due dates. But that was about it. Oh, it included tons of fancy-schmancy features for people who were already saving and have investments and multiple accounts . . . but I didn’t use them. It’s biggest problem was that it required me to come home, sit down, and manually enter in transactions in order to keep them it up to date. It was a hassle. If I got off by a few days, and missed things, it quit reconciling right. Some transactions were lost, some duplicated. It was a nightmare. For the 2 months I used it on free trial, I deleted and set back up my accounts 3 times, because they got all messed up.
After trying out Quicken, and then Quicken Online, I gave up, and went back to an old fashioned check registry written by hand. At the time, Quicken Online cost $5 a month, and didn’t have my bank in their list of institutions. I tried to use Mint.com to monitor my spending habits and create a budget…but while it worked easily, since I didn’t have to update it, that was also a huge drawback. Checks and debits that hadn’t cleared, but soon would, couldn’t be tracked there. And let’s face it, that is a huge area for problems with keeping track of spending. Recently, Quicken Online turned into a free service and launched a free iPhone app. This seemed too good to be true, so I decided to try it out, hoping against all hope that my small rural bank was on the list this time.
I had a trial account that I logged into . . . oh . . . twice a year ago. I added a credit card, which it also lets you track just like any other account, and requested them to add my bank twice before giving up. I was able to log in with the same name and password, and I saw my sad little credit card, still sitting there, quietly chastising me for not paying down the balance quicker. I went straight away and attempted to add my bank. The first negative I will say about this experience is that their search function SUCKS. Especially for those of us whose banks begin with ubiquitous phraseology like “First National Bank of . . .” or “First State Bank of . . .” And forget about typing in your town or state, to search by that. It only searches through the exact lettering. If you patronize the First State Bank of Montana, you can search for “First State,” or just “First,” but searching by “Montana” will get you nowhere fast. Add to that the fact that my bank opted for going by “FNB” instead of “First National Bank,” and you have a recipe for disaster. To be honest, I have no idea if my bank was on there on my first login. I searched a few different way, and then requested it to be added. 3 times. Just in case . . . ya know? Eventually, I decided to just scroll through to double check. I clicked on the letter “F” and then did a “Find” for my town’s name on the page in order to find it. A pain? Yes. But someone who didn’t get what was happening in the search field might have given up long ago. They need to add the ability to search for any match, or search geographically.
Once you’ve added your accounts, though, the magic starts. While most features are ones you would expect, like downloading bank transactions, and monitoring your budget (things Mint.com does just as well, if not better), Quicken Online allows you to add in your new transactions by hand, and it will automatically reconcile them with your cleared transactions when they come through. For me, this is a non-negotiable feature in financial software. The auto-reconcile is a nice bonus, though . . . and it happens daily. I’ve run into a few odd errors, with some things not reconciling properly. This is usually due to naming inconsistencies. If you type in your gas purchase as “Gas – $25” and the transaction clears as “AC – Exxon 1235-jh12” then you’re going to have to handle that manually. Also, a donation to St. Jude’s reconciled as a monthly insurance payment, and automatically added itself to my monthly bills. Which was a minor irritation. That being said, there are plenty of other cool features.
When you log in, via website or iPhone app, you’re greeted with a simple and informative homepage. Which may be something you’re not quite prepared for, if you’re a bury-your-head-in-the-sand person like me, when it comes to budgeting. You get a quick list of balances on the left, with a giant box in the middle, stating your predicted balance, once everything has cleared, and all bills due before your next paycheck are paid. Below that you get indicators of your risk of Overdraft and risk of Low Balance. Mine were a disturbing, bright-red, capital lettered “HIGH.”
Transactions and Accounts
The next two tabs are for managing your accounts, and viewing your transactions. The accounts tab is pretty self-explanatory. You can see each account you have linked with Quicken, and what its current balance is. In the transactions tab, you can see, for each account, up to your last 90 days of transactions, with pending / uncleared transactions that you enter yourself, along with entries for your next regular paycheck and next regular bills. It’s useful in that you have an at-a-glance look at not only everything that is going on in your account, but everything that will be going on, forseeably, in the next month. You can categorize each transaction for reporting and spending trend tracking, and put notes for each transaction. Just like a regular check registry! Only way more Web 2.0-ey.
These transactions are updated automatically daily, and can be updated at any time by clicking “Refresh.” For some reason, this is a necessary morning ritual for me, because it seems my bank doesn’t update the previous day’s cleared transaction until after Quicken does it’s nightly check. It’s way too obnoxious to not have the simple feature of specifying a time for the auto-refresh. No excuse for that omission.
While the ability to set budgetary goals, or limits, is nothing new, I’m pretty fond of how well it integrates with the rest of the package. Mint.com has this feature, and arguably does a better job of tracking your spending, allowing both categories and tags. With Quicken, you’re limited to 1 category per transaction. You can’t split payments between categories, like on desktop Quicken either. It’s simple, and slightly limiting in that regard, but simple means quick and easy for me. Having the ability to track multiple tags and categories is great. But that’s where my eyes usually started swimming with desktop Money and Quicken. I want to get everything categorized correctly, especially come tax time, but the truth is if it takes too much time to categorize and tag, I just won’t do it. And many of you are no doubt the same. One category for the transaction = quick and easy. These categories are used in monitoring your budget. You can set an overall spending budget, and household or grocery budget, entertainment, etc. Nothing there to blow your socks off, until you start approaching your limit – when you get a text message telling you to slow down on your spending. Some may find that to be too intimidating . . . I love it. I don’t have to worry too much about monitoring how much I spent on eating out, because I know I’ll get a text message when I’m approaching the limit.
The down-sides to relying on this feature are obvious. Some of purchases in the budget don’t lend themselves to this type of monitoring. For instance, grocery shopping. We typically have one large grocery shopping trip per week. Sometimes we do a really big trip that lasts two weeks, with an extra trip to the store for bread and milk in the mean time. It’s nice to track that budget on Quicken, but it’s conceivable that you could go from way underbudget, and far away from a warning text, to over budget in one shopping trip. There’s no way around that that I can see. But it’s something to mindful of.
Quicken Online tied up its spot in as my #1 financial tool with its mobile features. It has a free iPhone app that replicates nearly every function of the full web page. You get the same predicted balance with Overdraft and Low-balance indicators. You can get up-to-the-minutes goal / budget tracking. You can see all your transactions, and easily add in a new transaction while you’re swiping your debit card at the check out, to keep everything up-to-date. Those text message warnings about going over budget…they can be configured to notify you about all kinds of things, like low-balances on your accounts, or when your credit card is approaching its limit. The iPhone app also has a virtual “Wallet” that allows you to track your cash transactions as well, so that you can get a truer picture of where allof your money goes. If you’re one of those sad archaic types that still carry cash. Quicken gets all “cloudy” by instantly syncing your transactions as you add them on your iPhone back to the website, and vice versa. This is way more than just getting your account balance, and keeping up with transactions. You can get real-time updates on how much money is left in your budget for anything you want to track, and have all the information you need at your fingertips to make a financiall responsible decision anywhere you’re at, before you spend the money. That’s been invaluable for me. Since I so rarely made financially responsible decisions.
Quicken Online is a great and solid financial planning tool for simple check-book balancing and personal budgetary needs. If you need features for business expense tracking, split transactions, multiple categories, or complex tax informations. It’s probably not the best tool for you. If you’re a savvy investor who wants to keep track of a portfolio: ditto. But if you’re looking for a great tool for integrating “check registry” features with bank account monitoring, budgeting, and expense tracking, with auto-reconciliation, then I think you’ll be hardpressed to find a better tool, especially if you’re an iPhone user, with the iPhone App.