New Quicken for Windows speeds budget-balancing


December 21, 1992|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

On the First Day, the Personal Computer was born.

On the Second Day, someone wrote a checkbook-balancing program for it.

Software publishers have been at it ever since, in a never-ending battle to get disorganized slobs like me to entrust their finances to a computer instead of tossing their check stubs and receipts into a shoe box and waiting till April 14 to sort them out.

For years, the most popular of these programs has been Intuit's Quicken, which skyrocketed to the top of the charts because its authors had the good sense to write software that was easy to use and answered the basic questions: Where did the money come from? Where did it go? How much do I have left? And what can I deduct from my taxes?

The latest incarnation, Quicken Version 2 for Microsoft Windows, shows that Intuit hasn't lost its touch. The program is smooth, elegant and powerful.

Unlike the first Windows version of Quicken, the new release takes full advantage of Windows' graphical interface but retains the DOS version's speed and ease of use. Most importantly, Quicken's core features are still simple enough for beginners to pick up in about 20 minutes.

Designed for home and small business users, Quicken will track your checking, savings and credit card accounts. It will provide summary and detailed reports and charts of income and expenses by date, category, income source or payee. You can use it to print checks with your computer's printer or enter information about checks you've written by hand. You can even use it to pay bills via modem through the CheckFree electronic transfer service.

And yes, it will balance your checkbook -- if you remembered to enter all your transactions. No one has yet invented software that will remember the check to the dry cleaner you forgot about.

On a more advanced level, Quicken will allow you to set up a budget and compare your actual income and expenses to your plan. It also provides a variety of basic loan calculators. For small business users, Quicken also provides a direct link to Intuit's new QuickInvoice program.

The program will track investments in stocks and bonds and import current quotes downloaded from the Prodigy information service. However, serious investors looking for stock market analysis and financial planning tools will do better buying more specialized software.

Quicken's strength lies in its rejection of standard double-entry accounting jargon in favor of the kind of organization most of us understand. At the outset, you set up a series of accounts, including checking, savings, credit card and investment accounts.

Then you set up categories for your expenditures (mortgage, food, clothing) and income (salary, interest, dividends).

The heart of Quicken is its checkbook register, which looks just like the register in your real checkbook. You enter the date, payee, amount and category of each expenditure or deposit.

Quicken memorizes each transaction, so you only have to enter information about each payee once. In subsequent transactions, all you have to do is type the first few characters of the name and Quicken will figure out who you're looking for.

The latest Windows version (which can use files from DOS versions) has a helpful new feature called the Q-Card, a little help box which pops up each time you access a different feature. Instant, detailed context-sensitive help is available, and by clicking on a Q-Card, Quicken will tell you which page in the written manual contains the information you're looking for.

When you ask for a report, Quicken for Windows automatically displays it on the screen. A new Quick Zoom feature lets you dig into details instantly. For example, if you've summarized your expenditures by category and see $1,500 for phone bills, you can click a zoom cursor on the "phone bills" category and instantly see a detailed report of each expenditure.

If you display a bar or pie graph of your expenditures, you can click on the phone bills section of the graph and see a month-by-month graph of your payments. It's effortless, informative and a nifty piece of programming.

The company has obviously listened to its users, particularly users of Quicken for DOS, because the new version will bypass the Windows convention of moving from field to field in a data entry form with the Tab key and substitute the Enter key, to which DOS users are accustomed. A small touch, but it makes the program much easier to use.

Intuit has also come up with a solution to a problem faced by most people who make extensive use of credit cards.

It's a pain in the neck to sit down with a credit card statement every month and enter each transaction by hand, but you have to do it if you really want to keep track of your expenses.

Through Primerica Bank, Intuit offers a Quicken Visa card (with no annual fee and a reasonable 14.75% interest rate), which comes with something called IntelliCharge software. For $3 a month, you can download your Quicken Visa statement with a modem and automatically import the data into the program. If you don't have a modem, you can get your statement on a disk for $4.50 a month.

While $36 a year may seem a bit expensive, anyone who has spent hours poring over hundreds of indecipherable transactions on credit card statements will probably consider it a bargain.

I switched to the DOS version of Quicken 18 months ago after years of keeping records with data-base software, spreadsheets and programs I'd written myself. Intuit's first Windows offering didn't offer enough to make me give up the DOS version's speed and ease of use, but the second time around, they've done it right. Quicken for Windows is a good buy.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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