USE THE RIGHT software, and your computer can do some banking tricks that most automated teller machines cannot. The latest versions of two popular personal finance packages have arrived: Quicken version 5 from Intuit Inc. and Microsoft Money for Windows 95 from the obvious suspect. When connected to a modem and a participating bank, the programs can capture banking and credit card statements, transfer funds between accounts, tell you which checks have cleared and pay bills automatically or on request.
On-line banking has been available for years, but few consumers have bothered to try it. Some new wrinkles are beginning to make the idea seem more attractive. For one thing, although some banks are charging as much as $15 a month for these services, others, such as Citibank and Chase, have seen fit to offer the services to many account holders at no cost.
For another, the information that can be downloaded for credit and debit cards includes the name (and sometimes the business category) of the payee. What that means is that suddenly programs such as Quicken and Money can help you organize your shoe box of credit slips without making you type all the information in. The programs can even categorize some transactions, thanks to Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes.
That, at least, is the theory. In practice, as always in the high-tech world, there may be a few wee catches. Many banks that have announced their willingness to offer on-line services are not ready to provide them just yet. Getting the services requires calling a bank's 800 number, and at two different banks that are ready to go, the people who answered the phone had difficulty answering some fairly basic questions.
If all your accounts are with one bank, can you download most of the information on them? Probably. But can Joe, Jill and their joint account all live happily ever on line, making certain that Jill can pay bills from the joint account but not from Joe's? The answer, depending on whom you ask, is yes, maybe or someday soon. The correct answer appears to be no.
Other answers are clearly negative, at least for now. If you spread your deposits and credit cards over multiple banking institutions, only convoluted and self-defeating measures will let the software accept information from more than one. (Quicken can give access to its own credit card provider and to American Express, plus an additional financial institution.) For the moment, many banks remain on the sidelines. The day of on-line banking is still just dawning. And ATM is not dead yet; despite the advent of high-quality color printers, the new programs refuse to print cash.
Even though the on-line features are not yet financial Nirvana, the new versions of Quicken and Money have had face lifts. Money now requires Windows 95 to run at all; Quicken continues to work fine with Windows 3.1 as well and offers a Macintosh version.
Money initially seems a decent alternative to the most basic features of Quicken, but like many programs designed for ease of use, it runs out of tricks rather quickly without making any real breakthroughs in simplicity. Even the basic version of Quicken includes easy tax-planning calculators; Money does not. You may never use Quicken's ability to distinguish between short-term and long-term investment gains, but with Money you will never have the option. For small businesses, there is simply no contest; Quicken's lists of business categories are not available in Money.
Quicken's Windows versions also include a copy of Netscape that provides free on-line access to its World Wide Web site or, for about $2 an hour, to the entire Internet. Microsoft Money can get you to the Microsoft Network, but only if you are willing to pay for it.
The floppy-disk Deluxe edition of Quicken adds more useful features unknown to Money. A clever home inventory program lets you list the items in your abode mostly by pointing and clicking. A mutual fund finder uses data from Morningstar Inc. to let you search and rank the funds according to criteria you select; updates will be available on floppy disks for about $14 a quarter or $40 a year. The Investor Insight on-line service offers stock quotations, historical data and company news for about $10 a month for 10 securities, $20 a month for 50.
The CD-ROM Deluxe edition adds still more, including animation, sound and video that are only marginally useful. The financial journalists Marshall Loeb and Jane Bryant Quinn appear in videos to offer answers to some simple questions. A more useful tool is an on-screen book called Finance 101, which does a decent job of explaining financial basics.