During its 13-year history, Microsoft Money has perpetually lingered a step or two behind Intuit's popular Quicken, which owns nearly three-fourths of the personal finance software market. But this year, Money returns to the ring with Microsoft Money 2005, a personal finance app with a simplified interface and a new automated online banking setup to rival Quicken's famed ease of use and powerful array of money management tools. In our comparison, maintains its edge in specific areas, such as the debt-reduction and account-setup modules. When it comes to technical support, however, Money users have the advantage, with 3 years of free phone and e-mail help--perks that Quicken users must pay extra for. Microsoft Money 2005 is an essential upgrade for users, but those new to finance software will have an easier time with Quicken 2005. Microsoft Money 2005's much-improved setup procedure is one of the app's best enhancements. Previously, you had to manually enter financial information for each account (such as checking, savings, and credit cards)--a tedious chore. But in Money 2005, the Setup Assistant pilfers Quicken's approach and downloads account information automatically from your financial institution's Web site. It's a big improvement, particularly for anyone new to personal finance software, but Money still isn't on a par with Quicken in this category. We'd also like Money to provide better instructions on how to set up data transfers. Money 2005 more or less directs you to your bank's site and has you figure out data transfers on your own, whereas Quicken provides general guidelines on how to accomplish this task.
A simpler interface also graces Microsoft Money 2005. Taking the less-is-more approach, Money's new Essential view provides a clean alternative to Money 2004's busy, information-laden screens. Take the account register, for instance. The Essential view shows the basics--data, number, payee, and amount--and provides a big-picture overview of your spending habits. It has a neat, easy-to-read layout, unlike the optional Advanced view, which presents more information (including check numbers and transaction flags) and is therefore harder to read.
Money 2005's makeover continues throughout the program. The Essential Reports home page, for example, lists the eight most-popular reports (based on Microsoft's research), including Spending By Category, Spending By Payee, and so on. This simpler UI sure beats Money 2004's Reports page, which was overloaded with charts and options. If you want to drill deeper into the program, additional charts and graphs are available via the Advanced view.
Overall, Money has made great strides in the interface department and is quite comparable to Quicken. However, we still favor the latter for its simpler online banking setup and spending categorization tools. Like Quicken 2005, Microsoft Money 2005 focuses more on improving its existing features rather than adding new ones. For example, its improved Bill Pay feature is easier to set up and takes a more gradual approach to paying bills; when a bill is downloaded into Money, you input its payment date, and the app will automatically deduct the amount from a specified account. Microsoft offers the MSN Bill Pay service free for the first three months. Afterward, you must purchase a plan to use the service; Standard costs $2.95 per month for five bills, and Premium costs $5.95 per month for 15 bills. Also, check with your bank because there might be additional hidden fees. By comparison, Quicken offers an online bill-pay feature that is free for the first month, then $9.95 per month for 20 transactions ($2.50 per additional set of 5 transactions).
If you dig deeper into the program's functionalities, you'll find that Money 2005 is smarter and more flexible than its predecessor. When downloading account information, Money 2005 recognizes purchases from national vendors, such as restaurant chains, and automatically places them in specific spending categories. You can also create problem-spending categories--perhaps you dine out too often--and set a dollar limit for each.
Even with these enhancements, Quicken 2005 still keeps a slight edge in ease of use. For instance, while both Quicken and Money offer a debt-reduction planner, Quicken's guide does a better job of explaining each step in the process (for example, why you should pay off the most expensive loan first). Money offers this advice too, but it's scattered throughout the program. The program also faltered when trying to convert Quicken data in our tests. We imported Quicken 2004 files, and Money said the data was contained in several files, which wasn't the case, so it ultimately could not convert any of the information. Although Microsoft has an online knowledge base on Quicken import problems, we weren't able to find a solution for our issue.
Money 2005's major improvements span the entire product line, and the apps are typically about $10 less than Quicken's counterparts. The $19.95 (after $10 rebate) Standard version provides basic budgeting and bill-pay tools, while the $39.95 (after $20 rebate) Deluxe edition adds features for managing credit and taxes and offers a free credit report and a year of credit monitoring from Experian. The $49.95 (after $30 rebate) Premium package adds tools for managing capital gains and filing taxes online. And the $59.95 (after $30 rebate) Small Business copy delivers inventory, payroll, and business cash-flow tools. Microsoft Money 2005 users receive an outstanding array of support options, including three years of free phone (via a toll number) and e-mail support. Support hours are Monday through Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday through Sunday, 6 a.m., to 3 p.m., PT. Microsoft promises a 24-hour turnaround time for e-mail queries. By comparison, Quicken 2005 users must pay for phone support (although some installation and bug-related questions will be answered for free), and e-mail help isn't an option. Both Money and Quicken users can chat online with a tech-support representative.
A series of instructional videos within Money 2005 and on its corresponding Web site cover the basics--product features, account setup, online bill pay, and so on--and provide a glossy (if superficial) overview for beginners. Experienced users, however, will want to bypass the videos and access Microsoft's tech-support site, which provides comprehensive how-to articles and step-by-step instructions.