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billQ: Good, simple bill tracking, plus extras

billQ's perky online bill management service won't drown you in options, blast you with offers, or dig into your bank account. The basic, sturdy information manager could be just right for you.

Into a sea of online personal financial services wades billQ, a bill management service that promises to store your one-time and scheduled bills and alert you before they're due.

Unlike competitors like Mint, Wesabe, and others, there's no bill pay engine, no money-saving deals, and no hot financial tips. For now, billQ is strictly positioned as information management, and for a lot of folks that's the right load.

Add and manage bills
The site is visually appealing in Google-esque minimalism. Adding and viewing bills is intuitive on billQ's clean, user-friendly interface. Tweaking account options and adding from a noble menu of additional tools are also easily done.

Bill notices come in multiple flavors--you can create a one-time bill, schedule recurring bills like rent, and mark bills habitually split between a group, perhaps groceries. Users add a bill at a button-press, naming the debit, specifying the amount, due date, frequency, and start and end date in clearly designated fields. You can also add notes and assign the bill to a group, and swap currencies in the Settings tab.

Tabs for bills, schedules, groups, and reports display at a glance how many bills are in each category; the bills tab also summarizes number of upcoming bills, overdue, and paid bills. Clicking once in right hand corner notes when a bill is paid and removes it from the list.

Add new bill in billQ

All these features are basic, but good. billQ becomes more interesting with additional tools. A Mac dashboard widget affirms the company's OS allegiance, though all users are free to drag n' drop the browser bookmarklet that adds bills without launching the site. Users can additionally subscribe to bill alerts via iCalendar and RSS; billQ provides the feed's URL.

As a nice housekeeping feature, e-mail and SMS reminders you set alert you before due dates. This ties the service together. You choose the day and hour you want reminders sent, and if you want reminders grouped or sent separately, one for each bill. Striving to be internationally relevant, billQ supports decent worldwide carrier coverage for SMS nudges.

Free vs. premium
It's not unusual to see premium and basic versions of webware, particularly where financial services are concerned. billQ offers a free account (registration-required) that limits your data cache and export options, and is supported by text and banner ads. The ads were unobtrusive during my tests, but billQ informs me that this is a developing feature that will likely spread to larger banner ads and sponsored alert messages.

The plus version, on the other hand, does away with ads, taking $5 per month or $50 per year instead. For the price, you also receive 30 scheduled bills instead of the free account's 10, 20 groups instead of 5, and a wide range of data export formats, including XML, XSL, and QIF. I'm skeptical that many users have 20 shared bills to log; it's much more likely to exceed the cap of 30 recurring payments.

billQ payment plans

billQ Plus also throws in full 256-bit SSL security, which isn't offered for free accounts (all logins are secured.) I'm not convinced that my unsecured name, e-mail and IOUs would incite an upgrade, though it certainly could add peace-of-mind for current billQ Plus users and may be necessary if billQ introduces electronic bill pay in a future release.

I'm told by a billQ representative that the company has a broader growth vision of which billQ's bill tracking is one ingredient. A simple app to help users budget their income in a minimal steps is another, and an app for setting savings goals would complete the personal finance triumvirate.

I see billQ's utility in earmarking long-term bills and tracking numerous bills. The service would especially benefit those who have trouble visualizing their expenditure on a database, and on-the-go professionals unaffiliated with automated bill pay, who would find the e-mail and SMS reminders useful. billQ also represents a sort of middle ground for users too squeamish to associate their bank account with a more all-in-one solution like Mint.