Mind Your Money

Mind Your Money

Most people don’t start a cross-country trip without a map, but they’ll do just that with their finances. It’s much easier to steer toward a positive financial destiny if you grab control of your finances, watch where you’re going, and follow a well-informed, personalized plan. Personal financial software like Intuit’s Quicken Premier 2004 ($79.95) and Microsoft Money 2004 Premium ($59.95)can help turn even a bumpy beginning into a successful adventure. But, if we had to, we’d put our money on Money.

We tested the Premier and Premium packages in both brands this year: Both help optimize investments and maximize tax savings year round—right in the place that will become the center of your personal financial world—for just $20 more than the Deluxe editions. If you’re not at the investment or tax strategy stage of your personal wealth initiative, consider sticking with either company’s Deluxe package or Money’s Standard. All three will download bank account data, help balance accounts, budget, track spending, and perform other basic tasks. But aside from both Premier and Premium packages adding investment and tax optimization features, Microsoft’s Premium package also buys you what the company touts as $365 worth of financial services.

The true worth of those services depends on whether you use them. Money Premium users who meet with an American Express financial adviser for a free, in-person consultation get a $100 U.S. savings bond that should mature in about 17 years, a free credit report from Experian, and two years of free MSN online bill pay service (up to 15 transactions per month), instead of the one year that Money Deluxe users get. Quicken offers one month of free Quicken Bill Pay in its Premier box. Money Premium users also get a year of the online GainsKeeper trade decision tool, but both Quicken and Money have built-in calculators for capital gains.

Both products cover the same basic financial territory, but Money adds features such as home inventory of your belongings, and MSN lets you create a My Car page to manage car maintenance, get local gas prices, see live traffic reports, and receive recall alerts. Quicken matches Microsoft in the qualifying rounds by automating setup of financial accounts, but when the checkered flag drops, Money speeds off the line with audio guidance and videos on topics such as budgeting and lifelong planning. Both Quicken and Money pull in content from online sources: Quicken had current articles from The Wall Street Journal Online, Barron’s Online, and CBS MarketWatch. Money integrated some Reuters headlines into its top page, but has a separate icon with a browser dedicated to MSN Money and CNBC. The latter features “Decision Center” resources that everyone can use—for whatever stage of life they are in—such as “10 warning signs that your 401(k) is in trouble” and “make-a-will quiz.”

We found Money more organized, easier to navigate, and much more customizable than Quicken. Money even has an option to turn off sponsorship and shopping links. At one point, we decided to have