Each year, Intuit, the publisher of Quicken, comes out with a new version of its best-selling personal finance software. Some years the upgrade is fairly substantial, but this year the new features are pretty much window dressing with one important exception. Intuit is working hard to usher in the era of on-line financial services, including banking, investing and personal finance management.
Quicken, like Microsoft Money, Block Financial Software's Managing Your Money and other personal finance programs, allows you to track your checking accounts, savings, investments, credit cards, loans, cash and other assets and liabilities. It provides tax data that can be sent to a tax preparation program and to a printed report, making tax time less taxing.
Designed around a checkbook metaphor, the program lets you "write checks" and automatically posts changes to any linked account. Use your checking account, for example, to pay a credit card bill, and Quicken automatically takes money out of your checking account and adds it to your credit card account. All of this, of course, is on your computer's hard disk, and in the past, the program never really interfaced the banks and financial institutions themselves. But starting this year, Quicken can also call your bank or credit card company to move money between accounts and compare your data to what the institutions have in their computers.
It was no secret that Intuit would add on-line links to Quicken this year. That's one of the reasons that Microsoft wanted to acquire the company, but a threatened Justice Department antitrust suit scotched that deal. That didn't stop Intuit from moving forward, though. The 1996 version of Quicken for Windows and Macintosh is chock-full of on-line financial services.
Intuit has formed relationships with a variety of financial institutions, including American Express, Smith Barney and 19 banks, including Wells Fargo, Home Savings, Union Bank, Chase Manhattan Bank and First Interstate Bank. By purchasing Quicken and establishing an account at one or more of these institutions you can issue checks via modem, review balances, transfer funds between accounts and capture all of your records on-line so that they are automatically entered into the appropriate Quicken register.
Each institution sets its own account fees but, in some cases, on-line banking is cheaper than banking the old-fashioned way. That's a pleasant change from a few years ago, when the few banks that offered on-line banking services added a surcharge.
Many of the banks have yet to start their on-line banking services, but most plan to gear up within the next month or two. Wells Fargo, for example, has announced that in December it will start letting you access account information for checking, savings, credit card and many line-of-credit accounts, transfer money between accounts at no charge and automatically download transactions into Quicken to balance your checkbook.
Although it's much more extensive than ever before, this isn't the first version of Quicken with on-line components. Previous versions of Quicken included access to CheckFree, an independent bill paying service that, for a fee, lets you issue checks via modem. I've been using CheckFree for years and love it because I no longer have to write checks and lick stamps--and I get an automatic record of every check I write.
I've also been using the Quicken Gold Visa card for business-related expenses so I can automatically capture them into the software. The trouble with CheckFree is that it only issues payments--it doesn't provide you access to the bank's records. And Quicken's credit card is issued by only one bank. Now, thanks to Intuit's new on-line relationships, Quicken customers will have a wider choice of institutions and access to more information.
Quicken also comes with a copy of the popular Netscape World Wide Web browser program and, through an arrangement with the Concentric Network Internet service provider, Quicken users who have a modem can go to Intuit's World Wide Web site (http://www.intuit.com) at no charge. If you want to go to other Web sites, you can sign up for Internet service for $1.95 an hour with no sign-up fee and only an hour a month minimum. Users also have the option of paying $9.95 for seven hours a month plus $1.95 for each additional hour, or switching to another Internet provider.
In addition to the other on-line features, the new CD-ROM-based Deluxe version of Quicken now comes with Investor Insight, which provides information about more than 5,000 companies and mutual funds including charts, quotes and news from Dow Jones and other services. You create your own "watch list" to track just the companies and funds that interest you. The service costs $9.95 a month, and the first month is free.