Buying a home budgeting software program won't fill your pockets, but it will paint you a cool picture, complete with colorful charts and graphs, of just where all that money is going.
Most people "want something that can keep track of cash flow," says Joel Bruckenstein, CFP, publisher of Virtual Office News, a technical publication for financial service professionals. "Not just your checkbook, but wherever you're spending money."
But like other computer applications, budgeting programs are "only as good as the amount of time and effort you put into them," says Yardena Arar, a senior editor for PC World magazine. "If you get one, be prepared to make an investment in time and effort."
When it comes to home budgets, two programs rule the market: Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft Money. Experts see very little difference between the two.
Both programs can set up a checkbook, track investments, let you look at your budget in a variety of ways and even help devise a plan for battling debt. Both products allow you to set up automatic bill pay, says Rafe Needleman, editor of business buying advice for CNET.com.
"Both are incredibly good products," says Needleman. "Very mature products, easy-to-use, great online features." When it comes to trying to differentiate between them, the two "are closer than they've ever been," says Needleman.
It may come down to a matter of personal preference.
They are both good solid programs with a lot of research and know-how behind them, says Arar. "No sooner does anyone add a feature that seems useful than the other one adds it," she says. "At this point, it's gilding the lily."
In addition, both makers offer more expensive versions with additional tools geared toward investors, as well as simplified versions for more mundane money management. With Quicken 2005 or Money 2005, "You can get going for as little as $20, if you're diligent about rebates," says Arar.
Testers give both software programs points for easy set up. But Quicken 2005 gets extra points for a pop-up window that guides users through setting up the program and downloading financial information, says Needleman. "Money is easy to use, but not as easy."
When you start Quicken 2005, you see your upcoming bills, says Arar. And it will also show you what your bank balance will look like if you pay those bills.
If you regularly use several branches of the same store, Quicken 2005 has a new feature you might like. Up to now, the software showed each of those separate stores as, well, separate stores. Now you can tell it to lump expenses from those same-name shops together automatically, which makes tracking what you spend a lot easier.
"The product is so mature" it will offer you a selection of spending categories, starting with the ones you've used for that store in the past, says Arar.
You can also manually enter one transaction into several categories, which can come in handy if you shop at superstores. "With the latest version of Quicken you can break [that bill] down into different categories so you can get a more accurate picture of what you're spending," says Jodi Oliver, a Quicken spokeswoman.
Also new in 2005: monthly bill view. "It's one place where you can track your bills, pay your bills and schedule your bills, all in one place," says Oliver.
In addition, "Quicken has been a strong product for investors," says Arar. "The calculator and analysis for investors is considered very, very strong."
One disadvantage: the program "dumps a whole bunch of extra icons on your desktop," says Needleman. They are "easy enough to get rid of, but annoying."
And phone-in tech support usually isn't free. Support calls are $1.95 per minute, but there is no charge for some common issues, including set-up problems or product defects, says Oliver.
The per-minute charge can really add up, says Needleman. "It can cost up to $50 for one phone call if you can stay on the whole time," he says. But the company does offer free online support.
Quicken 2005 home budgeting programs are available now for $30 to $80 before sales and rebates.
People who had Money 2004 probably want to pay to upgrade to the 2005 version because the program is that much better, says Needleman. "It's a pretty big improvement."
Money 2005 gives you an instant snapshot of where you are in your financial life with a pie chart that shows spending in various categories. Worried that one area, like holiday spending, might be getting out of control? You can program the software to spotlight problem areas so that you can see at-a-glance how you're doing and if you're getting into a danger zone.
The program is also easier to use, according to testers. One example: users can opt for a more streamlined, simplified version of their check book registry. "They want to make the software less intimidating to newcomers in particular," says Arar.
With some versions of the program, a portfolio manager will let you track what's going on with your investments or take a closer look at various aspects of your portfolio. Likewise, a capital gains optimizer will help you weigh your options.
All of the programs also interact with the MSN Money site. If you choose, you can keep financial data on the MSN server and access it from any computer. It's optional, but for people who travel and like to check in all over the world, it can be very convenient.
But if you want to use the online services, you have to update your subscriptions every two years.
One big plus for Money: three years of free phone tech support. Without rebates, various versions of Money 2005 range from $30 to $80. It will go on sale in September.
Which one is right for you?
So who comes out on top? It's close.
"We prefer Quicken by a nose," says Needleman, who uses Quicken 2002 for his own finances. When the publication did a review and comparison of both 2005 products, Quicken scored an eight out of 10. Money earned a 7.7. "It's tight," he says of the competition.
What gave Quicken the edge? "It's easier to use, that's the main thing," says Needleman. Both Quicken and Money "have great features to organize accounts, prepare for taxes and manage investing and online banking."
PC World's Arar gives both products four out of five stars. But she allows Quicken a slight lead -- in large part because Money users are locked into upgrading every two years if they want to continue to use online features. "I don't think everybody is ready to replace their personal finance tool every two years," she says.
However, Quicken also terminates access to Internet features for earlier versions. They have not announced when they'll end the access for more current versions.
Bottom line: find a way to try both and see which fits your style best.
And you need to ask some questions. Which software do your banks and financial institutions support? How much, if anything, will these institutions charge for allowing you to update your information through specific programs? Some methods are free, but sometimes there is a monthly charge for more convenient instantaneous updates. In addition, software makers may charge for electronic check writing, and charges can vary with the number of checks you write.
No matter what kind of budgeting software you chose, get your computer ready ahead of time if you want to work with your finances online or through the Internet. That means up-to-date anti-virus software, a good anti-spyware program and a firewall.
And once you start working with your finances electronically, back up those files often. "Every time you use one of these products, back up your data and put it somewhere else," says Needleman.
Most important, if you do invest the money in home budgeting software, take the time to learn how to use it. And take it slowly. "It can be overwhelming, they do so much," says Needleman. Start with one checkbook or account and add others as you learn how the program works, he advises.
"If you expect to start using one of these products and know all about it," Needleman says, "you will drive yourself crazy."