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Finding a Replacement for Quicken

Unlike the death of the classic Mac OS, which came with a full-blown funeral service officiated by Steve Jobs himself, the passing of Rosetta, Apple’s software that allowed PowerPC applications to run on Intel-based Macs, took place without any public acknowledgement from Apple at all.

The first that many people learned of Rosetta’s demise was when they installed Mac OS X Lion and, upon attempting to launch a PowerPC application, saw a rather distressing dialog like this one:

Though many PowerPC applications have newer Intel-based versions that will live happily in Lion-land, one popular application, Quicken 2007, does not. Sure, Intuit offers a version with a reduced feature set, but Quicken Essentials isn’t a direct replacement for Quicken 2007. Instead, it’s just another alternative financial package, one that may or may not be a suitable replacement for Quicken 2007, depending on your needs.
Intuit itself makes this very clear.

So what is a long-time Quicken user, with years of accumulated financial records stored in Quicken, to do?

Two Preliminary Pieces of Advice — My first piece of advice is obvious: Don’t panic. There are a lot of personal finance packages to which Quicken users can turn. For nearly all Quicken refugees, one or more of them is probably right for you.

That said, my second piece of advice is the crucial one: Don’t upgrade to Lion until you have exported your Quicken data, imported it into a replacement, and tested it. That’s because the export feature in Quicken 2007, unsurprisingly, requires Rosetta to run. Although some Quicken alternatives may be able to read Quicken data directly, many more require that information in Quicken Interchange Format (.qif) files. You don’t want to lose your ability to run Quicken until your financial data has found a new home, moved in, unpacked, and had a little time to get comfortable. Lion can wait.

Some Candidates — Ah, but which new home? That’s not an easy question to answer. Among the many candidates that might replace Quicken for you are the following, listed in order of decreasing cost:

These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only possible Quicken replacements around, merely the ones I’ve taken a quick look at or that readers have suggested.

Also note that you can keep your Rosetta-requiring Quicken 2007 if you are willing to partition your hard drive so you can reboot and run Snow Leopard when necessary; you could also transition to Quicken for Windows if you are willing to run Windows in Boot Camp or a Parallels- or VMware-based virtual machine. These seem like stopgap options to me, but if you want to learn more, Joe Kissell discusses them in “Take Control of Upgrading to Lion.”

But, in any case, I’m not going to recommend any one of these replacement options in this article. Instead, I have a bunch of questions for you to answer. Your answers to these questions will put you in a much better position to examine the available alternatives and find the one that’s right for you.

Quicken 2007, its predecessors, and its Windows-based edition, all offer a variety of features and capabilities. It’s a rare Quicken user who needs all of them. What you need to figure out is how you use Quicken, which of its features are essential to you, and which you can live without.

Where You Come In — But wait! We need your help! First, if you know of viable Quicken replacements not in the list above, please share that information in the comments, so we can add them. Second, after you’ve read the rest of this article and thought about the questions suggested, let us know in the comments if you have any additional questions for people to consider.

Here’s why. We’re planning something new with this article. Once we’ve compiled a full list of products and questions, we’ll be contacting the developers of each of the products and asking them to explain how their products will meet your needs. We’ll then make an edited version of each developer’s response public for everyone to read.

On to the questions!

Do you use Quicken primarily as a smart checkbook register?

If so, most available packages, including Quicken Essentials, may fill the bill. Questions related to this category include the following:

  • Do you reconcile your checkbook with your bank statement each month? No, don’t laugh: lots of people don’t. In fact, I don’t (a brief pause while my mother, a retired bookkeeper, stops sobbing in shame); as long as my bank thinks I have more money than I think I have, I’m not worried about any small discrepancies. But if you are wiser than I, and your bank enables you to download monthly statements and import them so you can reconcile your records, you need to find a package that allows such imports and that provides the capability to reconcile your information with the bank’s.

  • Do you tag or categorize various expenditures and deposits? Many people don’t, but I do. It makes my life much easier come tax time if I can find my deductible business expenses quickly and hand them to my accountant. If this matters to you, you need to find a package that can import Quicken’s categories and that can present you with a report of your transactions sorted or filtered by those categories.

  • Do you use Quicken to print checks? If so, and if you can’t live without this feature, you need to find a package that supports check printing.

  • Do you use Quicken to pay your bills online? If so, you may need a package that provides this capability. But you may not if your bank (like mine) offers such a service online and you don’t mind flipping between your finance software and a Web browser when you’re paying bills. A tip here: if your bank supports OFX (Open Financial Exchange) protocols for online bill paying, look for a package that also supports those protocols.

  • Do you use Quicken’s reminders? I use them, but I don’t rely on them; I know when my rent is due without Quicken’s help, and my estimated tax payment dates are already in iCal, so Quicken’s reminders are a convenience only. But if you can’t live without them, you have to find a package that has a similar feature.

  • Do looks matter? Surprisingly, they do for some users. If the financial software package is hard on the eyes – the type is too small, the layout is confusing, the color scheme is obnoxious — that might be enough, all else being equal, to disqualify a contender from being your Quicken replacement.

Do you use Quicken to track investments, loans, budgets, and net worth?

Now we’re getting into some serious financial stuff, stuff that’s beyond my personal experience. Fortunately, my younger brother has a complex financial portfolio, and he has clued me in on some of the questions to ask related to this overarching question.

  • Do you need to track the details of your investments? For example, Quicken Essentials can track the values of specific holdings and their overall value, but it won’t track individual purchases or sales and calculate things like capital gains nor manage stock splits. If this sort of thing is essential to you, then you need to look elsewhere.

  • Do you have one or more outstanding loans that you need to track? Loans come in all shapes and sizes: credit cards, mortgages, personal loans, business loans. If you need to track outstanding loan balances, and principal owed versus interest, and if you want to coordinate your loan information with your checkbook ledger, you need to look for a package that offers such amenities.

  • Do you use Quicken to set up and stick to a budget? Some packages can show you where your money has gone; with others you can set up one or more budgets and track your expenditures and income against them. Ask yourself just how much a budget feature matters to you, and how fine-grained the reports have to be.

  • Do you need to know readily what your current net worth is? Some packages provide enough information for you to figure this out, others do not, and some actually do it all for you. If knowing your net worth at any given time is of critical importance to you, find a package that provides it.

Who else needs access to your financial information?

It turns out that there are several audiences who may have to be considered when you adopt any financial software: yourself (obviously), a spouse or significant other, possibly an accountant, almost certainly the Internal Revenue Service in the United States (residents of other countries have similar governmental organizations who may have a burning need to examine your finances from time to time).

  • Do you do your own taxes with the aid of tax-preparation software? If so, you need to make sure that your chosen Quicken replacement and that software can play nicely with one another. At the very least, you need to make sure your replacement for Quicken can export the necessary data in a form that the tax software can handle.

  • Do you and your life companion maintain separate accounts, but need to use the same software (possibly because you file joint tax returns)? If so, look for a package that can handle multiple accounts without mingling the information. Surprisingly, some don’t. Also consider whether you can maintain separate account information that your companion can’t easily access: although many couples don’t like to keep secrets from one another, you may not want your spouse to discover the purchase details of the holiday or birthday gift you bought.

  • Do you have an accountant with whom you exchange financial information electronically? If so, find out what your accountant needs to be able to get from you and give to you, and look for a package that can handle such exchanges. Possibly you can get away with being able to export and import Excel files or even tab-delimited or CSV (comma separated value) text files. (I give my accountant paper. Paper is always good, but, of course, you will probably get charged more if your accountant has to engage in manual data entry tasks that an electronic transfer of information could have avoided.)

  • Is the IRS watching you? I have a cousin who recently published several well-received novels and who just got audited by the IRS. She told me that the IRS agents were astonished and a little appalled to discover that she kept all of her records manually on paper. They told her that electronic financial records were, if not essential, strongly encouraged in the case of audits. While there may be no official government mandate that requires taxpayers to keep electronic records, when you choose a Quicken replacement you may want to consider choosing something that won’t make the government angry at you. A package that can export your information in a standard format, such as previously mentioned QIF files, or Excel spreadsheets, can
    help you get through the trouble of an audit more easily.

How to Choose — Okay, you’ve answered all my questions (and, I hope, others that have occurred to you). Now what?

First, prioritize the features you need based upon your answers. Some features may be essential, some may be nice to have, some are almost certainly irrelevant.

Next, you may want to wait until we’ve published the developer responses to our questions to start looking for a replacement. If you’d rather get going right away, or if you’ve read the developer responses and need to move on to personal testing, start with the list of products I provided above. Explore the Web sites for each of the candidates you have in mind, just to see if they offer the features that you need. Focus especially on the ones that offer a free trial version: With the exception of Quicken Essentials, all of the ones in my list do.

After that, download one or two candidates that offer free trials and try to import your exported Quicken data into them. If that works out, try them out for a couple of weeks, putting them through their paces, while still maintaining your “real” information in Quicken.

Once you have found your replacement, do a final export of your Quicken data, purchase the replacement, and bring your data into it.

With only a small amount of luck, you should be able to cut your ties to Quicken and finally move on to Lion.

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