Learning to live with Quicken

As someone with whom I once worked was fond of saying, "Once you've used it a while, you get used to it." I still think from a UI perspective that Money is the better program, but I am starting to appreciate Quicken a bit more.

For one thing, I went through my bills lists and changed the types for transfers from "Transfer" back to "Payment". Fundamentally, there doesn't seem to be any difference, since the thing that really defines it as a transfer is the fact that the Category is the other account (surrounded in brackets to help distinguish it as an account). The difference, though, is that you get the "Payee" textbox back. I went through and put the account name in the payee field, so now on my bill list, I see the accounts under the "Payee" heading. A part of me is not completely satisfied with this, as it means I have to be descriptive enough in my payee field to identify the transaction in a list, or that in some cases the payee may not match the account and only be confusing (way back when I had a Circuit City card, which I got for the finance deal for one purchase and never used again, the account was "Circuit City Card" but the bills were paid to whatever the holding bank was). But since most of my bills are paid online these days, I don't know that it's that big a deal anymore.

I mentioned before how Quicken's calculator needed to be brought up manually with a click, whereas Money's would pop up automatically on the first press of a math symbol. I'm not sure why this wasn't working for me before, but when I was entering splits paying bills tonight, it worked just fine when I hit the "+" key. Perhaps last time, it was in one of those fields that doesn't automatically insert decimal points either despite having that option turned on.

I also complained about the lack of shortcuts in the date field in Quicken. Well, it would seem that I didn't even try them. "t" does in fact enter today's date, "y" and "r" go to the start and end of the year, and "m" and "h" the start and end of the month. I also noticed that repeated presses of "y" or "m" go back a year/month, and repeatedly pressing "r" and "h" go forward a year/month. I don't recall Money doing that, but I never tried it there; now I'm tempted to fire up Money and see. Oh yes, and "-" and "=" go back and forward one day, too. I really have no excuse for missing that; I'm usually very much a "try it and see what happens" kind of guy. All I can figure was that I was in a complaining mood and started assuming the worst. Bad Yakko.

I had to balance my business checkbook tonight, and that was confusing. I had forgotten to mark my previous transactions as "Reconciled", so when I entered my statement amounts, I couldn't get the balances to match up. That, again, is somewhere Money excels and Quicken fumbles. If everything isn't exactly right before you start something, you're screwed. Money, see, would take the starting and ending values from your statement, decide the transactions on that statement need to describe just the difference, and then when you're done, alert you to the discrepancy between the bank's balance and your register's reconciled balance. Quicken is very confusing in this respect, because no matter how you mark things, nothing will match up. Or maybe that's something else I have to get "used to" -- but hopefully, I won't have to get used to that anyway once I get the first set of statements balanced.

Downloading transactions, however... Let's see. Quicken:

  1. click the button
  2. enter your "password vault" password (still wish I didn't have to do this)
  3. wait for a pause before the dialog box pops up with all my accounts and passwords (hidden -- see, I'd prefer only needing the vault password if I was changing those, instead of having to type it in so Quicken could retrieve the passwords from the vault itself)
  4. click OK and let it fly

I didn't time it, but I don't think it could've taken more than a couple minutes to be ready for me to start entering transactions and such.


  1. click the button
  2. more or less instantly, see the dialog box with all accounts and passwords (hidden -- note, no master password required)
  3. click OK and let it fly

Again, Money wins out on the UI. I've also ranted and raved about Money entering transactions in the register and Quicken using a separate (and small, un-resizable) list. However, the time required is where Quicken wins, and wins big. Money would spend the next half hour to an hour "updating transactions", and as I mentioned before, often sit there not "updating transactions" until I start to enter a transaction myself, at which time it starts "updating transactions" and refuses to let me save any changes until it finishes, five, ten, fifteen minutes later. For that, I'll enter a stinkin' master password in Quicken.


How much can I put up with to resist evil?

Today is my traditional bill paying day, and it's my first day using Quicken as my primary financial software program to do it. I got the opportunity to balance my checkbook against a bank statement. How did it go? Well, let's compare.

Money would ask for my beginning and ending balances, plus ask for service charges and interest. I'd usually enter this from my statement, but then I'd have to delete the duplicate entry as those transactions would have already been downloaded. Quicken doesn't even give the option to enter those amounts, which I suppose is a blessing in my case since I couldn't seem to get it through my head that I didn't need to enter these things in twice.

Money then shows my list of unreconciled items. Its default method is to sort by checks first (defined as anything where the "check number" is actually a number, not "ATM" or "Internet" or blank) sorted by number, then all other withdrawals sorted by date, then all deposits sorted by date. Coincidentally, this is exactly how my bank statement is printed. Also, the list is editable, in that you can enter transactions on the fly — very useful if something came through on my statement that I forgot to enter. Admittedly this is less of an issue since the transactions are downloaded long before I get to the statement. Also, since Money puts downloaded transactions in the register before you "Accept" them, you can balance against them and reconcile, even while leaving the transaction "unaccepted" pending review (i.e. trying to remember what that transaction was for, so I can put the right category on it).

Quicken lists the unreconciled items in two groups, deposits and withdrawals. Each list is sorted by date. The deposits are fine, but this makes the withdrawals very difficult, as checks are much more difficult to find (their dates are updated as they clear, which is quite often not in the same order they were written; also, with my wife and I writing checks from two different checkbooks, our check numbers are shuffled together instead of separated sequentially). There appears to be no option to sort differently. Also, because downloaded transactions are not in the register until you "accept" them, you must do that step first. And of course entering new transactions can't be done in-place. (I think I recall a "Finish Later" button, so I suppose it would be possible to exit and come back.)

I've already ranted about the bills and seeing a list of "Transfer" "Transfer" "Transfer" "Transfer", not much to add there — except perhaps to note that my previous rant about really small list boxes (or dropdown boxes) applies even more so to the transaction list when you try to manually match a downloaded transaction to your register. Seriously, can I please see more than four things at a time? I did see that, like Money, Quicken has an option to "automatically insert decimal point in money fields". However, this only applies to the check register or split window. Forms, such as the one used to enter a bill or the one used to start the reconciliation process, do not auto-enter a decimal point. This inconsistency has so far led to frequent errors resulting in very large dollar amounts that would almost be funny if I weren't actually trying to get something done. Also, Quicken includes a calculator button by most every money field, but you have to click it to activate it. Money has it too, with the added bonus that the instant you type in a math symbol (+ - * /), the calculator opens starting with the value you just entered and the action primed and ready for the next value. Quicken's date control has one extra bit of lameness that I'll have to get used to. It only shows the current month. If the month ends on a Monday, that's all of that week it'll show. In Money, you'll see in a lighter color the first few days of the next month to fill out the week. It's minor, but an annoyance since I pay my bills on a weekly schedule, so when I'm spanning a month boundary, I have to tab forward to use the date control. Money also has nice little shortcuts in its date control that I used often: "t" goes to "today", "m" goes to the start of the month, "h" the end of the month, "y" and "r" for year, "-" goes back a day, "=" (under the "+") goes forward a day. Pretty small and simple, but you don't realize how much you use it until it's gone.

Yeah, so far, I'm of the opinion that, compared to Money, Quicken sucks. Except that Money tries to lead you along with its flaxen cords while it binds you with chains. Knowing that, how could I ever go back to Money?


Getting there is half the fun

The conversion from Money to Quicken continues. Once the reports were finished (I don't know how long the account one ran, but the investing one was quick -- probably because it is a much smaller fraction of my database), I ran the conversion tool, which finished and launched Quicken with the converted data. Now, I know data conversion is an inexact science. I've written data conversion programs myself, and even when the source and target databases are designed in-house, not everything comes over as cleanly as you hope.

The first problem I noticed came up as I tried to set up my accounts' online access. When it converted the accounts, every account came across as a "Bank" account. "Credit Card" accounts, however, are a different type. While this doesn't seem like a big distinction, there was one very clear issue. When selecting financial institutions, Quicken filters the list based on the account type. It confused me at first, because an institution would show up, but the specific bank that manages credit cards wouldn't be there, and trying to continue with the bank listed wouldn't work (because I don't have a "bank" account with them, I have a "credit card" account with someone else).

The fix wasn't horrid, fortunately. I had to set up a "Credit Card" account for each credit card, and then I could select all transactions from the "Bank" accounts in turn and move them to the appropriate "Credit Card" account, and finally delete the old "Bank" account.

What made this process a little more annoying was the "Move" dialog box. The destination was a simple dropdown list that showed maybe four or five accounts at a time. The sort order was as it appears in the ever-present sidebar: Cash accounts first, then credit, then assets (I think -- I might have that order wrong), alphabeticaly sorted within each group (unless you move one, which I did accidentally on occasion). But there were no dividers or anything in the dropdown; it was just a list. And if you're not expecting that exact sort order -- because, for instance, the application is new to you and you don't instinctively know credit cards are at the bottom -- it makes it a royal pain to find anything. A point to Microsoft for better UI design here, where account list dropdowns are larger, have descriptive dividers, and in some cases end up being rich custom windows making it very easy to see where and what accounts you have.

Downloading transactions wasn't too painful, but again I did come across another UI blockade trying to have it save my passwords. When you elect to do so, you have to use the "password vault" wizard, where first you select your institution, then (if you have multiple "identities") select an identity (the username -- note this only appears if you have more than one), then enter the password. Why was this an issue? Because I don't often think of my accounts in terms of institutions; I think of them as accounts. I don't think "Citi Cards", I think "MasterCard". And, when I think of passwords, I think of them tied to a username. I don't connect "Citi Cards" to "p@sSw0rD", I think "My credentials for the MasterCard account are yakko_0123/p@sSw0rD". Quicken definitely loses points for forcing me to link institutions to passwords one at a time in their predefined order; another point for Money in that a full list of online credentials is displayed all at once, with a simple checkbox by each for remembering passwords right there, without needing a separate wizard. Although once remembered, I don't think I ever found where to change that information in Money, so Quicken gets a point for having a "go-to" place for password management, even if its interface sucks.

Downloading transactions is pretty straightforward. They have different ways of entering them into the register -- Money puts them in the register and has you accept them in-place, Quicken puts them in a list below the register. When you match a downloaded one to an existing one, both will remember the translation between the downloaded name (usually something messy like "WAL-MAR#919238 COLO") and the name you used ("Wal-Mart"). Quicken tells you it's doing it, though, but I wish it gave you the option to override that new "naming rule" on its popup. When I use the ATM to deposit birthday money from my mom, I'll enter "Mom" as the payee, but it'll get downloaded as "ATM DEPOSIT". That doesn't mean I want all my "ATM DEPOSIT"s to be from "Mom"...

As I was doing this, I noticed something that I knew was going to cause me pain. When Money downloads a transaction, it assigns the same Split information (if available) as it had from the last time that payee was used. Often, the amount will be different, but Money uses the old Split values anyway -- it then flags that transaction with a warning. In the conversion, those splits came across, but the warnings did not; so now I have a ton of transactions (because my wife, who spends the money and keeps promising to update the splits to what was really spent and never does) in Quicken that have invalid data. I'm going to have to compare Quicken and Money side-by-side, see which transactions Money has flagged, and delete the splits in Quicken by hand.

Loans do not convert. This, I knew ahead of time. Still doesn't mean it wasn't a pain to set that up again. I started with the mortgage, because that bill is due first, but at some point I'm going to want to rebuild those properly as well.

Most of my investment accounts, I just left as-is, because they've closed, so if the information isn't entirely accurate, it's not a big deal. My active ones, though, for some reason didn't convert right. I forget what kind of account they came over as, but it wasn't the right kind of investment or something that prevented online access. So, I set those up by hand. And that included having to enter the purchases of each lot of stocks (which, with dividend reinvestment plans over the course of a few years, was a lot of data entry). Pretty annoying; and the interface felt rather clunky. And after doing so, I of course was a little off by thousandths or ten-thousandths of shares. I'm sure this is not helped by the fact that E*Trade seems to round shares to thousandths in its file downloads -- in Money, whenever I got a statement update from E*Trade, I always had to log on to the site myself to get the exact share amounts before entering the transactions into my register; otherwise Money would complain that the brokerage statement and my Money register were off by 0.000128 shares.

I noticed, too, that categories were a little off. Quicken has its own predefined list, and in many cases, it took categories I used and converted them. It took Bills:Telephone and turned it into Utilities:Telephone, for instance. All things considered, it's not too bad. Half of my bills are under Bills and half are under Utilities now, but Quicken can move and merge categories just fine. One thing I did find amusing is it seemed to match my Insurance category to its Auto:Insurance subcategory. This led to categories such as Auto:Insurance:Automobile, Auto:Insurance:Health, Auto:Insurance:Dental, Auto:Insurance:Life...

The next thing I decided to do was to enter my scheduled bills and transfers, so I could pretend to get back on schedule. This wasn't too bad. The option to set a bill for the "First Sunday of the Month" was nice for scheduling Fast Offerings, which I used to have scheduled for the first of the month and always be "overdue". I did have a slight annoyance when doing the transfers, because the payee/category is listed at the top of the form, but transaction type is further down, and when you switch the type to "Transfer" is when "Transfer To" replaces "Payee". It should be strongly noted, however, that this replacement is probably one of the most idiotic UI blunders. When it hides "Payee", behind the scenes, it enters the word "Transfer" into the payee field. When I was done, I looked at the upcoming bill list. What did I see for the week? "Transfer", "Transfer", "Transfer", "Transfer", "Electric company", "Transfer", "Transfer", "Transfer", "Transfer", "Transfer". The only option I could find for customizing this view was to add "Account", which showed me the account that was paying out, namely my checking account. THIS DOES NOT HELP ME. In order to see what "Transfers" are due next, I have to double-click and open each one in turn.

When I went to actually pay my bills, I noticed something a little odd. Due to medical bills (and an uncooperative insurance company -- which reminds me, I still need to call and ask why they're refusing to pay for the emergency surgery performed by an in-network surgeon), cash flow has been really tight, so, in the back of my mind, I was wondering if I would need to pull money out of savings to pay this week's bills. So, after entering my bill payments, I checked my checking account balance, and it was higher than I remembered. A lot higher. Somewhere to the tune of $3000 higher. "Hey, good news! I just saved a bundle by switching financial software!" Um, no. That can't be right. I switched over to Money, and sure enough, my balance was just as low as I remembered. It seems that my next major task is to have Quicken and Money side-by-side and comparing each and every transaction over the past 10 years and see what's missing (or extra).

When I first switched from Quicken to Money, the two programs were virtually identical. Now, they are so different, I feel like I'm on a completely new operating system. (I can't quite put my finger on it, but Quicken "feels" like a Java app -- maybe it's just that all those Java-based financial apps I checked out were made to look like Quicken?) Although some of it could be chalked up to familiarity, I have found so many reasons why Money's UI is far superior to Quicken that I'm actually tempted to return Quicken for a full refund (I really wish they'd had a demo available for download).

Except I won't be going back to Money. Not when it pegs my CPU for minutes at a time doing apparently nothing, and certainly not when they demand a Passport ID to connect to my banks. That's right, it's worth the pain to go to Quicken for that.

Here's what I'd like to see from Money:

Better/faster database
Money started out on a Jet database, and I suspect it still is. Why not upgrade it to the SQL Express engine, the one they've been promoting for .Net developers? I don't know if that's the source of all the slowness, but it couldn't hurt to move into the current century. Perhaps Reporting Services could take over some of the report work?
Open database
Back in the 1900s, you could fire up Access and connect to your Money database and access your data at will. Now, there's what, one tool out there that lets you connect Excel to Money? I say let me at my data.
Lose the Passport
I do not want my data stored on your servers. Do not make that a requirement for useful and unrelated features.


Do you have all your install disks?

My computer has been degrading over time. The most recent manifestation was video playback. For some reason, videos were playing as if I was in 256-color mode. I'm not entirely sure what happened; I have upgraded the video card and monitor within the past year or so, and even upgraded the video drivers more recently, but this seemed to happen well after any tinkering I did there. I tried uninstalling and reinstalling video codecs (I use the K-Lite Mega Codec Pack; it's generally served me well), but nothing seemed to fix it. I decided it was probably time to wipe and reinstall.

So, I moved the desktop files and My Documents folders, plus any other data I found (forgot about my Audible books, but I can always re-download those), to the data partition, and reinstalled Windows. So far, I can sum up the progress as "fair". Audible Manager unfortunately is giving me problems downloading books (and I'm reluctant to upgrade to the newest version, for reasons I won't describe here) -- I think I can work around that, if nothing else than by installing the latest on a VPC (something I think I need to do more often).

I ran into a big problem today, though. Sundays are usually my days for paying the bills for the week. As I've mentioned before, I use Microsoft Money for my finances, but that is something I want to change. I did pick up a copy of Quicken already, so I figured this would be an ideal time to make the switch. Unfortunately, Intuit can't read Microsoft's data files directly, so the transfer involves running a couple reports out of Money and using a tool from Intuit to import them into Quicken. Seems simple enough. All I have to do is reinstall Money and run those reports.

And it was only then that I discovered I couldn't find my Money 2006 install disc. I started with a frantic search of the disaster area that is my office, but the closest I could find was Money 2005. I was pretty sure 2006 was the version I was last using, though. So I tried the internet. I searched for Money 2006 Download, and I found a link to download a trial version. Should be good enough, all I need to do is run the reports and be done. But when I started it up, it accessed my Money data file and immediately reported that my trial version of 2005 had expired. Wait, 2005? Was I wrong? Did it read that from the data file, and was it really 2005 that I had been using? They haven't changed the interface at all; the version year is easy enough to overlook.

So I installed Money 2005, but when I tried to open my data file, I got the ever-helpful error message "Money cannot locate filename or cannot open it, possibly because it is a read-only file, you do not have permission to change it, or your disk drive is write-protected. If you have chosen the correct file and it cannot be accessed, you will need to click OK and then Restore your most recent backup file." Searching Microsoft's site brought me through a few "Page cannot be found" links (why do their own search results result in dead links?), but I finally found a page that mentioned the error might be caused by Money not being fully updated before opening a file that had been previously opened by a fully-updated copy of Money 2005. Makes sense to me. Except following the steps to update Money and then opening the file didn't help. The other explanation seemed more likely: the data file was created in a later version of Money (namely, 2006), and 2005 can't open it.

After a few moments of panic, I started to weigh my options. Attempt to buy a copy of Money 2006? Should be cheap, but an unnecessary expense, not to mention a delay I should do without before paying my bills. Find an illegal copy on the web? A possibility, one I entertained only because I had actually purchased the program, I just couldn't find the stupid disc -- but a search that would be fraught with hassles: finding the right version, making sure I got everything, making sure the download didn't include a virus or two.... What about a trial of the current version of Money? I went to Microsoft's site, and sure enough, they have one available. Their FAQ even discusses running it side-by-side with an existing version of Money on an existing data file, which gave me hope that I wouldn't see it complain the same way the 2006 trial did when I pointed it at my data file. Downloaded, installed, ran -- success.

Now, it is in the process of generating the first report. It's been at it for nearly an hour, keeping my 1st-generation Pentium 4 (i.e. pre-hyperthreaded) pegged on my nearly-clean Windows XP installation. I guess I should expect the lack of speed by now. Maybe it's not really fair for me to judge it; it is, after all, generating an XML document based on my entire financial history for as long as I've tracked it, about 15 years or so. Still, it does seem like a long time to process a file that is only 30MB, especially when I've seen reports run in an Access database (which I strongly suspect Money still uses, with the ".ldb" file it creates when it runs) up to a gigabyte in size in much less time than it takes Money to do even the simplest tasks.

Maybe it just "knows" these are its last moments with me, and it wants to make the most of them. Well, good luck with that; I'm going to bed. Hopefully it'll be done with the first report by the time I wake up, and I can start the next one off before I leave for work.


We're not done yet?

Got another box today from the Microsoft repair center in McAllen, TX. Anyone want to guess what's in it? Yep, another Microsoft Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel. I don't know the serial number of my old wheel off-hand, nor do I think I would recognize it, so I don't know if this wheel is the same; but I suppose it is a repaired wheel in response to the one I sent in just last week.

For those of you keeping score, that makes four boxes I've received:

  1. Empty box, with instructions and packing tape but no return mailing label, not returned
  2. Box with wheel, probably retrofit
  3. Empty box with return label, returned to MS with my original wheel
  4. Box with wheel, likely retrofit, likely response to previous box

So to anyone who bet on the wheel getting repaired and returned, despite my having already received a (probably) repaired wheel, I guess you win. Give yourself a pat on the back.

Now, why couldn't they have done this when my 360 had to be repaired? :D

Anyone know where I can get an extra set of pedals? ;)