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Quicken 2012: A Lot to Offer the Budget Weary

If you're really on top of your money, never run up balances on multiple credit cards, don't miss payments and never bounce checks, you probably don't need the new version of Quicken, the popular personal finance software program from Intuit. But if you, like me, could use a little help, Quicken 2012 has a lot to offer.

Several new versions of Quicken went on sale this week. Shortly before they did, I got a preview of Quicken Premier and found it powerful, replete with useful features and with a few exceptions, easy to use. If you are already using Quicken 2011, it's probably not worth upgrading. Intuit gave Quicken a lot of new capabilities last year, and while there are some useful new features in the 2012 edition, they're probably not worth the freight. But if you're running an older version of the software, or have never purchased it, give it a look.

I noticed that the new versions of Quicken were available on Amazon.com even before you could buy it directly from Intuit. And it was cheaper on Amazon, as well. The Premier edition was priced at $89.99 on Intuit's press release announcing the products, but cost $20 less if you download it from Amazon. If you really want to save money, it's already easy to find Quicken 2011 selling at a hefty discount. Generally speaking, it isn't cheaper to download the program than to buy a version on a CD, an option I prefer because it's much easier to reinstall if you change computers or suffer a hard drive crash.

The best thing about Quicken is its ability to get information automatically from multiple accounts - credit cards, bank accounts, brokerage statements, and so on - and use that information in various parts of the program. Quicken supports approximately 13,000 financial institutions, so there's a good chance that yours is one of them.

Adding accounts is pretty simple. Just find your institution in the menu, give the program the required information, including accounts numbers and passwords, and you're good to go. Once you've added your various financial institutions, you'll be able to see a unified few of your assets and transactions. Transactions are downloaded nearly as quickly as they are posted, so you won't have to wait for a monthly statement to see what you're spending or taking in. Mint.com used to offer similar aggregation features, but it's now owned by Intuit, which has integrated many of the site's strengths into Quicken.

Is it secure? Quicken uses 128-bit SSL security, a high standard, and the company claims its system has never been compromised.

Quicken has a number of other useful financial tools. One that resonated with me is a feature that shows you the most efficient way to pay down credit card debt. Give Quicken the information on how much you owe, and the interest rates you're paying on different cards and the program will give you a very clear graphical presentation showing you how long it will take to pay off the card if you just make a minimum monthly payment. (Hint: a very long time if you have a large balance.) But you can adjust your projected monthly payments by just sliding a graph line and seeing how much better you can do at different rates of repayment.

There's a feature that will remind you of upcoming bills, either because you've told it to, or because the software has noticed recurring expenses that you pay out. It will also take those recurring, or planned expenses, and plot it against your bank balance, so you can see how much money (if any) you'll have left at the end of the month.

As you pay bills, Quicken downloads them into a consolidated chart, or graph if you prefer, and categorizes them. So you can see how much you're spending on groceries, how much on dining out, insurance payments, car expenses and so on. Lots of categories are already built in, but it's easy to customize that list as well.

Because the program is well integrated, information you've already entered or downloaded is used by multiple modules within Quicken. For example, the information that allows you to see what you're spending your money on is also used to build a budget.

However, and this is my biggest disappointment with Quicken 2012, it does not allow you to pay bills directly unless you sign up for a $9.95 a month service. I would think that once a user has established an electronic link between a bank and Quicken, taking an extra step that allows bills to be paid via Quicken without the added service wouldn't be that difficult or expensive for Intuit.

Quicken 2012 is not a tax program; Intuit sells one and isn't about to pull the rug out from under its own feet. But it does integrate with Intuit's tax programs, so there is some added value come April 15.

Those two quibbles aside, I was impressed with Quicken 2012. Although we're using more and more free applications that live in the cloud, at times there are advantages to doing it the old fashioned way - with software that's loaded on your own PC.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net. Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline

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