Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft Money dominate the market for personal-finance software, but just because they're widely used doesn't mean everybody likes them. Many users seem unhappy with the big two's cost, forced-obsolescence policies and complexity.
There are alternatives -- more of them than you might guess. But most lack one or both of two vital features for a Quicken or Money refugee: the ability to import data from either of those two programs and download transactions from banks, credit card firms and other institutions.
Among the others, MechCAD Software's AceMoney ($30, www.mechcad.net), started off strong in a test but quickly faded. Although the Windows-only release installed smoothly, opening to a simple home page with a clean array of menus and icons, quirks big and small soon undermined the sense of reliability needed in a finance program.
For example, bringing in a set of Quicken accounts saved as .qif files took a painfully long time, with no indication for a while that anything was happening. Afterward, we found that spurious transactions were somehow created in these newly imported records, while some real ones were missing. A second attempt produced different, but still inaccurate, results.
AceMoney's ability to download your transactions (in the OFX, QFX and QIC formats) and spare you from typing in the details of each ATM visit is a bit crude. You can't download data right off a bank's site; instead, you download a file in your Web browser, then open it in AceMoney. This worked, but it was tedious.
The developers also offer a free version of AceMoney that will manage just one account.
Reilly Technologies' Moneydance 2005 ($30, www.moneydance.com) is a much more solid contender. This program manages to replicate much of Quicken's functionality -- but in some cases a bit more elegantly. Written entirely in Java, a cross-platform coding language, Moneydance will run on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. On a Windows PC with a moderately new processor it was strikingly fast.
Moneydance opens to a summary page that displays, among other items, bank, credit card, investment, asset and liability accounts, plus a calendar displaying scheduled deposits and payments. Click on an account to go to its register; select a transaction and it displays in a check format. Categories and splits (in which one chunk of change goes to two places or uses) work much as they do in Quicken or Money.
Importing data from either Quicken or Money into Moneydance is simple but can be a bit of an ordeal. You have to export your old data into QIF files, one account at a time, then bring each of these exported files into Moneydance. The process was lengthy but delivered an almost seamless copy of our old records -- we found only one error, a transfer that was duplicated.
Online banking is easier to set up in Moneydance -- it says it can download QIF, OFC and OFX files directly from the sites of about 240 financial institutions. The help offered could be more generous, but once set up, our test download worked seamlessly.
There's room for Moneydance to improve. You can quickly and easily produce clean, informative reports and graphs but can't customize either. Its budget manager looks particularly unwelcoming.
Moneydance's extensions -- small pieces of contributed code that add new functions -- may help fill some of those gaps. For example, one fetches current stock prices via Yahoo, and another alerts you of updates to the software.
We had high hopes for a different category of Quicken/Money alternatives -- a category of programs that discard the double-entry accounting model of Money and Quicken. These applications employ a more intuitive approach called "envelope" or "bag" accounting, in which you simply set spending limits for a category of expenses by allocating incoming or expected cash into a virtual envelope. Programs such as Budget (www.snowmintcs.com) seem competent at presenting this model, but we couldn't find any for Windows that would both import Quicken or Money data and support online banking.