THIS YEAR'S RACE between Intuit Inc.'s Quicken and Microsoft's Money is pretty close to a photo finish. Both companies have kept the core of their software intact and fiddled mostly with the user interface and, as you might expect, the Web integration.

New users typically come to these packages in one of two ways: Their finances have gotten into such disarray that something has to be done, or it's time to start planning for something big--a new car, a wedding or new addition to the family, buying a house, or taking retirement planning seriously.

When it comes to taking that first step and keying in that first account balance, Money does the better job of holding your hand and understanding where you're coming from, but it requires more up-front work--for example, entering how many and what kinds of accounts you'll want to set up and at least starting to identify your recurring bills. Quicken, by comparison, just asks you to set up an account--but after that, you're on your own, and its screens on occasion can confuse by offering too many different ways to do things.

From then on, both programs will greet you, if you choose, with a customizable financial snapshot, including account balances, bills due to be paid and other reminders, and graphs of income vs. expenses, budget or savings progress, or the state of your investments. Money's opening screen is cleaner, easier to read and more elegant; Quicken's is cluttered with hyperlinks and an annoying "Loading Quicken data" progress bar that resurfaces each time it loads a file. For accounts, though, Quicken has added a well-designed, detail-rich overview page.

Either program will do a fine job of day-to-day record-keeping: recording your paycheck automatically while breaking out the various deductions for tax record-keeping; memorizing regular payees, such as Pepco, Bell Atlantic or this very newspaper; reminding you of recurring bills; and connecting with online payment services to eliminate the need to write checks or buy stamps.

Both programs have fine-tuned how users navigate. Money uses the Web-page metaphor throughout, with Forward, Back and Home buttons always available. Quicken has embraced this Web model as well, but it sticks with a tabbed-folder interface for most navigation.

Quicken built its reputation on providing a better checkbook; using its account register means filling in fields as you would scribble info in a checkbook's register. Money allows this approach as well but also offers a set of on-screen forms that make entering a withdrawal, deposit or transfer more like writing a check itself. Money also attempts to identify the right category based on the payee's name, instead of asking you to specify the category as Quicken does.

To track investments, both programs offer summary pages (Quicken's is more useful) and portfolio windows, which let you view all or selected accounts in a number of customizable ways and download quotes from the Internet. Both programs depend heavily on the two companies' Internet sites, and Microsoft's MoneyCentral. (Microsoft wisely ditched the membership fee this year.) Both, for example, offer Web-linked tools to analyze the asset allocations and categorize holdings. Unfortunately, Money can't download asset category info for mutual funds, which limits the tool's usefulness compared with Quicken's.

In the area of personal-finance planning, Money takes a holistic view of your life, factoring in all the decisions you make about saving, spending and investing to deliver a summary chart summarizing money available over time. Quicken offers a similar chart but structurally is more focused on key events, offering links on the Planning Center page to retirement, college, home purchase, debt reduction and other goals.

Both programs are designed to make money for their companies by leading you to online partners offering information about cars to buy, car loans and home mortgages and online brokerages. We found Microsoft's Web integration more seamless; Money is in general a more nicely integrated piece of work than Quicken.

But in tax preparedness, Quicken gets the nod, since Intuit also makes the market leader, TurboTax, and the software is designed to use TurboTax data to fine-tune your preparation for next year's taxes. Money will tie into Microsoft's upcoming TaxSaver tool, but that program is an unknown quantity for now.

Few users of personal finance software will fire up either of these programs and immediately start using everything they offer. They're just too massive. Luckily, it's possible to start by using one or another of their functions--bill paying, for example, or looking for a car loan, or fine-tuning your 401(k)--and then move gradually out into other areas. The value of software like this, in fact, is that when you're ready to do so, your data is largely already there. Of the two, Money's design makes it slightly easier to start in one place and then branch out. For Mac users, as in previous years, Quicken is the only brand-name game in town.

In general, though, if you're an experienced user of this kind of software, it probably doesn't matter which package you use. Do practice smart financial management, though: If you're happy with what's working for you and it's Y2K-compliant (check the company's Web site), don't upgrade unless it's at little or no cost. And spare yourself some hassle by not switching brands. If you're starting from scratch, decide using tarot cards, the I Ching or a coin toss; it's that close. We'll let you know when one of the racers pulls ahead.

Quicken 2000 Deluxe, Intuit; Win 95-98/Mac, $60 ($20 rebate for users of previous versions of Quicken). Quicken Basic 2000, $30 ($10 rebate).

Money 2000 Deluxe, Microsoft; Win 95-98, $65 ($20 rebate for users of previous versions). Money 2000 Standard, $35 ($10 rebate).