Review: Quicken Essentials for Mac

Quicken Essentials BoxAfter a long hiatus, Quicken has finally released a new personal finance product for the Mac. Initial reviews of the product have been very mixed. Some people love the new user interface and usability, but others hate that the product because it is missing many key features from prior releases. I’ve been using the product for several weeks and although I have some gripes, my overall impression has been positive. Before this review can be of any use to you, I must explain how I manage my finances on the Mac. The reason this is important is because I am not a personal finance “power user.” Quicken Essentials is just that, the bare essentials.  So while this product works for me, it will be a disaster for others. It’s important that you judge your own needs and expectations of this product to see if it’s the right fit.

I manage my finances exclusively through my computer using electronic bill pay, e-statements, Quicken, and other tools. I try not to have any statements or paper come to my house as it only serves as clutter and a potential for identity theft. I do my banking with Bank of America and most of my monthly bills are paid directly through their system. (Bank of America has one of the most advanced and inclusive online bill pay systems I’ve ever used.)  I have a handful of standard charges that are debited to my credit cards and then a few expenses to smaller organizations (like a homeowners association) where I have the bank automatically draft a check on my behalf on a regular basis. I hardly ever touch the checkbook, in fact, the only check I write is to my hair stylist and I’m trying to persuade her to take online bill pay too.

I’m a little obsessive and I like to know what my current balance is on all my accounts at any time as well as my anticipated income and expenditures so I know when I need to move money around. I like to be able to glance and see that my current balance is X, I have a bill due for Y and a paycheck that will be deposited for Z. I use Quicken to keep current ledgers for each of my checking, savings, and credit card accounts. I also like to track my spending so I see where my money is going every month and make adjustments when necessary

During tax time, I have a number of deductions I take for business expenses. I need to be able to run reports on payees and categories. For investments such as IRAs and 401ks, I try not to look at those too regularly (it’s depressing these days) so I keep those separate through their respective institutions. As you can see, my needs in this area are fairly basic, so Quicken Essentials works for me. I don’t need the software for any type of bill pay, check printing, or investment management. That’s good, because those features aren’t available.

Now, back to the review. Quicken Essentials fits all of my needed tasks better than any prior version of Quicken. The user interface is gorgeous and for the first time ever, it has the look and feel of a Mac application. The included Quicken Importer program successfully imported over 10 years of history that I had stored in the prior version of Quicken without any hiccups, what a huge relief.

Quicken Essentials ScreenThe entire application is contained within one window without any floating pallets or toolbars. There is a toolbar that runs along the bottom for Common tasks such as entering or editing transactions. There is also a sidebar that provides access to accounts, reports, and tools for budgeting. There are some basic budgeting and management reports that are available to show you an overview of where your money goes in any particular month, a listing of all expenses or reports on various categories.

My biggest gripe about the UI is that I can only resize the width of the Quicken window so much. For example, I have a 13” MacBook Pro. I usually like to have my Quicken window open with a web browser window in the background so I can compare transactions to my online statements.  like to view the two windows side by side to see where there may be inconsistencies. Even if I hide the sidebar and remove certain columns, I can only shrink the width of the window so much and it still fills more than 3/4 of the width of my 13” screen. So if I’m trying to go back and fourth between Quicken and my web browser, I have to constantly move the windows around and can’t look at them side by side. This is a silly annoyance that I hope will be an easy fix in an update.

For the first time ever, I decided to use the feature to automatically download and sync transactions from my accounts. Implementation of this feature was a little convoluted in previous versions of the application, so I avoided it. Because of my obsessive compulsive desire to know my balance to the penny at any given second, I usually had already manually entered data and didn’t really need the sync function. I can get lazy from time to time and miss transactions so the idea of being able to pull down transactions is appealing. Much to my surprise the data sync was easy to set up and worked well.

The process of finding my institutions and setting up the account sync took only a few minutes and my history was downloaded. (For what it's worth, I have accounts with the big institutions, so your mileage may vary with medium and small sized banks.)  The amount of data that is downloaded depends on your bank. I especially liked that Quicken would attempt to match data it pulled down from the cloud to data I previously entered. The results were surprisingly accurate and I only had a couple of transactions that didn’t match up. They’re easy to identify because Quicken indicates newly downloaded transactions with a blue dot, so you can see where the transactions are that don’t have dots and then find the appropriate match. You can also teach Quicken how you want your data to be named as it imports. For example, “FRSH MKT ID 1286583” can be taught to come in as “Fresh Market” and is appropriately categorized as Groceries. Quicken seems to learn so with subsequent downloads I'm finding it's able to make better matches.

In my three weeks of use, I have had two transactions downloaded from my two different banks that showed incorrect amounts. This is a serious problem as it throws off my account balance and can be difficult to catch without going through my online statement or receipts. My guess is the error was on the part of my financial institution and not Quicken, but the fact that it happened with two different banks is troubling. This is something I will keep an eye on and investigate further if it continues.

I also regularly use the ability to schedule transactions that have fixed occurrences and amounts.  Quicken will let you track this information and decide at what point the data should be entered. I’ve set mine to notify me of upcoming transactions 15 days in advance, so I can budget and project my monthly spending. While future transactions show in the register, they are a different color so that you can easily distinguish your current balance from your upcoming transactions.

While Quicken has always had some basic ability to budget, the feature is enhanced in the newest release. It’s very similar to the budgeting tools that are available on (And it should be as Quicken has since acquired Mint.) Tagging is also introduced in this version of Quicken which may or may not be useful. I already make extensive use of categories in Quicken, so tagging seems to be one more thing. Very few of my transactions are tagged, but I can see the usefulness in certain occasions. For example, I had several expenses for Macworld (food, lodging, airfare, hotel) that were all in different categories but tagged under Macworld 2010 so they could be easily identified.

The reports feature in Quicken Essentials is more limited than in Quicken 2007. For example, in Quicken 2007 I used the quick reports feature to make sure that I had all my expenses for a particular item or payee accounted for. After playing with Essentials for a while longer, I realized that I was still able to accomplish all the searching I needed but had to go about it a little differently and it wasn't as easy. Creating reports based on category works well, but I couldn’t find a way to create a report by payee. However, I could do a search for a payee and bring up all the transactions within a particular date range. While I wish I had more customization options when generating reports, it’s workable.

So far, we’ve covered everything that Quicken Essentials does, but there’s a lot this version of Quicken does not do when compared with previous versions. Quicken Essentials is appropriately named, essentials. While the product will work well for most new users who have similar needs as I do. Those who have been long time users of the Quicken products and use the more advanced features will be upset, possibly enraged if the reviews and Quicken forums are any indication. The Quicken for Mac team seems to apologetically acknowledge this, and then change the subject to talk about how this version was designed from the ground up and does what it claims well.

While I suggest you check out the Quicken webpage and other reviews for more information, there are many seemingly basic tasks that some users will need that Quicken Essentials cannot do. For example, there is extremely limited tracking of investments. You can see investment accounts, but do not have a way to track buys or sells. There is no ability to export data to Intuit’s own Turbo Tax program. There is also no bill pay and no check printing. Intuit says that next year they will release updated version of Essentials as well as Deluxe version, but those will surely be paid upgrades and it’s frustrating to have to pay for an upgrade to a product to add back in functionality you had in a previous version.

Finally, there is the issue of price. At a retail price of $69.00, Quicken Essentials feels overly expensive compared to the feature set. I couldn’t find any information about upgrade pricing for previous owners of Quicken, which adds insult to injury given that current users are giving up core functionally by updating to the current version. This feels like a product that should be priced at the $39 or $49 price point with a $19 upgrade option. I also couldn’t find a demo version of the product, although Quicken says they have a 30 day money back guarantee. I have no idea how hard it is to actually get your money back if you hate the product.

Now there are many more options out there for Mac users in the area of personal finance. Quite frankly, given my limited use, there are several other applications out there that would more than suit my needs. The problem is, this is my financial data that I have been collecting since for more than 10 years and plan to use for the foreseeable future. Like it or not, the fact is, Quicken is the standard. It gives me great peace of mind to know that I’m using a program that I believe has the staying power to be managing my financial data, in some form or another, 10 years from now. This may not be a legitimate concern, and I realize there are many who say this is short sighted and unnecessary, but given the type of data I’m dealing with and the potential consequences of not being able to access it, I feel more comfortable staying with the standard.

I would encourage prospective buyers to carefully examine their usage before deciding to upgrade. Quicken has said that they are planning to re-implement some of the lost features in future versions of the product and that they will continue support for Quicken 2007 knowing that there are features available in that version that are not available in Essentials. All things considered, this is a product that I will continue to use, and a product that I am happy with given my needs but I understand the anger out there towards this product.