Microsoft Money 2003 Deluxe

As capable cyber-accountants and virtual finance experts, there’s not much that the latest personal finance programs can’t do. Microsoft Money 2003 Deluxe, Microsoft’s latest annual offering, maintains everything that was good in the prior version, which is considerable, and adds some incremental improvements. There are no new “gotta haves,” but some may like the free access to key online services. At its core, Money continues to offer great Web integration, strong setup tools and excellent planning tools, which keeps it in the financial race against Intuit’s Quicken. But those who own last year’s version of Money will find little reason to upgrade.

Personal finance management programs such as Money and Quicken come in beefed-up versions for businesses that handle invoices and accounts receivable, assist with payroll and manage inventory. These limited features may appeal to some of the smallest businesses. It’s not that the business-flavored versions of these programs are bad, they just can’t take the place of true accounting programs such as Peachtree, M.Y.O.B. or Intuit’s own QuickBooks.

What’s New?
To start, Microsoft is offering free financial services with Money 2003 Deluxe. You get a year of free bill paying via MSN Bill Pay; online tax preparation and filing from H&R Block; credit monitoring and a credit report from Equifax; and consultation with an American Express financial planner. All are worthwhile services.

The biggest improvements are those related to investment management. Money’s Equity and Index Options tool makes it easier to monitor and optimize investments, and the program helps create and track Equity and Index Options and exercise existing options. The portfolio manager has been enhanced to display additional customized views and save unlimited views. The Portfolio Highlights tool offers a quick visual snapshot of investment data. Finally, the new Quote Manager identifies inactive stock symbols and removes them from a user’s Money file, which can reduce file download times.

The new Online Investing Research Center helps you understand your investments and includes access to CNBC on the MSN Money Online Investing Research Center. With this feature, you may research stock quotes, access market news and summaries and more. A Capital Gains Estimator calculates capital gains taxes and lets you create and compare scenarios to determine the best approach to selling investments. A new Comparison Report helps analyze your spending habits and how they changes in the course of a year.

Money 2003 also comes with improvements that are designed to make it easier to manage finances and pay bills. The program lets you prepare and store bills, even when you’re offline, and submit multiple payments at once. An Auto Balancing feature automatically tracks account balances. As you download monthly statements from your financial institution, Money adds the transactions and balances to the account register. A new Bill Estimator approximates upcoming bill amounts based on previous payments, to assist with forecasts.

Keeping What’s Good
As in past versions, Money does a great job of managing and balancing checkbooks, monitoring investments, creating and tracking budgets and developing financial plans. To help first-time users, Money offers a first-rate setup that asks questions about finances and priorities — a definite strength.

Money’s intuitive and visual interface logically arranges tools and features into categories. It looks and feels like a Web site so it’s easy to navigate and use. It can organize the page by topics, which will appeal to novices. Money continues to offer excellent financial planning tools, and does a great job of helping users plan and project finances. Money takes the time to ask key questions, and is very flexible about accommodating changes to plans.

As before, Money syncs with Microsoft’s financial Web site, so that you can view your portfolio from any Web-connected computer. Any changes you make, such as stock purchases, are reflected on the Web site as well as on your desktop PC.

To make banking easier, the program automatically connects with financial institutions and downloads the latest account data, even when you’re not working with Money. Microsoft has arrangements with some 1,000 financial institutions to update accounts, download banking information, update stock quotes, and more.

Minding the Business
As the name implies, Microsoft Money 2003 Deluxe & Business includes features to help business owners manage their small business, as well as personal finances. With the program, users can track inventory, e-mail customer invoices, manage business cash flow and perform payroll. The program sends reminders and makes to-do lists that can help business owners keep track of tax deadlines. And it automatically tracks taxable expenses and links them to Schedule C reports.

Money’s adequate inventory tracking feature removes items from inventory when you make sales, but asks you to manually enter your new purchases. The program handles estimates and can convert them into invoices when you make sales. It also handles basic shipping terms and accounts receivable.

The program’s Payroll for Money by PayCycle performs calculations, prints paychecks, reminds you of tax deadlines and fills out tax forms (additional fees apply). The payroll features are quite impressive. An improved Invoice Designer helps create custom invoices that feature your company’s logo, colors and layout. The program can also import and export contacts from Outlook or Outlook Express.

While the Deluxe & Business Edition of Money 2003 offers some business-oriented features, they are squarely aimed at the very smallest businesses. What Money 2003 effectively does is provide an extension, giving those who are just starting a business the opportunity to manage their personal as well as beginning business finances, without having to dive into a full-fledged accounting package.

Microsoft Money 2003 Deluxe & Business offers business management features that only work for the smallest of businesses. But as a personal finance program, it’s outstanding and well suited for novices as well as sophisticated users. This year, Money and Quicken users can stay with their current personal finance package-there’s no reason to switch. For those who are new to tracking their finances on a computer, Money is definitely worth a look.

Pricing and Availability
Microsoft Money comes in Standard, Deluxe, Deluxe & Business and Finance, Tax & Legal versions. Money 2003 Standard has an estimated retail price of $24.95 after a $20 rebate. Money 2003 Deluxe has an estimated retail price of $44.95 after a $20 rebate. Money 2003 Deluxe & Business has an estimated retail price of $64.95 after a $20 rebate. Money 2003 Suite: Finance, Tax & Legal has an estimated price of $74.95 after a $20 rebate.

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