Software Review: Microsoft Money 2004

Accounting is a necessary evil that ultimately rewards owners with information to manage a business, view bottom-lines and make savvy decisions. For this, Microsoft Money 2004 returns as a powerful and useful program that can help home users and small businesses manage their finances and fulfill their tax and regulatory obligations.

This year’s additions are thin icing on a tall, multi-level accounting cake, and most who already own a prior version of Money will probably find little reason to upgrade. Microsoft Money 2004 again comes in a decent Small Business version. While this version offers noteworthy features that include a year of free payroll service, it’s only strong enough to support the smallest retail and service businesses.

New and Improved
Money 2004 maintains strengths from prior versions and adds adequate enhancements. Clearly, Money’s evolution, as well as that of competitor Quicken’s, is well past its peak. In its newest version, Microsoft is once again touting major new enhancements that are actually minor ones. Some, however, will appeal to power-users.

Exploiting its online prowess, Microsoft has shored-up Money with free services that include two years of online bill paying via MSN, tax filing through H&R Block, a single credit report and a year of credit monitoring through Experian, and consultation with an American Express financial planner. All are worthy services. The free subscription to GainsKeeper is a strong addition that evaluates taxes and provides guidance on how transactions can save on taxes; and it adjusts investors’ positions, which may include such events as stock splits and mergers and can generate a Schedule D.

The program’s main home page now serves up-to-date financial news that’s culled from such sources as, CNBC, Forbes, MSNBC, Reuters and more. A stronger alert system notifies you via e-mail of spending or investing targets, analyst upgrades and downgrades and noteworthy news. You may create alerts and view all notifications in a single location.

New this year is a Credit Center that provides credit and debt-related information, tools and advice. The feature offers a personalized overview of one’s credit standing, as well as a percentile ranking of risk levels. A fresh Cost of Purchase Calculator helps determine the cost of a credit card purchases or loans, which is useful. While this information could have been estimated by using features in past versions of the program, the dedicated calculator makes better sense of the subject.

The new Mini-Debt Reduction Planner helps manage and eliminate high-interest debt by creating and comparing different payment scenarios. Again, this information was essentially available in past versions of Money, but now, there’s a specific area with related links that helps users understand the topic.

While it’s hard to evaluate-I didn’t notice any problems in last year’s version-Microsoft says that Money offers improved reconciliation that does a better job of matching bank transactions with registry entries. Money has also enhanced its first rate interface with a drop-down menu that makes it easier to find a particular financial activity, and it now backs-up data to CDs.

Business As Usual
Microsoft Money 2004 Small Business comes with features for managing and tracking inventory; sending customer invoices via e-mail; monitoring cash flow; managing payroll; alerting you of important tax deadlines; and tracking tax-related expenses and automatically linking them to a Schedule C report.

Powerful payroll features perform calculations, remind you of tax deadlines, print paychecks, and fill out tax forms. A big plus, small-businesses receive a free year of payroll service with Microsoft Money 2004 Small Business. With some work, Money can adequately manage and update inventory as you make purchases and sales, and handle shipping terms and create estimates and convert them into invoices. The program also does a decent job of handling accounts receivables.

Generally, Microsoft Money 2004 Small Business Money is best suited for small service and low-volume retail businesses. The program can also act as a bridge to gradually wean business finances away from a user’s personal finances. Eventually, businesses that grow will require the stronger accounting and inventory features found in full-fledged programs such as those from Intuit, M.Y.O.B. or Peachtree.

Test Drive
I encountered no problems installing Money 2004, and the outstanding set-up, a definite strength in past versions, asked me pertinent questions regarding finances and priorities to automatically configure the program. I found that Money 2004 was much like last year’s version with a competent set of tools for managing and balancing checkbooks; creating and tracking budgets; creating financial plans and monitoring progress towards goals; and managing investments.

Money’s greatest strength, which in the past has separated it from Intuit ‘s Quicken (we have not yet evaluated the newest version of Quicken), is its strong planning tools that project and plan finances. As before, the program does an excellent job of making difficult financial topics approachable by asking key questions, and then letting you experiment with different scenarios.

The interface, which resembles a Web site, is intuitive and easy to use and does an exceptional job of organizing features and tools into logical categories and topics. It is much like that in last year’s version. Money does a good job of working with the Internet. For example, the program downloads information from a large number of bank and financial institutions to update stock quotes and update accounts. Also, if you choose to, you may view your investment portfolio from any computer with a Web connection and make changes.

Microsoft Money 2004 is an impressive program. But those who own prior versions from the past couple of years will likely find little to justify an upgrade. And if you’re considering Money 2004 as a solution to oversee your business, consider it only if you have a very basic service or retail business.

Pricing and Availability
Microsoft Money 2004 comes in Standard, Deluxe, Premium and Small Business versions. Money 2004 Standard has an estimated retail price of $19.95 after a $10 rebate. Money 2004 Deluxe has an estimated retail price of $39.95 after a $20 rebate. Money 2004 Premium has an estimated retail price of $59.95 after a $20 rebate. Money 2004 Small Business has an estimated price of $69.95 after a $20 rebate.

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