Microsoft Prints New Money In January

If you're running a small business from your kitchen table after hours or have decided to pursue your own piece of the American Dream, one of the first challenges you'll face is keeping track of where the cash is flowing. Money 99 Personal & Business, due to ship January 4, can make that job easier--while managing your personal finances from bill paying to retirement. Personal checking accounts and credit cards have a way of blending with business expenses in start-ups, and there's very little time to count beans in these situations. Who likes accounting, anyway? But I took a look at the new Money and found plenty of wizards and other helpers that lead just about anyone through day-to-day bookkeeping without need for a CPA or even much free time.

For starters, you get the full functionality of Money Financial Suite and the extensive Web support that Microsoft provides for personal finances. To that Microsoft adds business management features for a sole proprietorship. I can't say conclusively that MSN Money Central is the best financial site on the Web, but only because it's too vast and information-packed to judge. But you'd have to be George Soros to be disappointed by the level of interactive functionality between the Money Central site and the Money software.The challenge here is to meet or beat the long-running powerhouse, Quicken Home & Business 99 from Intuit.

The Plot Quickens
Money P&B isn't just a Quicken work-alike, although it certainly covers the home-office accounting bases. Money provides extensive invoice tracking, a chart of accounts for your and your bank's analysis--even the capability to track both product and service sales by hourly rate or unit charge to customer. You'll also find all the forms and reports the average business needs ready-made and available for quick customization. Like Quicken, Money is imbued with Schedule C tax categories as well as tax tips, deduction finders, and tax preparation assistance. You can create three quick reports that will speed you through that nasty little task of filling out your return. When you think about it, isn't that the main reason we keep books, anyway?

Money P&B needed something to set it apart from the market leader. Microsoft accordingly hired a third-party researcher, which found that the most challenging aspects of small-business accounting are categorizing income and expenses, preparing reports or data files for taxes, and keeping track of customers. Microsoft then applied its superior wizard technology to these issues. Setting up the appropriate income and expense accounts and tax-related categories for your company is a breeze. Transactions made during the year are automatically mapped to the correct lines on the Schedule C. Also, the Web-based Advisor FYI Alerts found in other versions of Money are tailored to chime in with timely information about business issues that is a little beyond most of us.

Finally, Microsoft added a contact manager that lets you display customer or vendor information along with financial information such as invoice and payment status. This separate program can be left on your desktop for quick reference even with Money closed. Incidentally, Money not only does an excellent job of exporting its files to major tax preparation programs, but also imports and properly categorizes Quicken data. If you use Quicken, however, I wouldn't recommend switching. Money's good, but there's nothing wrong with Quicken--and Quicken users already have a great deal of effort invested. The difference between the two programs is largely in interface and work style, which are matters of personal preference--although Microsoft does an excellent job of bringing Money's functionality forward in its Business Manager home page.

The Price is Right
Microsoft offers some price incentives for customers who are new to accounting packages. At $85, Money P&B will cost slightly less than the $90 Quicken. Add to that a $25 rebate from the manufacturer and $10 for users who already use Money Financial Suite. Microsoft also chips in one year of free Internet access through MSN, for two hours a month (a $5 value), allowing you to do your banking and investment tracking online. You also get a free six-month subscription to MSN's Microsoft Investor Web site, which provides a ton of rich investment content that normally would cost $60. Finally, you get one year of free online data backup and storage of your Money files through Atrieva (a value of $15 per month).

After I added it all up, taking into consideration how deeply discounted products are at retail, and I found that Microsoft is actually paying you to use its product. Hey, you are one tough negotiator. A free trial version and online tour of Microsoft Money 99 Personal & Business will soon be available for download from the Money home page.


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