THE JUNKIES ARE EASY TO spot. They're the ones who line up at the checkout, pocket computers in hand, ready to input even the smallest transactions. Gum: 55 cents. Magazines: $2.95. Coffee and a roll: $1.25. Later, at home, probably when no one is looking, they will do the deed, downloading data onto their hard drives. Then, and only then, will they feel that incredible rush that comes from knowing that absolutely every single penny is completely and totally accounted for. "I couldn't do without it now." confesses Karen Jacob of Cincinnati, Ohio. "I'm very dependent." Ken Crumb of Greeley, Colo., has been hooked for years. "I like to know where all my dimes go," he says. "I can go back to 1986 and track every single expense that ran through my checking account."
The object of their addiction is Quicken, one of the hottest computer programs around, with more than 5 million copies sold since the first version came out a decade ago. Quicken keeps track of checks, credit-card expenses, monthly bills-anything that runs through a wallet. Mundane stuff, maybe. But personal-finance software is one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry, says David Tremblay, research director of the Software Publishers Association. Last year the half-dozen titles on the market accounted for $93 million in sales, a 51 percent increase over 1992's. In that same period, software-industry sales overall increased only 18.5 percent. None of the other products-including Money from giant Microsoft-even comes close to the popularity of Quicken, which generally retails for $39.95 and is available for DOS, Windows and Macintosh.
Quicken is what the industry calls a "killer app," an application (jargon for a program) so powerful that many consumers say it alone justifies the purchase of a home computer. Recently, SmartMoney, an upscale personal-finance magazine, only half-jokingly called Quickenites a "cult." Nick Ryder, an airline pilot from Marietta, Ga., laughs at that description but then goes on to credit the software with virtually saving his marriage by keeping his finances afloat. When Ryder and his wife, Penny, were married 4 1/2 years ago, they quickly went "deep into the credit-card hole" while establishing their joint domesticity after many years of singlehood. Despite healthy paychecks, they never seemed to have enough money,
Quicken entered the Ryders' lives early in 1991, when Nick began logging everything into Quicken's various account categories: checking, credit cards, monthly utility bills. After a few months of tracking the relentless flow of dollars, it all began to make sense. "We were spending way too much on eating out," Ryder says. "Day to day, it doesn't look like much, but it adds up." Incidentals were another shocker. Ryder recorded all expenditures of more than a dollar and found that impulse buys-magazines, snacks-were out of line. Quicken forced the couple to clamp down, he says. Entering purchases "makes you really contrite," he says. "It's an embarrassment for me to have my wife see where I threw the money away." Now the Ryders are true converts, even saving enough to set up investment accounts, which they track-how else? with Quicken.
That kind of success story doesn't surprise Scott Cook, the chief executive officer of Intuit, the Silicon Valley company that publishes Quicken. Cook says Intuit is so eager to have Quicken be user-friendly that Intuit researchers regularly go home with first-time buyers to check that the product is indeed easy to install. Cook came up with the idea for Quicken after struggling to balance his own checking account. The personal-finance programs then on the market were overloaded with accounting jargon and too hard to use, he says. Cook, a marketer from Procter & Gamble, decided to create something that would be as understandable as a checkbook. The first Quicken wasn't much more than an electronic checkbook, a primitive instrument compared with the current version, which can do everything from paying bills on line to automatically updating portfolios. Cook insists that you don't have to be obsessive to love Quicken. "That's just a fringe of about 2 percent," he says. "The rest of the people are normal, as disorganized and messy as the rest of us. I'm very undisciplined, as my wife could tell you."
Even dedicated Quicken users concede that the product is not without flaws. Ken Crumb, who uses Quicken for both his personal finances and his business, says that the check-writing feature of the newest version has a kind of artificial intelligence that guesses who the payee is from the first few letters you enter on the check. "I don't want it to think for me," he says. "Then I have to argue with it." Cook, the Intuit CEO, says he knows some users hate that feature, but others want it. "We've got to find a way to keep both groups happy."
Who cares about a few flaws? A far greater horror is remembering life B.Q. (Before Quicken). "I had to write out checks by hand," recalls Jennifer Brinegar, a nurse from Crystal River, Fla. "It was so archaic." With Quicken, it was love at first keystroke, she says. "I'm hot-keen all over that program ... I haven't cursed at it once." In the age of data overload, there's no better testimonial.