Few types of desktop software should be readier for replacement by the Web than personal finance.

Few types of desktop software should be readier for replacement by the Web than personal finance.

The concept behind these programs is sound: Track your income and expenses through automatic downloads from banks, credit card issuers and other financial institutions to show where your money's coming and going, and how much of it you're likely to have later on.

But the market long ago calcified into a duopoly of programs, Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft's Money. As they've piled on the features, their usability has suffered. Many users, fearing an ordeal of bookkeeping, avoid them entirely. Those who have bought either program have been forced to ante up for new versions, at $15 to $90 each, when "sunset" policies cut older releases off from account-data downloads.

It might seem that a simpler, cheaper alternative to these programs would have emerged on the Web, now that online shopping and bill payment have made people comfortable with managing money online. But the big Web companies have yet to craft such a thing.

Fortunately, the absence of a shiny new Web application from Google or Yahoo doesn't mean the absence of hope for online alternatives to Quicken and Money. It may just mean you'll have to wait longer to find one that suits you.

The most visible Web competitor so far has been the free Mint (mint.com). Since its launch last fall, this Silicon Valley start-up has drawn 266,000 users, though founder Aaron Patzer did not say how many visit the site regularly.

Quicken or Money vets may find Mint insultingly simplistic. It only links to banks, credit cards and investments and ignores most people's biggest debts (mortgages and car loans) and assets (homes and vehicles), making net-worth estimates impossible.

Using Mint requires you to trust the site to safeguard your bank usernames and passwords, which you must save there before adding any accounts. You can't enter transactions by hand or upload Quicken or Money files. And you can't reconcile transactions against a monthly statement.

But within those limits, Mint provides soothingly simple money-management tools.

When tested with a bank account, two credit cards and three mutual funds, Mint automatically fetched the latest data, converted most gibberish in these accounts' downloads into real names and filed most entries in the right category. For example, a credit card charge to "WHOLEFDS ARL 10042 0ARLINGTON" became "Whole Foods," listed under "groceries."

It was even smart enough to split fees on ATM withdrawals into separate expenses.

Mint then broke down patterns of income and expenses into easy-to-read pie charts.

Mint aims to make money by suggesting better financial services, then collecting commissions. But its advice to drop an American Express card for a Chase Visa ignored the AmEx card's cash rebate.

Two other sites have begun grabbing users as well. The free Wesabe (wesabe.com), an older Silicon Valley start-up, acts like a money-minded social network.

It makes the collective wisdom of its users part of its source code, comparing your spending and earning with the averaged habits of more than 100,000 other "Wesabeans." It also relies on their accumulated input to refine and sort statement entries and offer tips about better deals near you.

But Wesabe may need more users to do those jobs well. Most downloaded transactions came through in their original, cryptic bankspeak, and some tips showed a Bay Area bias.

Wesabe (which plans to underwrite its free service with a fee-based "pro" option) is even more limited than Mint. It couldn't connect to a Bank of America Visa credit card account, and it doesn't do investments or home or car loans.

In Wesabe's favor, it offers free Mac and Windows uploader programs that keep your account logins on your computer and offers multiple ways to get your data off the site.

One of the newest Web-based personal finance tools comes from Intuit, which in January launched the $2.99-a-month Quicken Online (quickenonline.com). Although this site isn't as slick or quick as Mint or Wesabe, it supports investments and mortgages, not just banks and credit cards.

Unlike Mint and Wesabe, it also lets you add coming transactions — no risk of forgetting the check you wrote to your contractor — and set bill-payment reminders.

Some basic features, such as transaction breakdowns and the ability to upload Quicken files or download data from the site, still aren't there. But its simplicity makes the gridlocked complexity of desktop Quicken look painfully obsolete.

With such improvements, some smart borrowing and a solid record of security, Web personal-finance software could become an alternative along the lines of Web e-mail.