PERSONAL FINANCES ON YOUR COMPUTER

 

Your computer canít make you wealthy, but it can help you better manage the money you already have. After all, computation Ė which most of us havenít done since high school, and which is what computers do best Ė is what finance is all about. Financial management packages are relatively inexpensive, and save us lots of trouble.

 

ORGANIZE YOUR FINANCES

Quicken, from Intuit, is one of the best-selling programs of all time for the PC. Itís an inexpensive, all-around personal finance program that helps you pay your bills and keep track of various accounts, as well as stocks and mutual funds, and see how youíre doing at managing your money for retirement and other financial goals.

 

Another program with similar features is Microsoft Money from Microsoft. The prices for these programs vary slightly, but are typically under $60. Youíll pay more for the ďdeluxeĒ versions, which add some multimedia files providing extra help and financial advice but really donít have all that much more functionality.

 

Both programs let you keep track of income and expenses, allowing you to pay a bill by filling out a form onscreen that looks like a check. The programs keep track of your income and expenses in a register that, not surprisingly, looks like a check register. You can print out reports detailing things like each expense category and income source.

 

Before investing in personal finance software, find out what online services your bank offers. Some banks provide basic account-management programs online for free. Also, not all financial institutions are set up to work with all financial software. Weíll have more about online banking later.

 

Now that American Express and many banks that issue Visa and MasterCard accounts provide electronic statements, these programs can also manage your credit cards. You can get all of your credit card statements online, letting you record all the expenses in Quicken or Money automatically Ė a real time-saver at tax time. You can also use Quicken and Money to manage your investment accounts with certain oline brokers, including Fidelity and Schwab.

 

Both programs also let you connect to the Internet to pay bills electronically. You enter the information in the program, and instead of printing the check, the software transmits the check order over the Internet. I know what youíre thinking Ė you donít want your personal financial information going through the Internet. Well, I canít tell you that anything is 100 percent safe, but many people have been doing online banking for years without having any problem with security. The odds of someone stealing information over the Internet are probably lower than of someone stealing your wallet or going through your trash.

 

One nice thing about electronic banking is that it can handle recurring payments automatically. You can set up the program to pay your mortgage and car payments every month.

 

ONLINE BANKING

Many banks now offer online banking services that let you check your balances and pay your bills online. The bill-paying service usually requires you to enter information about your payees, and then the bank sends the check by mail (or electronically for some large merchants) and deducts the balance from your account.

 

Be sure to check the bankís policies regarding how the money is deducted. Some banks take it out the moment your place the order, but others wait until the day the money actually changes hands. Thatís better, of course, because you keep your funds until the last possible minute.

 

One nice thing about online bill paying is that you can pay your bills days or even months in advance, but still hold on to the money until the last minute. Itís also nice having regular bills, like mortgage and car payments, paid automatically every month so you donít have to worry about them. However, you do have to make sure thereís enough money in your account to cover the bills.

 

Paytrust is an interesting service that not only pays your bills but presents them as well. You tell all of your billers to send your invoices to Paytrust instead of to you, and then Paytrust presents the bills to you on a secure Web site. You can have Paytrust pay your bills automatically or can elect to do it one by one online. You can have it programmed to automatically pay the minimum balance on all your credit cards. Or you can pay the entire balance (avoiding interest), and this way, even if youíre out of town, the minimum amount gets paid so you donít get late fees or any negative remarks in your credit file.    

 

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