Simpler Living Through Software
(MONEY Magazine) – Keeping financial records up to date, compiling a list of charitable contributions at tax time, tracking investments, creating a budget--one tedious job after another. You can make these tasks practically painless by moving them to your computer. You have to invest a bit of effort to set up personal-finance software such as Microsoft Money or Quicken, but the payoff makes it all worthwhile.
1 Get What It Takes
• Speed Fast and easy downloads have elevated these programs from mere data-entry chores to the truly valuable tools they are today. You can get by with a dial-up Internet connection, but broadband brings you updates from your bank, broker and fund company a lot more quickly. If you have dial-up, set up the software to download files at night.
• Support Make sure that your financial institutions give you electronic access to your accounts (for free). Mac users may find that some don't.
• Time Don't bother buying software if you're not willing to put in an hour or two to set up your system.
2 Pick a Program
• PC vs. Mac If you use a Mac, Quicken is your program; there's no Mac version of Microsoft Money. For a PC, either program will do.
• Features Microsoft Money and Quicken both come in $30, $60 and $80 versions (that's before rebates, which are common). You don't need the most expensive ones unless you want real-time stock quotes or tax planning tools. Check out each version's features at quicken.com and microsoft.com/money.
• Access If you travel often, Microsoft Money has a slight edge: You can view 90 days' worth of records via the Web. Quicken's remote features are more limited.
3 Set Yourself Up
• Links You'll have to set up an ID and a password at all your financial institutions and enter them into the software. From then on, the program will log in for you--no need to visit different websites every time you want to check your bank or 401(k) balance.
• Baby steps You can begin by monitoring one or two accounts and gradually add more. Then try portfolio tracking, budgeting and other features. You can pay bills through your finance software (instead of at your bank's site), but you'll pay extra for that service.
• Help If you run into trouble, invest $22 in Quicken 2006 for Dummies or Microsoft Money 2006 for Dummies.
4 Stay Safe
• Passwords Don't let the threat of cybercrime scare you. Most ID theft involves paper records. Still, take a few sensible steps, including picking passwords wisely. The best are at least eight characters long and have a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols.
• Security software A $50 program will protect your computer against intruders, spyware and viruses. Some Internet service providers include it for free.
• Backup If all your financial data reside on your computer, make a backup copy on a CD or an external hard drive.
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