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Using your PC to manage your finances: here's how your family can get a better handle on its income.

NOWADAYS, NEARLY EVERYONE IS performing some sort of high-wire financial balancing act--from juggling household bills to paying off debt to financing college costs. Granted, wages have increased slightly for most workers--averaging $342-$1,083 a week for middle- and high-end earners. Still, most professional families find themselves stretching hard-earned dollars to the breaking point. They all desire the same thing: to improve their financial well-being.

Today's realities demand that you not only work harder to bring home a paycheck but that you also pull out all stops to grow your money. To this end, we offer three simple words of advice: budget, save and invest. To help you get started, BLACK ENTERPRISE takes a look at how two families are using financial software programs to get a better handle on their assets.

A "QUICK-EN" EASY WAY TO ORGANIZE YOUR MONEY

Like most couples, Victor and Gail Farwell's top financial goals were to reduce debt and increase income. They started using Quicken Deluxe 6 ($59.95) from Intuit Corp., in Mountain View, California. "We were spending more money than we were bringing in," says Victor, 45, a psychotherapist. "By using Quicken to track our monthly household accounts, we were able to cut back on a lot of expenses and make better use of our [$90,000 annual household] income."

The Farwells were able to create useful reports, budgets and graphs of their expenditures by inputting each and every transaction and assigning it to an expense field.

"It takes me about an hour, once a week, to input our expenses--everything from payments for medical bills to food to entertainment," says Gail. "This way, I can get an accurate picture of when, where and how we spend our money." Quicken lets the Farwells compare actual expenses with budgeted expenses, and computes the discrepancy.

After reviewing their budget, the Farwells realized that for a family of three--the couple has a 16-year-old son, Jaggen--they were spending too much money, especially on dining out. They quickly reduced their spending from $450 a month to $250 by cooking more meals at home and directing funds toward grocery expenditures, which included buying items in bulk to cut costs

Quicken also allowed them to do reports on specific bills by listing and analyzing all payments made, say, to utility companies or creditors over a given time period. Using this feature, the Farwells discovered that they were paying too much to heat their one-family home in St. Louis. "We went from spending $250 in heating costs in the winter to $150, by using a thermostat controller with a timer to regulate the temperature," adds Victor.

The Farwells are now considering using Quicken's built-in CheckFree program to automatically pay their bills. The program would enable the computer to send electronic "ready-made checks" to creditors each month by linking their computer to their bank. With fixed amounts, such as a mortgage, a check is already filled in, predated and signed for online delivery. With flexible expenses (i.e., utilities) it's a simple matter of putting in the right amount and pushing a button.

However, not every financial institution is set up to do electronic banking. Right now, the Farwells are using a savings and loan that doesn't offer online payment. "We are in the process of shopping for a link that supports accounts and check writing online," says Gail, 45. But this will mean additional services and fees that must be included in their budget.

The Farwells have been using the latest versions of Quicken for the last five years. To date, they have been able to reduce their overall household expenditures by 30%--or a grand total of about $2,700 annually.

They also try to pay cash for miscellaneous expenses whenever they can. And they make sure to pay off the two credit cards owned between them each month. Quicken's debt reduction feature searches files for debts such as loans and credit card accounts. It sorts them and puts the most expensive debt--the one with the highest interest rate--at the top of the list. When you enter your current payment and the balance, Quicken looks at ways to increase the amount you apply to pay down your debts.

Gail is now eyeing the program's investment feature to track her savings and retirement accounts online. A registered nurse, she oversees the couple's two stock accounts--one with Merrill Lynch and the other with the discount brokerage firm Charles Schwab. The Farwells also own two retirement mutual fund accounts through TIAA-CREF of New York.

Quicken can show price and performance data for the user's investment, organized by account. It can also show transaction and price data for every single security. Using a feature called Investor Insight (via a modem), users can download information on any stock's activity, including high, low and closing prices, trading volume and splits.

To get a perspective on another money management software program, we asked the Farwells to review Microsoft Money 97 ($34.95). "The two programs are pretty much the same. However, it's easier to group things with Money," says Victor. Money has long had the edge in ease of use, although Quicken's latest version seems to have significantly closed the gap. "You have more choices of how you can categorize certain expenses and liabilities," adds Victor. So, under housing expenditures, you can specify payments made for rent, mortgage, property taxes, insurance, utilities, maintenance, etc.

Because he finds Money to be more expansive, Victor says it should be easier for him to itemize deductions come next tax season. "That's the other great advantage of using financial software. It makes it easier to set up and fill out your tax returns, both personal and business forms.

In Quicken, you use categories to group transactions into related areas of income and expense. Some categories are not tax-related, such as clothing and telephone calls (unless they're business-related). Others include charitable contributions, dividend income from investments, medical expenses and mortgage interest. A feature called Tax Link Assistant assigns these categories to the right tax form line.

NEWLYWEDS' NOVEL MONEY PROBLEMS

The primary reasons people use personal financial software are to be better organized financially and to perform the core financial tasks of managing their checkbooks and paying their bills. In addition, they want to store their financial information in a single place and eliminate the need for detailed paper copies and paper trails.

Those were Johnson T. Price's main concerns when he started testing three different financial software packages--Quicken, Microsoft Money and Simply Money-four years ago. He finally settled on Quicken.

Today, his primary interest is how to adjust from a one-income to a two-income household. Price and his wife, Joyce, are learning how to balance their different spending patterns as well as their various bank and credit accounts.

Between them, the Dallas newlyweds have 11 bank accounts--she has one individual checking and one savings account; he has three individual checking, three savings and one money market account; and there are two joint checking accounts. "The software has been very helpful in trying to keep up with all our finances, especially the rent coming in from the homes we own, says Joyce, an assistant principal at a local junior high school. They own four homes, two in the Dallas area and two in Colorado, and are living in one and renting out the others (enough to cover their mortgage payments). The Price's monthly expenditures for mortgage, utilities, credit cards and other items are around $4,500.

"One of the reasons Quicken Deluxe 6 is good for us is it's easier to get a snap shot of various deductions for the houses and how we are building equity without actually losing money from our pocket," says 31-year-old Johnson, an account representative for Hewlett-Packard. As they record house payments each month, Quicken transfers the amount that applies to principal to the Price's liability account to decrease its balance. Their decreasing debt and increasing equity is then reflected in their networth report.

The Prices manage to save a hefty amount of the take-home pay--about 20% of their combined $110,000 income. Now they are looking at new ways to manage their wealth.

Both the Prices and the Farwells also use TurboTax from Intuit. Both couples like the "what-if" scenarios and the way the software prompts you for information. "It interviews you and instructs you on what to look for (in deductions) and where to put it (on the right tax forms). It also has an audit alert that sends up red flags on potential items," says Johnson. "It's definitely user-friendly compared to other tax programs I have used before."

The integration of a tax software and a financial program makes for an ideal money management suite. "The important objective I have to keep in focus is that I want to get accurate information about my cash flow," adds Johnson. "We are getting to a point where all our accounts, investments and debts are up to date, and we can get our net worth picture at the touch of a couple of buttons." And that's technology made practical.

RELATED ARTICLE: Choosing the Right Software

You are probably no different from most home computer users who want to better manage their finances, but don't want to sacrifice several hours doing data entry. However, financial software programs ore becoming more convenient, and you con's best the cost-saving results. If you write more than a few checks a month, own investments, file on itemized tax return or hove nonreimbursable business expenses, you are a good candidate for personel finance software. Here are a few comparison shopping tips and questions to ask yourself:

* Basic features: Does the program handle household budgeting, bill paying, check writing and net-worth tracking--monitor your assets and liabilities and create a budget loosed on post income and expenses?

* What-if: Does it provide "what-if" analyses to help you explore different financial scenarios, including loan and home mortgage payments? Con you view the outcome of several savings and retirement plans easily, or estimate the interest corned on a bank account or paid to a credit card account?

* Investment database: Doe; offer a customized portfolio manager that frocks securities, creates financial reports and summarizes your investment position at no extra costs? Can you access stock quotes? Can you set up investment accounts for retirement, stock and mutual funds?

* Managing accounts: Can you check bank and credit card account balances, reconcile accounts, transfer funds and track transactions? Can you download statements directly from your bank, showing a separate list of debits/credits? Are online services secured with encrypted passwords? Can online services be charged to a calling card?

Technical support: Is product support available 24 hours a day, seven days a week?
COPYRIGHT 1997 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
Article Details
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Title Annotation:Software Review; includes a related article on software
Author:Brown, Carolyn M.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Evaluation
Date:Jul 1, 1997
Words:1782
Previous Article:It's not what you make, but what you keep.
Next Article:How accountable are you for your success?
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