Your PC can Help You Manage Money

Title:Your PC can Help You Manage Money

Author:Neff Hudson, copyright, permission Army Times. All rights reserved.


Like most Americans, I plan to retire someday. Tomorrow, in fact, if Ed McMahon decides to drop by with a check from some publishing house.

But since the chances of that happening are more remote than getting hit by a bolt of lightning while being attacked by a shark, I almost certainly will have to rely on savings and investments to soften the glare of my golden years.

All of the things financial planners have been preaching for years suddenly make sense: Stick to a monthly budget. Avoid credit card debt. Get an automatic deduction from your paycheck for savings.

Unfortunately, their advice tends to recede from my memory just about the time I need it most: when I have a few extra dollars in my pocket and a new big-screen television in sight. The challenge becomes not getting good financial advice, but heeding it.

That's exactly when my personal computer becomes my best investment. It can track every dime I spend, warn me when I'm about to bounce a check, even tell me how bleak retirement will be unless my investments start performing better than the market index. Best of all, it can demystify what for most people is a painful subject.

Spend a Little, Learn a Lot:

To start saving for the future, you'll need to spend a little money on some good personal financial software. The big two, at least in my book, are Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft Money.

Both are full-scale databases with pull-down menus, colorful icons and other user-friendly tools for the do-it-yourself money manager. They have been around for years, but like everything else in the '90s, they claim to be new and improved.

Quicken actually achieves that claim. Its latest incarnation, Quicken Deluxe for Windows Version 6, recently earned recognition from PC Magazine as the top personal finance software product on the market.

The old version of Quicken was a very good electronic checkbook and payment device. It could track daily balances, quickly find errant checks - even catch overcharges by the bank. The new version adds a layer of powerful financial tools, including a debt reduction planner that helps you decide which credit card to pay off first and estimates how long that will take. Quicken, which sells for about $60, also offers electronic investment portfolios and a mutual fund finder.

Bill Gates liked Quicken so much he tried to buy the company. When the Justice Department suggested that he owned too much of the computer planet, Gates receded to his Redmond, WA, headquarters to concentrate on improving his own financial software.

So far, though, his company's creation, Microsoft Money 97 (Windows, $35) ranks as a distant second to Quicken except for one feature: the number of banks that accept electronic payments from it.

Money counts about 60 major banks among its clients, while Quicken has about 40. Assuming you want to pay your bills on-line - and your bank is one of Microsoft's clients - you'll either have to buy Money or change banks.

For the Bond Watcher:

While Quicken or Money can please most people most of the time, they might not offer all the features that military people need some of the time.

For instance, the Pentagon encourages its employees to buy government savings bonds as a low-risk and inexpensive investment. Many military people have heeded that advice over the years and now boast a collection of bonds as varied as their duty stations. Most probably have EE bonds in their portfolio, but a few grizzled vets have SN series and E series bonds socked away from the 1960's.

Knowing how much those bonds are worth - and the best time to cash them - can be a daunting task for even an experienced bond investor. Unless you crave quality time at the finance office, you might want to consider buying the United States Savings Bond Consultant (DOS version, $29.95; Windows, $59.95).

Just type in the bond series, issue date and denomination, and the consultant will calculate its value, interest yield and maturity date. You can order the software by calling (800) 717-BOND (-2663) or by visiting its World Wide Web site at

Wisdom on the Web:

While surfing the Web, you might want to stop at some of the thousands of financial planning and investment pages.

Not surprisingly, Intuit and Microsoft are well-represented on the Web. Intuit operates the Quicken Financial Network at, where you can download customized stock information, get life insurance quotes and read financial news.

Microsoft weighs in with the Money Zone at The site has less content than its main competitor and seems to load more slowly. But it offers a free version of the Money software for people to test drive.

For beginning investors, the Motley Fool at can give you a clue as to how to make your money work - and a laugh to go with the wisdom. An offshoot of America Online's popular investment forum, the Fool offers free, practical advice that can elicit a smile from even the most tightfisted reader.

If there's no money in your savings account, pay a visit to the Household Budget Management page at

Geared toward people who need to start with the basics, this site offers simple instructions on how to set up a budget. It also has a suggested reading list and a library of "shareware," which is software developed and offered for sale by smaller companies and individual developers.

You can download shareware for a free trial, but then you are expected to send the developer a check (usually less than $50) to use it permanently.

On a more frivolous note, everyone knows that the lotteries are a waste of money, even if Americans do spend more than $25.1 billion a year on them.

But if you gambled a dollar and won, take a gander at the Jackpot page at, authored by Rob Sanford, a certified financial planner.

Its sole purpose is to answer the question, "What if I won?"

"Based on winners' case histories, we'll tell you what to say, what not to say, where to go, where to tell your job to go, and how much money to blow," Sanford promises in his introduction.

I plan to pay this site a visit as soon as Ed McMahon knocks on the door!

Featured Employers all