Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM
Originally published: August 7, 2001
This is the time to make a dramatic change in your personal financial lifestyle: using your computer to organize, track and plan your finances so you can control your money and reach your goals.
Last month, I suggested that you purchase Quicken Deluxe 99 (or Microsoft Money 99) and promised a series of helpful lessons to get you started. I hope you’ve already installed your program. It’s really very simple. Just insert the CD in the drive, and it will automatically do all the work of getting your system set up.
You’ll be asked a few simple questions in order to register your software and make all the proper connections. If you’re not sure, just answer ``yes’’ - that’s what I did! And spend a little time listening to the audio and video guides to the program. Although I tend never to read instruction books, these helpful guides answered all of my questions in advance.
There are three ways you can approach using your computer for banking: You can continue writing your regular paper checks and simply use your Quicken banking program to record your checks on the on-screen register, instead of keeping a handwritten check register. All of the information stays within your computer, and you can print out your check register if you want a hard copy.
You can use the program not only to keep your register but to actually print out checks on your printer. You’ll have to buy special checks to fit your printer, but you won’t have writer’s cramp when you finish paying your bills.
You can actually bank online, sending instructions to the bank to print and mail the checks according to your directions.
Using the check register. If you’re a bit intimidated by the entire process, start by keeping your check register on your computer inside the Quicken program. The first screen you’ll see every time you click the Quicken icon (which is installed automatically when you set up the program) is the Home Page. From there, look at the menu at the top of the screen, and choose ``Features,’’ then ``Banking’’ and then ``Create New Account.’’ The instructions will help you set up your personal checking account. Then you’ll insert the ending date and balance from your most recent bank statement. Now you’re ready to start keeping your check register on your computer.
There are several advantages to using the Quicken check register, instead of the paper one supplied by your bank. For one thing, you’ll never have to worry about reading your own handwriting! And the program will automatically subtract your balance, so you don’t have to worry about your math skills. But best of all, every time you enter a check in your register, you’ll also label it with a budget spending category. The program then can automatically track your spending in each category - either giving you bottom-line numbers or a chart or graph, so you can see where your money is going.
Computer check writing. Once you see how easy it is, you’ll want to do more computer banking. I skipped right over the idea of printing out checks on my own computer printer because I figured it was a hassle to order checks and put them in the printer. But if you do choose this route, you’ll have to order personalized checks with your account number encoded on them. (Call 800-433-8810.) When you receive your checks, load them into your printer.
To write checks using your own printer, click on ``Banking’’ and then choose ``Write a Check to Print.’’ Now you’ll see a check on your screen. Fill in the blanks as you would on any personal check: date, payee, amount. The check automatically will be entered into your computerized check register. You’ll type the address in the box, so that when you print out the check you can insert it in a special window envelope that comes with your checks, attach a stamp and mail.
As you’re writing your check, don’t forget to add the category, so it can be tracked in your budgeting program. Quicken remembers your payee names, so after the first time you won’t have to type in the address or category. When you receive your monthly bank statement with your canceled checks, you can reconcile your account with your computerized register.
See how much time you’ve saved already? No more drudgery of writing checks and filling out your check register. But the most exciting way to use Quicken is simply to skip the entire process of printing out checks, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps. Instead of issuing instructions to your own computer printer, why not click a button to go online - and send all those instructions directly (and securely) to your bank?
Banking online. Let the bank do the printing and mailing of your checks according to your instructions. And let the bank reconcile your account every month, so you can simply log in and download all the current activity. That’s like looking over the counter to see the same screen your bank teller has: You’ll know what checks have cleared and your current balance! Most banks charge less than $6 a month for this bill-paying service - that could be less than the cost of stamps!
There are two easy ways to find out if your bank offers this online banking and bill-paying service. You can call your banker. Or, on your Quicken home page, go to the menu across the top of the screen. Click on ``Online,’’ and then choose ``Financial Institutions.’’
A list of all participating institutions - including banks, credit card companies, brokerage firms and mutual funds - will pop up on the screen. Click on any one and use the simple application process to start banking online.
It’s easiest to start online banking if you already have an account at a participating bank. If your bank isn’t on the list, you may have to change banks. Or you can use the Intuit system to pay bills online from any checking account, even if your bank doesn’t offer online bill paying. Information on that procedure is found by choosing ``Intuit Online Payment’’ from the list.
I’ve been banking online for the last two years, mostly in the middle of the night! Once you try it, you’ll never go back to writing a paper check - although you always can use one of your old paper checks if you’re not near your computer. When that check clears, it will simply arrive in your online register listed as ``check,’’ and the amount will be subtracted from your balance. You’ll have to click on your checkbook register and insert the name of the payee, and the category for budget purposes.
Here are some of the things people worry about (I know I did) when they consider online banking.
Q. Can I write a check to anyone, or just big companies that are computerized?
A. You can write an online check to absolutely anyone - from the phone company to your best friend. They’ll all be mailed out according to your instructions.
Q. What does the check look like?
A. It looks like a regular paper check, although typewritten, much like a corporate paycheck. You’ll see those checks if you opt to have your canceled checks returned to you with your monthly statement.
Q. How can my online check be ``good’’ if I didn’t personally sign it?
A. It’s just like authorizing a credit card purchase over the phone. Your signature is considered ``on file.’’
Q. How often can I download my information from the bank to see what checks have cleared?
A. As often as you like, although if nothing new has happened in your account, you’ll get a message advising you of that.
Q. How can I schedule a payment in advance, and make sure the check goes out?
A. You can either put a future date on the check when you write it, or you can schedule regular monthly payments such as mortgage or rent, by clicking on ``Banking’’ and then ``Schedule a Future Payment.’’
You’ll know the check was sent by looking at your check register. If there’s a gold zigzag next to your check, you’ll know it has been sent out.
You say you’re afraid to do this all alone, worried that you’ll completely mess up your checking account? Well, there’s a lot of help available to hold your hand. Each financial institution has its own help line, and you’ll get that number right on the bank’s sign-up page. (I’ve certainly made a few late-night calls to my bank.) They’re experts in helping you set up and solve any problems getting your banking information into your Quicken (or Microsoft Money 99) program. Or for help directly from Quicken’s parent company Intuit, call (800) 446-8848 or go to www.intuit.com.
For more help with Quicken 99, I’ll have an online chat on www.Quicken.com on Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. with Quicken 99 product experts.
Next week, I’ll show you how to include your credit cards and debit cards in your money management program and how to use the ``Budget’’
feature of Quicken Deluxe 99.
Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser for stocks and commodities and is on the board of directors of McDonald’s Corp. and Pennzoil Co. You can send her questions via e-mail at email@example.com. Her second book, published by HarperCollins, is Terry Savage’s New Money Strategies for the ‘90s. Copyright Terry Savage Productions.