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Track your money via PC

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

Originally published: August 1, 2007

Here’s an investment that’s guaranteed to pay off many times over, saving you money and time and increasing your financial knowledge: a computer and first-rate money-management software.

I think most people are afraid to buy a financial program because they’re intimidated by the process - from installing the software to figuring out how to start tracking their finances to worrying about the security of their personal data. If only you had someone to hold your hand along the way, I’m sure your financial life would be revolutionized with this small investment of time and money.

So I plan to help you move into the new year with an entirely new way of managing your personal finances, using the new Quicken Deluxe 99 computer program - an investment of less than $30. There will be periodic columns to help you with the process, and we’ll even have an online chat so you can meet the Quicken experts and ask any questions you may have.

Of course, you’ll need to have access to a computer with a modem, which is becoming a necessity in the modern world. Prices have fallen dramatically, but you don’t need the latest or fastest computer to take advantage of the most productive way to organize your finances.

You may remember that nearly two years ago, I wrote a column about banking online. As I watched my son do his check-writing and banking online, I was amazed by the ease and speed of the process.

Plus, there was no need to subtract checks or balance the checkbook again. For a holiday present, he set me up with the basic Quicken software, and my banker at First Chicago (now Bank One) helped me change my checking account to an online version. I was hooked - and I’ve been singing the praises of online banking ever since.

But even if you don’t decide to bank online, it’s worth checking out the Quicken software. On the most basic level, it allows you to consolidate all of your financial information in one place. It will help you sort out where your money is going. And it will help you make decisions now that will give you a more secure future.

First steps

Getting started is easy: Insert one disc and it will take you through the process, which takes about 3 minutes. If you’re a bit intimidated by using a computer, consider this program to be your personal filing cabinet. You can type in the information from your checkbook register and update your monthly statements from your brokers and mutual funds. Then Quicken will sort it out for you so you get an easy and complete picture of your financial situation.

Since you designate a category for each check you write, at the push of a button your spending patterns are revealed.

I’m willing to bet that once you’ve seen how easy it is to use, you’ll want to go online to do everything: writing checks, downloading your credit card statements and updating your stock and mutual fund accounts.

Sure, it’s safe. Just think of how many times you hand over your credit card at a restaurant to a perfect stranger - your server. Or how many times you give your credit card number over the telephone when ordering from a catalog. The security on the Internet is far greater than either of these common practices, as long as you take simple precautions that will be discussed in the coming weeks.

Getting your financial information updated online is like being able to take a peek over the counter at the bank teller’s window. You see everything on a real-time basis. No more wondering when the check clears; just a click of your mouse will let you dial into the bank’s computers and know where you stand.

Once you’ve install the software, you’ll be able to download your information from all of your financial resources: bank, brokerage firms, mutual fund companies, credit card issuers. These days, almost every financial services company will allow you to link to and download your information once you provide a secure personal identification number to gain access.

With all that information in your computer, you get a complete picture of your finances - and the tools to make changes. With that information, you can become your own financial planner. You can customize your home page with any of 30 different financial topics, so that the instant you sign on, you’ll see your checking balance, the amount you owe on all of your credit cards, your investment portfolio and more. You set up the page to see the information in the form of simple numbers - or in a variety of graphs and pie charts that will measure your current financial situation against your budgeted goals.

Those graphs are all in color: Green says you’re on track, yellow says you might be straying, and if a section of the bar chart or graph shows up in red, you’ll know you’re way off your spending, saving or investing targets.

Planning made simple

The true advantage of using a computer to compile and track all aspects of your financial life is that you can create scenarios for your financial future. Create your own budget, and the program will track your progress.

Do you want to know how much you’ll have to save to send your child to college? Check the financial planning section. Your program already knows how much you’re saving. But to make a college savings plan, you need to decide which college your child might want to attend, and how much it will cost. That’s simple. Click to go online, and a special Web site tells you current college costs for hundreds of institutions. Click again, and you’re back in Quicken. Type in the number of years until your child starts college, and the computer will tell you how much you need to save.

Similarly, you can create other scenarios based on your own numbers that already are entered in the program through your checking, saving and brokerage statements, plus online data about things such as current mortgage rates or money market rates.

All that information allows you to decide whether you can afford to buy a house or even how much you must save in order to retire at a certain time. Want to know how long your money will last if you stop working now, invest only in bank CDs and enter a retirement home? Suddenly, all of those ``what if’s’’ can be answered quickly. Helpful advice screens guide you through the decision-making process - but you get to alter the variables and make the final decisions.

Perhaps one of the most enticing and money-saving opportunities created by managing your finances on your computer occurs when it comes to taxes. With the Quicken software, all of your checking, savings and investing information can be downloaded immediately into its TurboTax program, making your tax filing much easier. If you go one step further, the program will calculate and print out your tax forms, and you can file online.

Are you still with me? Here’s the challenge. Start now by installing the software. You can use as much or as little of the program as you want. It’s all part of the package, so you can start with the easiest things - such as organizing your checkbook register - and slowly graduate to a broader financial picture.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll write periodically to guide you through the process of using the various parts of the Quicken program. This is the way money will work in the future. And if you start slowly, it’s really understandable. If you don’t get aboard now, you’ll be living in the past. Even worse, you’ll be missing out on an opportunity to save time and money, and enhance your financial future.

So do it alone, or get a group together and follow along.

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 Her second book, published by HarperCollins, is Terry Savage’s New Money Strategies for the ‘90s. Copyright Terry Savage Productions.

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