These days the PC is regarded as a multi-talented entertainer, teacher and communicator, so you might think that using one to manage your finances sounds dull. You'd be wrong.
When we talk about financial management on a PC, we don't just mean reconciling bank statements. We're talking about planning for the future: for holidays, pensions, buying a house and getting your kids (or yourself) through university.
You might choose to set up and keep track of an investment portfolio, buy and sell shares online, perhaps run a business from your spare bedroom. And even if you don't generate invoices or keep business accounts in the old-fashioned sense, your PC can still work out your tax and VAT for you.
Taking a wider view, financial management means knowing the value of your property and personal possessions, so you can arrange the right kind of insurance. It means staying on the right side of the law, paying bills on time, perhaps even operating your bank account from home. Most of all it means security - being able to see your financial position at a glance and not getting socked by unexpected bills or expenses.
With the highly graphical and easy-to-use software that's available today, managing your finances can even be fun. Let's face it, most of us get a kick out of counting our money - when we have any - and there's a better chance that there will be something left at the end of the month if it has been managed on a PC.
Money management software
For most private PC users and one-man businesses there are just two money managers worthy of consideration: Quicken 2000 and Money 2000. Between them, they have the market for personal finance software sewn up.
The product structures are rather confusing: there are two versions of Quicken 2000 (Standard at £30 and Deluxe at £50) and three versions of Money 2000 (Standard at £30, Financial Suite at £50 and Personal & Business at £70). Quicken Deluxe is broadly equivalent to Money Financial Suite and these are the two programs we'd recommend for personal use.
Both programs offer much more than just ways of logging credit card transactions and reconciling bank statements. They provide a range of financial and lifestyle management facilities, including the automatic payment of bills, online banking, mortgage and loan calculations, car purchasing advice, pension planners, home inventories and stock market quotes. Money Financial Suite will even step you through the creation of a legal will (if you live in England or Wales), while Quicken Deluxe comes with a separate tax calculation program that is able to print an official tax return ready for you to sign and send off to the Inland Revenue.
Despite being designed to manipulate figures, Quicken and Money are visually stimulating and easy to operate. They make it easier to grasp your financial position by illustrating it with graphs and charts that may be viewed on screen and printed in colour for future reference.
Using a spreadsheet
If you don't like the forward-planning, fancy graphics and internet-with-everything approach to personal money management epitomised by Quicken and Money, you can use a program that's already on most PCs - a spreadsheet - to keep track of income, expenses and payments.
Some people are put off by spreadsheets because they involve mathematical formulas, but most accounting and record-keeping is simple addition and subtraction, and modern spreadsheets have an AutoSum button to tot up columns without entering formulas.
What's attractive about a spreadsheet is that it's obvious what all the figures are for; it's easy to see when an entry is missing because there's a blank cell, and if you find a mistake you just type over it. This is different from a dedicated program in which you have to follow a prescribed routine to correct errors. It's the essence of formal accounting but it's not the way most of us work.
There's an amazing amount of free financial advice and information on the Web, so much so that we'd recommend steering clear of any sites of dubious origin, and not registering with any unregulated Internet newsgroups.
With so many reputable sources online, there's no point taking any risks with your money.
Your first port of call should be www.thisismoney.com, which is provided by Mail newspapers and the London Evening Standard. With news, advice, share prices, interest rates, an 'Ask the Expert' service and links to other sites, it might just be all you need.
Money and Quicken owners can log on to the Internet for up-to-date advice and support from within their respective programs, but the same resources are available to anybody with a Web browser. Just point it at www.quicken.co.uk or www.moneyextra.com.
The Economist magazine (www.economist.com) and the Financial Times (www.ft.com) have news, current interest rates and prices online. The Economist posts full online versions of its two most recent issues, and on the Financial Times site you can register to receive news updates via email.
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