BEFORE Form 2106 and Schedule A become a distant memory, it's important to ask two simple questions.
Did it take too long to do your United States income taxes? Were you organized enough? Personal finances are such an individual thing that it's impossible to recommend the right way to do things. But if you're dissatisfied with the current state of financial affairs, maybe a computer can help.
For people who do it right, computerization can not only speed up the process. It can change the way you handle your money.
Just ask Susan Seifert. She used to balance her checkbook by hand. And since it was such a daunting prospect, she'd do it only once a year.
"It was sort of a little nightmare," she recalls. It took three days and usually never matched the bank statement. So she'd open up another account and start all over. "I was running out of banks," says the Fairfield, Iowa, freelance writer.
So Ms. Seifert started using Quicken, a leading personal-finance package from Intuit Inc. Now, at tax time, she prints out reports of her income and tax-related expenses, which she ships over to her accountant. Her checkbook is balanced, too.
John Bajkowski still uses paper and pencil to balance his checkbook. But he manages his stock portfolio with a computer. Perhaps that's not too surprising. Mr. Bajkowski is editor of Computerized Investing bimonthly and the annual guide to computerized investing from the American Association of Individual Investors. He's not alone. Just under half of the nonprofit association's members now use some kind of investment software program.
"It doesn't do anything you couldn't do yourself," Bajkowski says of the computer. "It just does it faster and more efficiently." Because it's faster, investors can scan more stocks with more statistical precision.
Tax software is also booming. Three years ago, the typical user of such programs was a high-income male with a personal computer (PC) and lots of computer experience.
"Now, we're finding that it's broadening so that people pick up tax software as one of the first applications they use," says Al Noyes, vice president of marketing at ChipSoft Inc. ChipSoft makes the popular TurboTax program.
There are several competitors to Quicken and TurboTax. The best known were from Meca Software Inc.: Managing Your Money and TaxCut. But the competitive waters have been muddied a bit. In mid-April, Meca agreed to merge with ChipSoft.
Personal-finance software is one of the industry's fastest-growing segments. Sales of all tax-preparation software more than doubled - to 1.6 million units - from 1990 to 1992, according to the Software Publishers Association (SPA) based in Washington, D.C. Unit sales of personal-finance packages also more than doubled during the same period - to 2.4 million units.
A recent SPA survey found that people bought home PCs for a wide variety of reasons, from entertainment to work-at-home applications. Although wanting to use business-based applications was one of the least frequently mentioned reasons, it was also the fastest growing.
"The era of the toy PC in the home is fading," says David Tremblay, the association's research director.
Rick Olson got introduced to Quicken at work, but he quickly started using it at home too. "I love it! It's my favorite software to work on." He says it has caused him to set out his budget for the coming month, pay close attention to how much he spends on recreation, and made him organized at tax time.
The next logical step, of course, would be to skip check-writing completely and pay bills electronically. Several services offer that capability. After all, what sense does it make to write out a check longhand and then reenter it in the computer?
But culturally, most users don't appear ready for that step. "It makes me a little nervous," says one longtime user of personal-finance software.
There's something reassuring about paper, especially when it comes to something as personal as your own money.
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