Finance Software That Does More Than Balance Checkbooks

One of the best things home computers do for people is track finances. They balance checkbooks, provide almost painless budgeting, and can save hours at tax time by organizing all tax-related expenditures. These functions alone make them a good value.

The best consumer finance software does more. It lets users set up debt-reduction programs, compare the real costs of various mortgages, and set up complete financial plans to handle big events such as buying a house or sending a child to college. Hooked to the Internet, consumers can also use the programs to bank online, pay bills electronically, and download stock quotes to track your portfolio. There's so much here that almost everyone would benefit by computerizing their financial records.

The best commercial software programs are Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft Money. New computers often come loaded with basic versions of these programs, which do a fine job of tracking expenses and balancing a checkbook. A few months ago, Intuit and Microsoft released new full-featured versions of their software. Either one can help make you savvier in handling money.

Intuit has long been the standard-bearer in this category of software and its new Quicken Deluxe 98 offers some solid improvements. But Microsoft has finally caught up with its new Money 98 program. Money sells for about $50; Quicken costs around $40 after rebate.

Picking between the two depends on what consumers want to do. In basic operations, both programs work almost exactly alike. You enter each transaction on the register or, if you prefer, like a check. Then you assign it to a category, such as home improvement or entertainment. This allows you to keep track of spending by category so, if you have set up a budget, you can easily see where the money is going.

Microsoft Money's big advantage is in how it integrates the big picture. For users who want to set up a comprehensive financial plan, Money's new Goal Planner is simple and straightforward.

Suppose you're about to have a child and want to figure out the financial impact.

Goal Planner steps you through the planning process from birth (average cost $5,000 to $7,000) to college ($8,000 to $19,000 tuition a year, depending on the institution). The program also factors in inflation and the return you anticipate from each investment. You can save on interest expenses too by using the debt-reduction planner. It figures out your highest-cost debt after taxes and shows the savings if you pay off the highest-cost debts first.

Quicken has many of the same features, but Microsoft steps you through the process much more easily. Once done, you'll have the clearest picture yet of where you stand financially.

Both programs are also integrated with the Internet. Using Quicken or Money, you can bank online with dozens of institutions that now offer the service, download stock quotes and financial news, even pay bills electronically for a fee. I'm not a big fan of electronic bill-paying (too many potential snafus). But I was impressed with the Internet services from Quicken.

For example, you can use the software to figure out whether it's wise to refinance a mortgage, and then go directly to Quicken's Web site to shop online for mortgage rates. Quicken also offers online comparison shopping for auto and life insurance.

You don't need to go online to benefit from this software. Whichever program you choose, you'll be more organized and better informed and, I hope, have more time to enjoy the really important things in life.

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