Online resources for personal money management. (Compute's Getting Started with Personal Money Management)
by Alfred C. Giovetti
On New Year's Eve, you promised yourself you would keep better track of your money in 1993. Only a short time ago, you were shaking your head over the mistakes and incompleteness in your financial records. Each year when you sit down to do your taxes, you mourn lost opportunities or lack of knowledge that lets Uncle Sam get away with just a little bit more than his fair share.
You know that if you budgeted your expenses better and saved some more money on your taxes, you might be able to make a few good investments with the leftover money, and just maybe take that vacation, buy that special gift, or have a more secure nest egg. If you only knew how.
Dialing for Dollars
Online financial services that cover investments, personal finance, and income taxes are just a phone call away for anyone with a modem and a personal computer. Most of these services provide up-to-date information through their bulletin boards, conferences, and software. These services now offer an affordable basic service, which allows you to access most areas for a low monthly fee.
Some of the nation's top financial wizards can be found wandering the cyberspace of the online networks, talking to everyday people, such as you and me, in understandable terms. You'll find other people with similar problems, who will often ask the same questions that you have. You can read the exchange of ideas in dynamic real-time conversations or after-the-fact by downloading the automatically recorded conversations. Most online services are organized by topic making it easy to leave your questions or comments for all interested parties to read and discuss.
Writers who write about software, money matters, and computers often frequent online services for financial information and ideas for articles. The average user can query these online gurus about upcoming software and hardware enhancements. Many of the online financial experts with expertise in software write both financial and computer articles.
Many top software companies have their own specialized areas on the major online services. In addition to downloadable files, these companies provide paid professionals who are well-versed in technical, tax, finance, and investment issues. These professionals are more than willing to provide extensive online support for existing and potential customers. MECA, the company that produces TaxCut and Managing Your Money, has online representatives on CompuServe, including Andrew Tobias and Daniel Caine.
Microsoft supports its products on all the major online services. Searching under the company or product name will get you into these areas, where you can leave uncensored messages for the company. Online services also give you access to the comments of other users of the software.
The specialized online services include the Dow Jones News/Retrieval service, which gives current, minute-to-minute stock prices; full text from more than 168 periodicals, such as Japan Economic News Wire, Wall Street Journal, and Barron's; SEC filings; and press releases. Dow Jones' coverage includes lengthy analyses of earnings per share, company financial statements, full tracking and graphing of every statistic imaginable, Standard & Poor's On-Line, and Zack's Corporate Earning's Estimator.
Dow Jones costs hundreds of dollars an hour for daytime searches, but you can choose two after-hours rates with different services at $25 and $45 per month. Dow Jones also can be accessed through a CompuServe or GEnie gateway. For the GEnie $4.95-monthly basic-service fee, you have unlimited access to the Investors' RT bulletin board and files. The Investors' RT has a large software library and offers end-of-the-day cocktail-hour summaries of the day's trading. GEnie also has the Charles Schwab discount-broker online with a full spectrum of broker-based services for variable hourly rates. The Analyst is a GEnie gateway to Telescan, which provides online investment quotes. SOS is an online investor newsletter edited by a registered investment adviser.
CompuServe provides investment data on stocks, mutual funds, bonds, options, commodities, and money market funds, as well as analysis services, online databases, and online forums for consumers and businesses. CompuServe's Company Analyzer provides detailed "what if" return-on-investment figures and company statistics on earnings and management.
The special Financial Services User's Guide helps investors use the online services and forums effectively. Stock quotes are delayed 15 minutes when the market is open. CompuServe has online discount brokerage services for making stock trades and further analysis. Most investor services are billed per hour, at standard or prime rates. Other services are billed on a per-item basis, in addition to the $7.95 monthly basic-service fees.
Prodigy's Strategic Investor is an optional custom choice that's billed for an additional $14.95 per month. It provides prices for 3000 mutual funds and 4500 stocks, 50-day stock charts of as many as 50 stocks, foreign currency reports, analytical reports, investment strategy recommendations, and analyses of companies, industries, and economies.
Extra-charge investment services include Dow Jones 15-minute delayed stock quotes, half-hour market indicator updates, and an online brokerage with real-time stock quotes and online stock trading. The online databases include Brendan Boyd's Investment Digest. You can purchase software for an additional charge that will let you print (outside prime time) a daily analysis of significant market events. Prodigy's basic monthly service charge is $12.95.
America Online, with a monthly service charge of $7.95, has stock quotes on a 15- to 20-minute delay. With AOL's StockLink, you can track and analyze as many as 100 different stocks. Market News accesses real-time information on stocks, bonds, commodities, and other investments listed in NYSE, AMEX, and OTC. You can trade stocks through an online brokerage firm by accessing TradePlus Gateway and use Market Indices and Market Briefs for further information on investments.
While the major online services provide many highly specialized services that relate to finance, investments, taxes, and other money matters, these areas are more haphazardly organized, with spotty coverage of some topics. The good news is that most of these areas are included in the regular monthly basic service charges.
You can obtain surprisingly good information in the various small business forums and libraries. There you can read suggestions from business advisers and business owners who will point out what you should do if you have a problem with retailers and credit reporting services. Understanding the business person's point of view and your rights and privileges when dealing with them as a consumer can help you get the best deal on a product or service.
For advice on insurance for health, life, and disability; contract law; and tax advice from an online CPA, check out America Online's MS Small Business Center or GEnie's Home Office/Small Business (HOSB) area. One program you can download from HOSB is called Zilch. It helps you to build good credit or repair your bad credit rating. Other programs available online can help you with your home record keeping, financial planning, budgeting, real estate, and more.
All of these services can help you with your personal investing, tax, and money management problems. But be careful--or you may suffer from information overload after going online. Just be patient and take it slowly, and you can learn almost anything you need to know from the online services.