Minding your money. (evaluation) Corey Sandler.
If you could show me a man of woman whose checkbook is always in balance and whose personal financial budget is always on target, I would write you a check for a four-course dinner. That is if there's enough money left in my own account--I lost track of the bottom line some time last August.
There's something about low finance that confounds most of us. I usually forget to record at least one check a month; my wife specializes in creative mathematical concepts.
And so, it is not surprising that one of the most popular categories of personal software for microcomputers is the electronic checkbook balancer. There are, I believe, three reasons for this: first, almost every rec room programmer since the first micro came home has written one, and half are still on the market; second, almost every owner of a microcomputer at home has settled uon the checkbook balancer as the answer to the question, "But what does it do?"; and third, there just may be a real service that a comprehensive checkbook program can perform for you.
From Simple to All-Encompassing
Check programs range from modest and unassuming to the electronic equivalent of the Swiss Army Knife. And programs are available for almost every brand of microcomputer. In this article (and in the accompanying review by Ken Uston) we'll look at a number of selections from three categories:
* Checkbooks on disk. These are essentially simple calculators and one-dimensional databases. Such programs allow you to open up your checkbook file (or a savings account or other asset account) and add or substract deposits or withdrawals. Almost all of these simplest of programs allow you to allocate income or expenditures to a particular budget line, and you can track income and outgo according to those categories.
* Personal finance managers. These are simple calculators with relational databases or other designs of linked files. Many of these programs also compete on the basis of bells and whistles and grandiose capacities. Budget tracking usually includes charting and graphing, color displays (red phosphor instead of red ink), and the ability to track expenditures or income across several different asset or liability accounts. Some also allow you to print checks on special stock.
* The Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Personal Finance claimants. Most of these include all the features of the advanced calculator and relational database, and add into the mix as many related financial measures as the author can imagine or fit on a disk. Some programs include mortgage amoritzation tables, life insurance and annuity calculators, personal inventory and net worth databases and calculators, loan comparison algorithms, future value of money programs, and other goodies germane and obscure. One program (otherwise forgettable and not reviewed here) includes amongst its bells a set of musical selections, including "We're in the Money."
Are the programs of value? On the face of it, there would seem to be no doubt that almost any personal finance program can be of assistance to any individual or family in managing income. Nearly all of the authorities on personal finance say that establishing a budget (or tracking expenditures and income after the fact on the basis of meaningful categories) is a critical first step in understanding the true nature of your finances. And it is almost certainly true that using the computer as a high-priced adding machine and filing cabinet will help you be more accurate in your math and more reliable in your collection of important personal and tax-related data.
But, you must use the program. First off, you have to spend the time to collect all of the information on your various bank accounts, money market deposits, salary, and other income sources. You have to determine which expenses you want to track and in what degree of detail (some of the programs want to you to record the disposition of every penny of pocket change, a depressing kprospect for disorganized folk like me.)
And then you have to have the discipline to sit down in front of your computer every day, or once a week, or once a month, and spend the time to record and allocate all of the checks, deposit slips, and income credits.
If it is a habit you can establish, then you are qu ite likely to derive real benefit from a personal finance program. I have found using such programs to be a bit of a chore, and my dedication to them uneven. However, my accountant was very impressed with the paper I presented him at tax time, and so too was the mortgage banker struggling to understand the complicated finances of a freelance writer with 20 different sources of income in a typical good year. (The fact that a computer-printed financial report is not necessarily any more accurate than a hand-scribbled note on a yellow legal pad is almost always overlooked by normally hard-nosed accountant types. It just looks so very important.)
The real key to a successful home finance program, in my opinion, is the degree to which the program can be the expert's opinion of the most logical way in which to organize income and outgo; other programs represent some programmer's idea of the best way to organize a piece of software. In either case, the program may hafve little to do with the way in which you keep track of your financial status.
For example, I don't want to have to change the way in which I record expenses and deposits. I want to be able to jump around from one income source to another or from one asset account to another. I keep four different checking accounts for various purposes and several mutual fund and investment accounts, and I switch from one to another regularly. I have several tax deductible activities, but I need to consolidate all of the elements on one statement.
If all this sounds like an argument not to use a personal finance manager, it is not meant as such just do spend the time to sit down and think through what it is you want a program to do for you, and then give some consideration to the nature of your finances and the way in which you spend your money. After that is done, try to find program that will computerize your record keeping in a manner that is consisent with your way of doing business. Some of the packages here are available in demonstrations versions; others can be previewed at your dealer.
Certified Public Accountant
This product is hereby certified as worthy of consideration for IBM PC users. This is a full-featured personal budgeting and checkbook accounting package that is as fast as any I have worked with and possessed of enough intelligence and thoughtful organization to make learning and use relatively painless.
The program divides up your various current asset accounts into electronic folders and then allows you to enter quickly dates, amounts, budget categories, and notes within each account. The program displays a running balance for each account as changes are made. The program requires you to enter just enough information to distinguish one category from another--CH (in upper- or lowercase characters) signifies checking: A 30 85 is sufficient information for the computer to figure out you mean April 30, 1985. You can also cycle through all available categories by hitting the spacebar before entry--when you see the one you want, just hit Retu rn to accept it.
The 200-page printed manual is quite easy to use, but the program also provides for on-line help at the press of a ? key. The program will display in 40-or 80-column mode, on a monochrome or color RGB monitor. The software is not copy protected and can be run off a hard disk. I tested CPA using an IBM PC-XT, and the program practically flew along on autopilot. On a 128K PC, the program will allow as many as 100 asset accounts, 100 budget categories, 20 credit card, checking, savings, or money market accounts, 100 liabilities, 50 stock holdings, and 50 tax categories. A standard disk will hold at least 1000 entries, and a hard disk, many more than that.
Among reports produced by the program are the status of particular asset accounts, expenditures and income by category, and a personal balance sheet that includes dollar values and a percentage of the whole calculation for each element. The package will transfer data to other members of the Sundex family, including Certified Personal Investor and Personal Payables.
Dow Jones Home Budget
This product fits into the assets account.
As befits its conservative parentage, this is a capable, pin-striped and rep-tie home acccounting program. (I kept expecting to find "Polo expenses" and "Alligator shirts" under budget castegories.) There is no color, no beeps and buzzes. Waht you get instead is like the inside pages of the Wall Street Jurnal: straight to the point, strictly business accounting.
The program allows construction of a database of as many as 200 accounts, which can be subgrouped under 63 different codes. For example, you could establish a House category and subdivide it into mortgage, insurance, maintenance, furnishings, and other expected expenses. The program will store as many as 2500 transactions on a single floppy disk, more on a hard disk.
Based around classical double entry bookkeeping, the program calculates the bottom line on the basis of the formula: Assets=Liabilities + Reserves. Assets are any current or fixed asset, including investments and property; liabilities include loans, credit cards, accounts payable, and taxes payable. Reserves are accounts that indicate how the total assets are being allocated--mortgage, utilities, food, clothing.
The program is not copy-protected and can be run from a hard disk after the DOS ASSIGN command is used to fool the computer into thinking that the C or D drive is the same as the A or B looked for by the program.
All moves within the program are made from menus with single character choices: A for account names, B for balances, D for built-in desktop calculator, etc. The transaction form is similarly direct (see Figure 1).
You are asked before the Description line whether you are entering an Increase or a Decrease in an account (entries cn be made in any order). To enter an automobile expense, you could type in AUTOMOBILE, or enough of the name to make it recognizable by the computer, in this case AU. You could also enter the account code number. If all else fails, striking the Return key brings you to a listing of all available codes.
The program will print out onscreen, or on a printer, a complete balance sheet or a category by category statement. A set of vary simple ASCII character graphs can also be called for to show whether particular budget lines are in balance or to chart cash flow. There is also a mini-database retrieval segment that allows you to search for particular items--the command structure is, like much of this program, very severe and demanding.
I found this program to be a fully capable, solid, and dull companion for my IBM PC.
Peachtree Home Accountant/Finance Manager
The Peachtree Home Accountant is a peach of a program, and the Hes Ware Finance Manager makes a pair. I took a look at the Peachtree product early on in my tour of these products and liked it. A few weeks later I received the Finance Manager and liked it, too. It took about ten minutes before I realized that they were nearly identical. A call to HesWare confirmed the common software, I will refer to both products as if they were a single program.
The program is a very intelligent, intuitive system. Throughout the package you have only to enter enough of a code or a date to distinguish the entry from other similar listings. If you have an account called CHECKING and one called CHASE MANHATTAN, the program will accept CH (or ch) as input and then ask which one of the possible selections you want. Similarly, d 12 84 is sufficient for the program to figure out that you mean December 12, 1984.
The program is built around a single basic transaction screen, which is used for expenses, deposits, and transfers (see Figure 2 on page 62).
If I had wanted to post income, I would have listed in the TO category the code name for a checking account and in the FROM category the code for a source of income such as salary, interest, blacjack winnings, or whatever.
Reports include a detailed listing of income and expense by month or for the entire year, a net worth listing that includes book value and market value for assets, and a posting of all accounts.
The weak point of the program would be in use as a daily checkbook balancer. Current balances are not listed on screen as deposits and expenses are posted. Instead, you must exist the transaction screen to look at a balance sheet for that information. However, I found the simplicity and logic of this program, with its related ability to work with the tangled mess of my personal finances, to be very attractive.
Both programs come with capable manuals; Hes Ware's Finance Manager would seem to have a slight edge in this department. In addition, Hes Ware provides two copies of the program while Peachtree offers just one. With either program, the system can be run from a hard disk, although the original floppy disk must be present in a drive for copy protection purposes.
Your Money Matters!
This is one from the rec room. It will accomplish the tasks you ask of it--simple account management and checkbook book balancing, but no home budgeting--but it is very insistent that you do your work its way. That way includes the use of numbers or precise names for accounts; an insistence on very precise entry of dollar value without dollar signs or commas; and no on-screen help. The "complete user manual" advertised is a 12-page instruction pamphlet of minimal assistance.
I was surprised to find that the program would accept incorrect dates--my entry for the 32nd of December was eagerly swallowed up by the Apple IIE on which I tested the program. The program also hung up when I directed it to print something without having first turned on my printer. There was no way out but to shut off the computer and dump the contents of RAM into the ether.
Data disks from Your Money Matters! can contain as many as 50 accounts and 2800 entries. The single entry system allows for flexibility in determining your own system, if you can get it to work within the framework of the product.
Complete Personal Accountant
The version of the Complete Personal Accountant I reviewed lives up to its name, within the limits of the Commodore 64 computer. As anyone who has ever used a C64 can attest, the disk drives on the unit are not exactly gazelles in flight--they are more like crippled turtles. And this product makes many disk accesses for its full menu of features.
The program is available in various modules. The deluxe set for the Commodore includes a double-entry Checkbook register and balancing program, an asset management segment, the ability to print checks, a personal budgeting module with graphic display of goals and reality. Also included are a mailing list manager, a payments calendar to alert you to bills due, and a personal appointment calendar. The 190-page instruction book is clearly written and well organized. As many as 99 accounts and 300 sub-accounts are allowed--the program comes with a "standard" chart of accounts which can be used or adapted to your needs.
Each of the modules is swapped in and out of memory from disk as needed--the best use of your time would be to plan ahead and do all of your calendar work at one time before moving on to the disk drive for the checkbook or assets module.
All selections are made from a logical on-screen menu of options. The program includes a wide range of maintenance options, including the ability to delete, add, or rename accounts during the course of a year. The checkbook and other accounts can be searched by date, amount, or other element of the record. Two additional modules, not reviewed, are available to tie into this product: a spreadsheet to perform "what if" financial analysis, and The Tax Handler to assist in tax computations.
This product offers a lot of bang for the buck of a Commodore 64 owner.
Personal Accountant is a simple double-entry accounting system that is reasonably simple to use. It is also the only product of this group that is also available in a cassette version, for use with the Commodore 64 machine. Use with the tape, though, will prove quite frustrating if you have very much data--the serial storage on a tape (one bit after the other) makes for very slow and inefficient retrieval and updating of information in comparison to a floppy disk drive--even Commodore's aforementioned slow drives.
In a double-entry system, you must enter a source of income and a place of expenditure for every transaction--what the accountants call credits and debits. The system can make eminent sense in simple applications, but money transfers and credit purchases can easily complicate the system. For example, a grocery store bill is debited from the checking account balance and credited to the food expense account. That is easy enough to follow. But if you were to borrow $8000 for a car, you would be crediting a loan account with the amount of the loan; each payment would be a debit from the loan account and a debit from the checking account.
As befits its humble aims and the limited memory and capability of the Commodore machine, the Personal Accountant is very demanding in the nature of entries. Dates must be entered as six-figure numbers: 040185 for April 1, 1985. Amounts must be entered without commas. Names of accounts must be entered precisely as stored, or the computer will not recognize them or will assume you are opening a new account.
A floppy disk can store as many as 4000 entries in any of 144 accounts. The cassette can store the same number of entries, dependent upon the length of tape and the number of accounts identified. The cassette operating system offers the option to subdivide the tape into 44, 70, or 144 accounts.
Also included in the program is a simple loan amortization calculator and a database for storage of names and addresses.
The program works, within its limited bounds. Commodore owners with minimal systems might question whether the software on cassette is really easier to use than a three-ring binder--although a three-ring binder won't impress the neighbors quite as much as an electronic program, no matter how slow.
Checks & Balances
This is another refugee from the plastic baggie school of computer programming (well, yes, it does come in a vinyl case, but packaging isn't everything).
Checks and Balances is a very limited, sometimes dense checkbook and budgeting program. Its claim to fame is that its on-screen displays include a full-screen editor allowing you to make changes, additions, or deletions anywhere on the screen prior to posting. The process moves fairly quickly, though, once you have figured out the structure of the package.
The manual won't give you much help. In addition to mixing CP/M and MS-DOS instructions in the same slim volume, the book offers very little in the way of an overview of procedures. I was able to load the package (it is copyable and can be run from a hard disk) and figure it out for myself, but then again, I had just finished looking at ten other packages and had financial programs on my mind.
This program has all of the necessary elements of a home financial package, including a Rolodex of storage of names and addresses and the ability to print checks. Its on-screen check register is starkly simple, and its limited database will do what is necessary for users familiar with simple searching techniques.
Missing is the polish and style of a commercial product and the acknowledgement that some of us are not computer programmers (and that those who are may not care to become involved in the structure of a checkbook balancing package). I can't recommend this product in comparison to other IBM programs, unless price is everything (in which case you probably need a very capable financial program to keep track of your small resources). It is the only program reviewed here that claims a CP/M version, which could make all the difference if you own a CP/M system.
Products: Certified Personal Accountant (computer program)
Dow Jones Home Budget (computer program)
Peachtree Home Accountant (computer program)
Finance Manager (computer program)
Your Money Matters! (computer program)
Complete personal Accountant (computer program)
Personal Accountant (computer program)
Andrew Tobias' Managing Your Money (Personal finance software)
Your Personal Net Worth (computer program)
Checks and Balances (Computer program)