Having spent the thick end of £1500 on a PC you'll be pleased to know that there are now programs that can tell you exactly how poor you are, and how long you will have to go without food, to pay for your shiny new computer…

After word processing and the Internet, financial management is one of the most popular applications for a PC. It's something computers are extremely good at and home finance software packages make it easy to check bank statements, track your personal and household spending and investments. They can also help to keep the tax man happy, look after the accounts if you are self-employed, create invoices, calculate and maintain VAT records. What's more, the latest generation of software has Internet connectivity built-in, enabling on-line banking and near-real time share pricing to automatically update the value of your investments.

Once programmed with your details they can produce reports, graphs and pie charts showing your current position at a glance. Some programs will automatically prompt you when payments need to be made.

That's fine and dandy, but for those accustomed to keeping their financial affairs in their head or on scraps of paper in shoeboxes, computerisation can seem like an over-complicated and an unnecessary upheaval.  It's needn't be, but it does require a certain amount of discipline, such as keeping the computer up to date with all income and outgoings. Nevertheless, that's a small price to pay for the many benefits. Putting your finances in the hands of your PC will help you to manage your money much more efficiently. You'll be able to plan for the future more easily, bills won't come as such a nasty surprise, you can produce an instant fiscal report at any time and get an up to date valuation of your investment portfolio.

A lot of people are naturally concerned about safety and security. What happens if the computer crashes, or your house catches fire, could someone hack into your PC? You have to ask yourself what would happen to your present record-keeping system in such circumstances? Computers are no more or less vulnerable to catastrophe or interference than any other medium. Files are easily protected by making regular backups on floppy disc, high-capacity disc, tape and paper printout, which can be kept in a safe place. All packages have this provision; provided you take sensible precautions at the very worst all you would loose was the last few entries. Security needn't be an issue either. Most programs have several levels of password or PIN coded protection, that prevents access to your records, either on the PC hard disc or backup discs, it's up to you to use them.

The most time-consuming job is setting up a money management program for the first time, though you don't have to do it one session. The best time to start is at the beginning or end of a month, or whenever you get a bank statement, when you have up to date information to hand. Choose the first day of the previous month as the start date so you'll be able to reconcile the first month without any difficulty. You can of course elect to use an earlier start date, this will involve a lot of extra work, though it will give you a more complete picture of your past financial record, which might be useful for long-term planning

Several of the most popular home finance titles are quite capable of looking after the books for the self-employed or those working from home. The same general advice applies, though it makes life easier if the start date coincides with the start of your financial year or the tax year in April, when you can begin with a more or less clean slate.

Accountants like computerised books, it makes their lives a lot easier -- particularly if you've got a relaxed attitude towards record keeping and spidery handwriting -- it might even persuade them to reduce the size of their annual bills… Unfortunately the Inland Revenue still insist that personal tax returns be submitted on their own forms. As yet no program is able to reliably print entries on official stationery, however, it's a simple enough matter to prepare an IR-friendly return when all the information you need is no more than a few mouse clicks away.

There's a dozen or more money management programs on the market, aimed at home users and the self employed, but Microsoft Money 98 Financial Suite and Intuit Quicken 98 Deluxe are widely acknowledged to be the best all-rounders. Both packages have a recommended selling price of just under £50, though they can be brought for less than £40, if you shop around. The latest versions have integrated Internet features. Both packages will run on a wide range of Windows 95 PCs, (Quicken will also run under Windows 3.x), from 486's upwards, though the multimedia content on the supplied CD-ROMs, which includes tutorials, will look better on Pentium-based machines.

Both programs are reasonably easy to set up and use, with Wizards to help get you up and running in just a few minutes. Money 98 is a major revamp of the previous version of MS Money; this one now has an Internet style browser interface, that looks and works a lot like a web page. Unlike some programs that were originally written for the US market, this one has been comprehensively anglicised, with up to date information on UK taxation, mortgages, insurance and investments. However, it may not be well suited to absolute beginners. The on-line help has also come in for some criticism though it does benefit from a high level of customisation.

Intuit has taken a more evolutionary approach with Quicken 98 Deluxe and users of previous versions will find the new interface friendly and familiar. It has been written for an UK audience though every now and then it betrays its American origins. However, it is the easier of the two to use for a first-timer and slightly better equipped for the self-employed. Internet browsers are included in both programs (MS Explorer 3.02 in both instances), giving direct access to dedicated home pages on the web, from where you can set up personal portfolios to automatically update the value of your investments.

If you're still using a pen and paper to look after your personal finances you should find a PC-based money management package will make your life a lot easier. It may not make you any richer but at least you'll know exactly where all your money has gone…




Internet access program


A growing number of banks will now allow you to operate your account by telephone and some (notably Barclays Nationwide, National Westminster and Royal Bank of Scotland) are now experimenting with direct PC connection, via the Internet


Simple helper program, used to guide the user through a program's initial set-up



Intuit (0800) 585058,

Microsoft (0345) 0200000,



It doesn't take long for the Taskbar at the bottom of the screen to fill up with icons; they get smaller as the number increases and it can be difficult to read the labels. You can easily increase the size of the taskbar by moving the mouse pointer onto the top edge of the taskbar where it will turn into a vertical double headed arrow. Click and hold the left mouse button and you can increase the width of the taskbar by dragging it upwards; it can be expanded to fill half of the screen if necessary. Clearly this takes up more room on the desktop, so make the Taskbar disappear, until it is needed. Click on the Start button, then Settings and Taskbar and check the Auto Hide option. Form now on the Taskbar will only be shown when the mouse pointer is at the bottom of the screen. 

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