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We may remember how our parents kept their personal financial records decades ago — in legal-sized ledger books, with page after page of scrawled figures, bank statements stapled to the pages. Somehow they were able to keep track, but it sure took an effort, and as one account was closed and another opened, the ledger may have gradually become incomprehensible, certainly to an outsider trying to make sense of it.

It’s hard to find anyone keeping their important financial records in such fashion these days; personal financial software packages have been available since the early days of personal computing, and with the advent of the Internet, bank statements and other financial records can be downloaded automatically as they become available, leaving very little for the home user to do. The best software programs are not only for recordkeeping, but for real planning, and these programs offer tools that track spending and saving patterns, make projections, produce budgets, and help plan for retirement and other goals.

The U.S. market for personal financial software is dominated by a single product: Quicken, sold by Intuit. For years, Microsoft tried to compete with Intuit, with its Microsoft Money software, but has discontinued the product. Quicken has succeeded by continuing to distribute and upgrade an easy-to-use product, by tying in with financial institutions around the world to allow for downloads of statements, and by acquiring TurboTax, the predominant U.S. tax preparation software, which works seamlessly with Quicken. The loyal customer base that has developed for the past twenty-plus years around both Quicken and TurboTax are reluctant to change products, and thus possibly jeopardize the integrity of their financial records, built up so carefully over the years.

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Quicken, and most other products on the market, are more than adequate to handle your personal financial recordkeeping, maintaining bank accounts, investment accounts, brokerage accounts, inventories of personal property, credit card and other debt, and any other conceivable situation involving your money, all the while keeping track of every day-to-day transaction for each account. These software products are now focusing more on planning tools, enabling users to put together budgeting plans, offering suggestions for cutting costs as well as for setting financial goals and sticking to them. No software package is going to replace a face-to-face meeting with a professional financial planner, but the planning tools in Quicken and other programs can give you a good start, and there are plenty of on-line forums for users, swapping ideas about how to get the most out of their software. If you have any questions about how to use your software, it’s more likely that you’ll get a quick answer from a user forum rather than from the software manufacturer’s help line.

Many personal financial software packages also have modules for small businesses; Intuit, for instance, sells QuickBooks, a dedicated program for small businesses that is based on standard double-entry accounting practice, that has enabled thousands of small business owners to do away with their outside accounting services and put all the record keeping into the hands of an in-house employee. QuickBooks is affordable; there are more expensive programs on the market for small companies that require a more robust program (Peachtree and Accpac, both now owned by Sage, are both long-standing programs with large user bases), so study on-line comparisons to ensure that you get the capacity you need.

For those who don’t need a full-featured personal financial software package, there are a number of free programs available for download, or for use on-line. Even Microsoft, after discontinuing Microsoft Money, offered a truncated version, Microsoft Money Sunset Deluxe, for free. There are many of these free programs, and some will be better than others. You can download a few and give them a trial run, but hunt down objective reviews on-line and find a program that is generally reliable and that offers some kind of support.

Of course, with so much of your financial information now on-line or traveling between a remote server and your computer, it is important that, when you download statements or other information to your software, there is robust encryption. Quicken, for instance, ensures that all data it downloads from your banks or other financial institutions is adequately encrypted. Some smaller programs, whether free or on-line only, may not offer such a level of encryption, so it is important to do some research.

If you are still keeping your financial information in ledger books, it’s high time you looked into a software package, as a time saver and a planning tool. And if you’ve used Quicken or some other personal financial software package for years to simply balance your checkbook, perhaps you should upgrade to a more recent version and really see what your software can do for you.

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