Put this at the top of your January to-do list: Spend money to save time and money. Sound screwy? Not when you put out about $50 to buy money-management software. Install Quicken Deluxe 2000 or Microsoft Money 2000, and, either way, come December you'll send me a thank-you note. Why?
Quicken changed my life-it honestly did, and it's a rare chunk of software about which such strong stuff can be said. For years I hadn't a clue what my account balances were, and never was my checkbook balanced. Oh, often I'd come close-within $50 was good enough by my loose standards-but that was only after a painful few hours once a month when the statement rolled in.
No more. Since I started keeping my checkbook in Quicken, voila, it's balanced. I glance at the printed bank statement, it matches my Quicken records, and that's that for the month. And this is true even though my accounts now are vastly more complex-a brick-and-mortar bank for ATM access, an online bank for free electronic bill-paying and a couple of money-market accounts.
Better still, when it comes time to file taxes and my CPA calls with questions ("How much did you give your college alumni association?"), I know the answers in a few mouse clicks. Before, I dreaded those niggling questions. The simplest issue took me hours of poring through yellowed receipts to resolve. But with Quicken, it's a simple search and, as a bonus, it's easy to categorize expenses and income into tax-related groups. Want to know what you spent on your cell phone in 1999? Just ask Quicken and it'll tell you. Keep clicking that mouse and you'll uncover more than enough deductions to pay for the software.
How hard is Quicken to use? If you can use a paper check register, you can learn this highly user-friendly software in a few minutes. Even if you can't use a check register-certainly I never seemed able to-we're talking software that's made with the term "no-brainer" in mind.
What about Microsoft Money? For my money, Quicken is a bit better-a tad easier to use, backup and tweak to suit your own tastes-but if Money is free (and Microsoft bundles it with various new computers), use it and don't give another thought to spending extra cash for Quicken. The programs' differences are minimal, certainly not worth $50.
Oh, and don't delay following this advice. Quicken or Money can be kicked into action at any time of the year, but when a full year's financial records are in place (meaning: start on or near to January 1), the benefits are all the sweeter at year-end.