The Quicken accounting program achieves the same effect in its early stages. Merely sitting at the machine and being asked to feed in information pushed me into starting to sort out my finances, record transactions and investigate the deep black hole into which money keeps disappearing. You could get the same result with a dummy program. But quickly I was sucked into exploring realms beyond the reach of pen and paper. I started by setting up a simple current account, in which you enter your income and expenditure. This is easy, as you can jump from one 'field' - such as the date or amount - to another using the Tab or Enter keys on the keyboard. No nonsense about aligning columns or decimal points. All that is done automatically, as is the updating of the balance.
What this gave me was a duplicate of my bank statement, which may seem of limited value at first, but it allowed me to check instantly for errors by my bank and - much more likely - to check for any of my own errors shown up by the bank transactions.
The account is also available any time I need it. Better still, it tells me what each cheque was for, so I do not have to keep hunting for stubs. If you type in random dates, Quicken will sort them into chronological order.
Next it does something no bank statement can do. When entering expenditures, I attached categories such as groceries, travel, motoring, children or anything else I felt would give a relevant breakdown. So the program is able to give me instant reports, showing how much I have spent in each category in a given period. It will also draw pie charts or graphs showing trends in your spending - not always for those of nervous disposition.
Quicken also allows you to put in a budget to compare with what you actually spend. You can label transactions that will be of interest to the tax office and then bring them together in one schedule.
Excited by all this, I moved on to open other accounts - for cash, savings and investments. Provided they are stored in the same file, it will transfer funds and adjust both balances automatically. If I input my standing orders, it will debit or credit each account on the right date. Then I can call up reports or graphs that bring all the accounts in one file together, showing total income and out-goings, trends in all or specified categories, cash flows and - the real test of character - 'net worth'.
Move on a stage and the value of the program for small businesses becomes more obvious. It will organise and calculate everything to do with VAT, both paid and collected and provide the figures for VAT returns.
For a fumbling amateur like myself, the program is easy to use and the manual is clear and reasonably well-written. Menus pop up for most operations, and they are superimposed slightly offset, so you can see what you are doing if you need to step back to earlier menus using the keyboard's Escape key.
There are short cuts for many operations and it is easy to correct errors. The telephone help-line was quick and friendly.
A fancy computer is not needed, though you must have a hard disk. The program works well on my elderly IBM with a monochrome screen and no Windows operating software. In colour and in the Windows version it is doubtless still better.
I found no serious shortcomings with the program, except that the Dos version - operating with the standard PC operating system, MS-Dos - would not print graphs. For that you have to get the Windows version.
One small, mundane gripe is that the manual will not lie open on the table, so you have to take one hand away from the keyboard to hold it down, making first-time operations slow and cumbersome.
Quicken's efforts to be 'user friendly' are mildly endearing. When you are setting up, someone called your 'File Assistant' rushes around inside performing small tasks for you that would otherwise require much more work on the keyboard. Occasionally this assistant, or someone in there, tries to amuse you by asking daft questions and then congratulating you on getting them right. What they really need is a counsellor to utter soothing words of reassurance when the graphs start showing your expenditure inexorably overtaking your income and your net worth dwindling away. In those dark moments one is tempted to return to the comforting confusion of pencil and paper and large areas of ignorance.
Program: Quicken Personal accounts manager
Hardware: Hard disc
Software: Dos or Windows
3 Manor Court, High Street, Harmondsworth, Midd UB7 0BR. 0800-585058
Availability: Specialist shops and mail order
Dos: pounds 49.94 (inc VAT)
Windows: pounds 59.95 (inc VAT)
REVIEW JARGON BOX
Fields, records and files: Computer programs, particularly those using figures, store separate items of information such as a date, an amount or a balance in a field; a collection of items which go together, such as that which makes up a line on a bank statement, is called a record; a collection or records, such as that on a monthly bank statement, is called a file.
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