How good is Microsoft Money?

Janet Swift reviews the software that tackles everything from current accounts to investment and mortgages
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Financial software has often been thought of as difficult to use but the new version of Microsoft Money is a Windows 95 product and has a very distinctive look and feel, with quality graphics throughout.

The program is aimed at individuals and their personal finances rather than at companies. It is designed to let you organise day-to-day transactions, to keep track of savings and investments, to budget household expenditure and to plan your longer term finances.

Even with all the extra resources this software can provide there is no getting away from the fact that maintaining financial records requires discipline. The difficult part is getting started, gathering together the information about bank and building society accounts, standing orders, direct debits, stocks and shares, loans and so on.

Microsoft Money makes this setting up as easy as possible and its Account Wizard steps in right at the beginning to guide you. If you are familiar with Microsoft's latest generation of software you will have met a Wizard before - they ask direct questions, present clear choices and offer advice.

Once you have set up your first account, normally a bank current account, you can start to use it to record income and pay bills using the Payment Calendar which shows the current month at a glance. It is easy to set up regular events, such as income from wages and expenditure such as mortgage payments and phone bills.

Whenever you open Money you will automatically be reminded of bills and deposits that are due to take place and can see at a glance how these affect your bank balance.

One facility the programme offers is printing cheques but you'll need to buy personalised stationery. Select, or type, the name of the payee, enter the amount, and Money fills in all the rest.

Another optional benefit is being able to see at a glance how you spend your money. Using Money's facilities for assigning expenditure to categories you can ask "where did it all go?" and of once get an informed answer. There is a long list of supplied categories including food, clothing, furnishings and holidays. But you can add or delete items to tailor it to your own circumstances. You can also ask for charts and reports to show how much goes out per month or each year.

Budgeting is the next logical step and Money will help you with this, enabling you to compare your actual expenditure with your targets.

As well as dealing with everyday finances you can also maintain a picture of all your financial interests in a way that will aid decision making.If you have stocks and shares the Investment Portfolio will help you track them. Of course, Money does not have knowledge of the markets. You have to supply the figures for price variations over time but it will do the sums to show you the implications for your holdings and chart them so that you can see what's going on.

For the bigger picture you can turn to the Planning Wizards. The Retirement Planner for example raises financial considerations that need to be contemplated sooner rather than later. Its savings calculator shows you how to reach a goal or to indicate how much your savings could amount to. The loan calculator can be used to work out the repayments on a loan or to compare two alternative loan schedules.

The final item on offer is a Mortgage Planner which helps you to select between alternative mortgages. But this exposes the limitations of the software. It does not take account of many of the central but difficult considerations, such as the different types of mortgage, eligibility for tax relief and mortgage protection insurance. So you will still need more advice. But Microsoft Money is meant as an aid for personal financial record keeping and organisation and not as a replacement for professional financial consultation.

The six best things about Microsoft Money

You can see your financial standing at a glance. If your current account is overdrawn a message in red will indicate the danger.

Account Wizard steps in at the beginning, asking you questions, and guides you throughout.

Cheque printing facility. Select the name of the payee, enter the amount and the programme fills in all the rest.

The "where did it all go?" option provides charts and reports to show how much goes out each month or year and on what.

The Retirement Planner raises financial issues that need to be addressed. The savings calculator shows how to reach a goal.

Microsoft Money is available from 1 November. If you register to buy it before October 31st it will cost pounds 12. Thereafter, pounds 39.99 (inc. VAT) Telephone 0800 973179.

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