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Emma Lunn on software programs that make it easier to monitor all your spending, savings and borrowings
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The Independent Online

How do you keep up with your money? With savings accounts, spending on credit cards, loan repayments, transfers from a current account and investments, it's hard to keep track of all your cash.

How do you keep up with your money? With savings accounts, spending on credit cards, loan repayments, transfers from a current account and investments, it's hard to keep track of all your cash.

Many have turned to a computer for help, using sophisticated software that streamlines their finances. A typical program lets you download bank transactions and track particular payments, while others will tell you if you're sticking to a budget and offer financial projections.

But you need dedication. Quentin Pain, managing director of Accountz.com, the firm behind the Personal Accounts program, says that if you rely on personal finance software to check what you've spent against bank downloads, you're going to have to put in the effort to record every transaction you make.

The choice of package is limited. First, it depends on compatibility between your computer and the software, and second, the market has been dominated by two big players: Microsoft and its Money package, and Intuit with its Quicken software. And now this choice has got smaller. Last week, Intuit announced it was getting out of personal finance to focus on business account software, although it will support existing users until January 2006.

That leaves Microsoft in a robust position against a few smaller rivals. Money costs about £26 and lets you download records of your bank transactions and play out "what if?" scenarios that show what would happen to your finances if you earned £500 less one month, say, or spent £1,000 on a holiday.

Kelvyn Taylor, deputy editor of Personal Computer World (PCW) magazine, says the product is fairly easy to master as long as you understand the basics of money management.

Cheaper alternatives are available, however. A package called Bank Genie - www.ideasgenie.co.uk - costs £9.95 and runs on PCs with most Windows packages from Windows 95 onwards. It allows you to download bank statements and reconcile them with your own spending records. You can also see which standing orders and direct debits are due before your next payday and manage your cash accordingly.

Elsewhere, Personal Accounts can be downloaded from the internet for £19.

Before you buy any such package, check with your online bank that the software can work in conjunction with its own package; some banks offer better integration than others.

For those who don't want to take such a hands-on approach but simply to monitor their cash at a glance, it could be worth looking at an "aggregate" account. For example, online bank Egg's Money Manager lets you collect all your account details from different banks on one site, view them on one screen, and click through to relevant websites.

Another, similar, alternative is the "wrap account". Popular in the US and Australia, this online service is run through an independent financial adviser (IFA) and allows customers to see all their investments, from shares to property, on one page - even if the assets are managed by several firms. But there is a fee: Abbey and Seven Investment Management both provide the accounts, and charges start at 0.5 per cent of the value of the total investment. However, wrap providers can negotiate reduced charges with fund managers and other product providers, which means account holders may pay less for their investments.

What to go for out of these different packages will depend on what you need, says Mr Taylor at PCW. "Is it just to reconcile accounts or to do financial planning?"

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