When the best software is no better than pen and paper

Personal computers

January 06, 1992|By Michael J. Himowitz | Michael J. Himowitz,Evening Sun Staff

When Americans make New Year's resolutions, they most frequently promise to lose weight, control their finances or quit smoking, according to a new Gallup Poll.

While a computer can't help you kick the Twinkie or tobacco habit, a lot of folks think a PC can help them get their finances in order.

The Gallup survey, in fact, was sponsored by Intuit, publisher of the best-selling Quicken personal accounting program. The results confirmed what the people at Intuit have known for years -- they have a hot market.

Quicken, by the way, is a superb program. There are other excellent financial programs on the market, including Managing Your Money, Money Counts and the new Microsoft Money.

The problem is that software designed to manage personal information, whether it be finances, names and addresses or appointments, frequently doesn't take into account that people are, shall we say, human.

If a computer is going to spit information out, somebody has to put the information in -- and that somebody is you.

To use any accounting or personal information program, you have to take the time to make it work. The results may or may not be worth the effort, which is why only a small percentage of the people I know who buy these programs actually use them.

Computers are orderly machines, but our lives are rarely orderly. Take the simple matter of managing the checking account -- the heart of most financial programs.

Before computers, we had a small, user-friendly device called a checkbook. If we wrote a check and entered the amount in the register, or made a deposit and entered it in the register, or visited the automated teller and entered the transaction in the register, everything was pretty simple.

In fact, if we were willing to perform about three seconds worth of simple arithmetic with each transaction, we'd only have minor adjustments to make when the monthly statement arrived.

With personal finance software, we can now use our computers to write checks and even make direct electronic payments through on-line services such as CheckFree. Finance programs will automatically pay recurring bills, such as mortgage payments, and record automatic direct deposits of paychecks, social security benefits, etc.

If we ran our lives from our computers, this would be wonderful. Unfortunately, we can't carry the computer to the supermarket or the dry cleaner. So we still carry checkbooks. Or most of us do. My wife hasn't let me carry a checkbook since I bounced one 20 years ago, but that's another story.

In addition to making a note in the checkbook register, we now have to enter each check we write by hand (as well as deposits and ATM withdrawals) into the finance program. Then we have to make sure that whatever we did at the PC winds up in the checkbook register. Otherwise we might bounce the weekly food check at the supermarket.

On top of that, consider that many families have two people writing checks. Being human, they occasionally forget to enter transactions in the heat of battle. Thanks to technology, instead of arguing over two checkbooks, they can argue over two checkbooks and a computer program.

The best financial software in the world won't do anything for you if you don't keep track of your checks, deposits and withdrawals. As the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out.

Likewise, consider programs that keep track of names, addresses and phone numbers. Computers are great at this kind of thing. Memory resident software can even pop up your Rolodex with a single keystroke, find the person you're looking for, address an envelope or dial his phone number.

Which would be fine if we conducted our lives from the computer. What do you do if you're on the road and don't have a portable PC?

You could use your PC to print out an address book (most programs will do this), if you're willing to bind it or deal with a sheaf of printouts. But what happens when you're away from the PC and want to add a new contact to your list?

You can scribble it down on the printout and hope you remember to enter the information into your program once you get back to the PC. Likewise, you can enter new contacts at your PC, if you're willing to print out new address books regularly.

The same goes for appointment schedulers. PCs are great at keeping track of appointments, assembling to-do lists and the like. When you sit down at the PC in the morning, it will display your whole day, week or month.

Unfortunately, many of us don't start our days sitting down at the PC. We may have that first appointment before we go to the office. And while we're on the road, we probably make other appointments. Once again, we have to manage a double-entry system to keep everything straight.

This is why many busy people, even the most PC-literate, keep this information in low-technology notebooks that fit in their pockets, handbags or briefcases.

While they're not as well organized as computer programs, the little books are always around when we need them. In fact, some of the nicest address and appointment books I've seen have been giveaways from computer companies.

Ultimately, our lives are pretty messy. Computer programs can help us organize our affairs, but they're not always suited to the way we do things.

It takes concentrated effort to make any of these programs work. If you're willing to put in the work, the rewards can be substantial. If you're not, a $5 calculator to help balance your checkbook and little black volume for phone numbers and appointments are probably all you need.

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