03.Choose a package
There are dozens of PFS packages available, ranging from free to very expensive depending partly on what level of support you expect. Some of the more sophisticated ones advertise a range of powerful features to pay bills, manage stocks and shares and prepare tax returns, but most of these advanced features tend to be unavailable or unsupported in Australia. On the other hand, we’re used to sophisticated online facilities from our banks, such as BPAY and direct debit, so perhaps they’re less necessary.
If you’re to derive real value from using one of these packages, you’ll need to keep your data up to date. We strongly advise starting with a simple, free package so you can find out just how useful it really is and how much effort is required. We’ve focused on just a few to highlight the differences.
ANZ Money Manager
One that’s really easy to use is ANZ Money Manager.
- It’s an online service based on a US system called Yodlee.
- It recognises most Australian banks and credit card accounts.
- It’s not restricted to ANZ customers, and it’s free.
You provide your sign-in details for each of your accounts – bank, mortgage, loans, credit cards – including your password, and it pulls the data directly together – see above for an example of one account. It’s smart enough to categorise your expenses into groups without your help, so you can get summaries immediately or amend the classifications to taste. Of course, you have to trust the application with your sign-on details, which is a step too far for many people.
Microsoft Money Plus Sunset Deluxe
Money Manager’s other limitation is that, if it can’t source data directly from your financial institution – some credit unions, for example, aren’t linked – the only way to enter the data is manually, one transaction at a time. If that’s a problem for you, or you simply prefer to have the data in your own hands, it’s hard to go past Microsoft Money for a fully featured application that costs nothing.
- Microsoft stopped selling Money in June 2009, but to avoid leaving its users high and dry, it provided a stand-alone replacement called Microsoft Money Plus Sunset Deluxe.
- There’s also a Sunset Home and Business version with the features of the old Home and Business edition, both free.
- You can download either from Microsoft without registration. We’ve used Microsoft Plus Sunset Deluxe in our Master Your Money tutorial in the September/October edition of CHOICE Computer.
Easy Envelope Budgeting Aid
If envelope budgeting's caught your imagination, you can try out the concept for nothing – provided you have an Android phone – with EEBA, the Easy Envelope Budgeting Aid.
- EEBA lets multiple users access the same information so you and your partner can see and update your shared envelopes from your individual phones.
- When you enter information, it even uses its built-in GPS to take account of where you are when offering likely alternatives for what you’re spending right now.
- If you need more than five envelopes or more than two users, however, or want the features of other PFS packages such as importing bank statements, balancing the books and handling recurring expenses, you’ll need the Plus or Premium variants at $5/month and $8/month respectively.
For more assistance in envelope budgeting, there’s a program called YNAB – You Need a Budget. It costs $US59.95 but has lots of basic budgeting advice and guidance as well as the basic support.
And the rest
Of course, Microsoft Money only runs on Windows. For Apple or Linux fans, GnuCash and HomeBank are free, open-source applications that run across the three environments.
- EEBA is limited to Android phones, but there are other apps for the iPhone and iPad, such as Home Budget – free for the lite version, $5 for the full one – or PocketMoney for $6.
Generally, we favour free software over paid, especially in the investigation phase when you’re finding out what it can do and whether you can afford the effort to use it properly. But no survey of PFS would be complete without a look at Quicken, the commonly accepted benchmark. Quicken is a powerful program but also costly – even the most basic version, Quicken Personal 2011, costs $89. You can download a free trial version that gives you 90 days to decide whether you can or can’t live without it – much more generous than the seven-day trials offered by others. It has some Australian-specific features, such as categorising items in line with the questions in the ATO’s Tax Pack, but only if you step up to the Personal Plus edition at $209. A former free online version of Quicken, Quicken Online, was discontinued late last year and absorbed into Mint, a name that comes up frequently in searches for online financial software. Unfortunately, Mint only supports US institutions.
The following table summarises some of the alternatives you might like to take a closer look at.