Chapter 17 - Keeping the books

You may have retired, but a lot of the same programs that kept the office humming along are useful at home, too.

Darryl uses his PC for online banking, managing his stock accounts and keeping track of his credit cards and insurance policies

"Just paying bills online alone is a wonderful time and labor saver," he says. "I prepare my tax return on the computer and file it electronically."

Darryl is not alone. An increasing number of people are using their home computers to file their taxes online, make investments or just keep their checkbook. Let's look at some of the ways we can use our computers to help us with the number crunching.

Personal finance

At first, typing your checkbook registry into the computer might seem like more of a time waster than saver. But categorizing every transaction for your savings, checking and credit card accounts allows you to create reports that can be a huge help with budgeting.

For instance, you could calculate your average weekly grocery bill, or find out how much you spent during the past six months on gasoline

The two giants in this software genre are Quicken (from Intuit, for Mac and PC) and Microsoft Money (for the PC only).

They offer a screen that looks like a checkbook register in which you type your transactions as if you were entering them into a checkbook. You can categorize each transaction under such subjects as "Utilities" or "Groceries," allowing you to create those reports later. If you want, you can even use the software to print checks (although you'll have to buy special computer checks.)

To save time with entering, many banks and credit card companies have secure online sites that allow you to download the transactions onto your computer. You'll often still have to enter the categories, though.

Both Quicken and Microsoft Money boast features to move your information into tax software, but each has its own partner. They also offer long-range planning, investment advice and other features.

Spreadsheets

A spreadsheet is the electronic equivalent of a giant worksheet. It's made up of rows and columns, and each box (called a cell) contains a number, label or mathematical formula.

The most popular spreadsheet program is Excel (included with the Microsoft Office suite), but you can also use a free one called Calc that's part of the OpenOffice.org suite.

Remember the old Battleship game? A spreadsheet is set up similarly, with columns labeled A, B, C, etc. across the top, and rows labeled 1, 2, 3, etc. down the left side. Each cell is named based on the column letter and the row number - A3, M15 or B6. You enter numbers or labels into the cells or type in formulas to calculate totals, averages, etc. You can base the formulas on the contents of another cell.

Say for instance you wanted to keep track of your monthly electric bills. You type your January electric bill amount into B1, your February bill into B2 and so on until your December bill into B12.

You could create a cell underneath at B13 with a formula such as "=SUM(B1:B12)" which would calculate the total of all of those cells. It's taking the sum of everything from the cell B1 down to B12. And if you change your March bill from $120 to $150, it will automatically adjust the total.

The formulas available to you are seemingly limitless, as is the size of the spreadsheet. Just scroll left or down and see if you can reach the end!

Spreadsheets also offer graphical ways of showing your data. You could create a pie chart showing where your money goes, or a bar chart based on the electric bill data we entered.

Databases

Databases do many of the same things that spreadsheets do, but offer greater complexity and flexibility. They're also better for handling combinations of text and numbers, while spreadsheets tend to specialize in numbers.

A database contains information that can be searched, sorted and composed into useful reports. You can use database software to keep track of everything from your CD collection to creating invoices for a business.

For an example of a database, let's look at our local white pages telephone book. It's just a report, culled from a database of information provided by the phone company.

The database table contains the name, address and telephone number of each person. The different entries in the table (Last Name, First Name, Address, Telephone) are called fields. Each collection of fields is called a record. One record is "John Smith 2200 W. Main St. (555) 555-5555." There are hundreds of thousands of records in a typical phone book.

For the report (the printed white pages), the database was sorted in ascending alphabetical order based on Last Name. If we had access to this database instead of just a report, we could ask the database to give us all the numbers of people with the first name Dirk. Or, we could request all of the phone numbers that ended in 1234.

The power of a database comes after you fill it with information. You can ask it these types of questions - called queries - to extract information. Then, you can create reports on those queries to pass along to others.

The most popular database program is Microsoft Access, which is not included in the standard Microsoft Office version but is packaged with higher-priced versions. Another is Corel's Paradox, which is part of higher-priced WordPerfect Office packages. There's also a free one called Base that's part of the OpenOffice.org suite. All of these are considered relational databases, meaning you can link and cross-reference tables with different information.

For instance you could have a database in which one table contains the name, address and telephone number of everyone in your town. Then you could link it with another table that lists everyone who has outstanding parking tickets. You could then ask it to print a report giving the name and telephone numbers of everyone with outstanding parking tickets so you could call and remind each of them to pay up.

Tax Software

Tax time is never fun, but it can be a lot easier with tax preparation software.

The top two products in this category are Quicken TurboTax and H&R Block's TaxCut. They run around $30, but you do have to buy it every year to keep current with the ever-changing tax laws.

Instead of making you fill out complex forms, the programs act like an accountant, asking you to provide information in an interview process. It will then put the numbers in the appropriate boxes and even help you search for some extra deductions.

You can print and send in your return, or file online. If you file online, you can check the status of the return and have your refund deposited automatically to your checking account (or have your tax due pulled from your account). As I mentioned before you can import data from your personal finance software.

Another thing to consider: If you want to use the program to calculate your state tax, you'll often have to buy an additional state-specific edition each year.

Legal documents

Whether you want to prepare a will or send a complaint letter to a company that ripped you off, there are many programs to help you prepare your own legal documents.

These programs are quick to point out that they are not substitutes for the advice of an attorney, which is their way of covering their own keisters.

Two popular titles for general legal documents are Family Lawyer from Broderbund ($20) and Kiplinger's Complete LegalPro ($50) which includes Home & Business Attorney as well as WillPower for estate planning.

NEXT - Chapter 18 - Family history