How much are you worth? It's a rude question we know - we Brits hate talking about money of course, but we'd wager that most of you have no idea. You know how much you earn each month; you have a slightly shakier grasp of how much your monthly bills are and you may be painfully aware of the size of your overdraft, but the big picture is a blur. We've scant idea where it all goes and we tend to think in terms of what we earn rather than what we have.
This is where a good piece of personal finance software comes in. Money is just that - it's now in its umpteenth version and is the unquestioned joint market leader, along with Intuit's Quicken. The real strength in these packages lies, not just in budgeting, but in tidying all your financial affairs into one neat pile. For the first time, you'll gain a snapshot of your overall financial position. From here you can start to plan how you're going to make things better.
Before you install Money you'll need to clear a big space on your desk and get all your financial papers together. Bank statements, wage slips, regular payments for insurance, loan repayments, pension and mortgage information, the lot. You're going to need these as the set-up for Money demands you create an account for every financial commitment. A painful but useful exercise. However, it forces you to take control and, once done, maintaining things becomes very straightforward.
Once everything is input you'll find the Money home page a model of organisational simplicity. Your favourite accounts are tidily displayed, alongside reports.
You can elect to display cashflow projections, projected balances of your current account and so forth, in an attractive medley of bar and pie charts and link to worksheets and online resources. In typical Microsoft style, the software has been blended with the web presence - and there are very good online resources. Apart from budgeting, we'd say the strongest selling point is the online-linked planning tools. Money will continually hotlink to http://money.msn.co.uk where you'll find worksheets on writing a will, calculating your pension, deciding whether to remortgage, learning about ways to manage debt and more.
It is, at heart, a very simple package - a page listing assets, liabilities and net worth. And that's its strength, as you start putting it all together for the first time, you begin to wonder why you have £100 in a low-paying account when it could be paying off that credit card bill.
You start to anticipate bills before they arrive and cost you bank overdraft charges. Most of all, Money removes surprises... which are lovely things for birthdays and Christmas but not when it comes to your financial affairs.
Money is very proud of its ability to import statements from online banking organisations. This is terrific if you bank with Barclays, but we chose Virgin from the enormous dropdown selection, only to be told it wasn't supported.
We're prepared to accept there may be big logistical barriers to hooking up with every online bank, but until it does, Microsoft really can't claim that 'transactions can be downloaded from your bank directly into Money'.
What you end up doing is manually updating the ins and outs of your current account, which takes a fair degree of discipline and commitment when your can simply go online to your bank to check what's happening.
Previously Money has come in three versions. Microsoft has simplified things this time. Standard retails at around £27; the £18 extra for Financial Suite buys you Taxsaver 2003 - a good package that will make compiling your tax return a great deal simpler, and which sells as a standalone at around £30. So if you are going to be filling in a self-assessment tax return this year, we advise going for Financial Suite. The more expensive package also includes a very good paper manual, which doesn't come with the Standard version. Microsoft got this package right a long time ago and has not messed with a winning formula. The bundling of Taxsaver and an online linkup with Experian (letting you check your credit rating) are also tantalising extras.
So would we buy 2004? Well if you're without personal finance software and your finances need help, then cough up. Money does what it promises; it's thorough, tried, tested and glitch-free, there's great online support and, unless you're a Quicken devotee, you won't find a better solution.
But if you own an earlier version, we'd advise you to stick with it - there simply isn't enough to make you shell out again. VNUNET