With the proliferation of online money-management tools, many consumers assume financial desktop software is defunct and worth burying in the graveyard of outdated computer products. A number of experts, however, say desktop products are arguably more important now than ever for keeping your financial information secure.
Storing your sensitive information online can put you at risk, says Jill Duffy, a writer and software analyst at PCMag.com. Duffy says websites that don't offer "bank-level" encryption and security features may be vulnerable to hackers. Consequently, managing your money offline can help prevent your finances and identity from being compromised. And thanks to a selection of sophisticated software, tasks like creating a budget, strengthening investing strategies and saving for retirement have never been easier – as long as you know which programs to use and how best to use them.
Although every consumer has unique financial goals, these four software programs offer services that can help many people take more control of their money:
Yodlee MoneyCenter. Effective debt reduction can involve a complex series of money-management moves. Fortunately, Yodlee MoneyCenter, offers tips that can enable you to pay off debt quickly, says Shelley Elmblad, financial software expert for About.com.
Yodlee and Bank of America use a similar authentication process: you must first enter your username, then answer a security question and enter your password if you recognize the image and secret phrase you selected when you registered the account.
In addition to heightened security, Yodlee offers a comprehensive summary of your net worth, as well as transaction history and analysis for various accounts, including those with banks, credit card lenders, investment companies, insurance groups, mortgage lenders and even airline miles and travel points on rewards credit cards. That's an expansive number of financial items – a range Elmblad says competitors don't offer.
The software's main drawback: Some of the customer reviews on CreditBoards.com, an online forum for rating financial products, call the interface "outdated," which can make it an eyesore and hard for some to digest the information. (free; available for PC and Mac)
ZilchWorks. If you've fallen behind on payments on multiple credit cards, ZilchWorks can help you design a plan to pay off the debt. Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education at Credit.com, says the software provides proven debt-reduction methods that are tailored to your specific financial circumstances but can also be adjusted if you want to explore different payoff scenarios. For instance, if you decide to put an extra $50 a month toward your payments, or want to pay off debt on any high-interest credit cards before others, ZilchWorks can modify the plan to fit those strategies. ($40; available for PC)
You Need a Budget. Duffy says this program is easy to navigate and performs an in-depth analysis of your spending behaviors to see where you can cut costs. But unlike a lot of other budgeting software, YNAB comes with online tools, video tutorials and online classes. "If you're a YNAB user, the program talks you through the whole philosophy of why you need a budget, how to make one and how to reach your financial goals," says Duffy, adding that the desktop software is especially useful for people who are security-conscious (all financial records are stored offline) and don't want the targeted advertising found on many Web-only programs.
However, YNAB users need to physically log their transactions, whereas some other types of budgeting software can automatically record and categorize their expenditures. That can prove tiresome for certain consumers. ($60; available for PC and Mac)
Moneydance. The software measures where your stocks, bonds, CDs, mutual funds and other investments stand, and can instantly deliver detailed analysis on the total value of your accounts. You can also see how individual stocks and mutual funds perform over specific time periods. (You can view the information in graphs or hard numbers.)
You can also use Moneydance to stay on top of your purchases and set up a payment schedule for your credit card accounts. ($50; available for PC and Mac)
Don't neglect online tools and mobile apps. While desktop software can help you learn how to better manage your finances, you shouldn't write off online resources. Mint.com, for example, walks you through the steps of devising a budget, setting realistic financial goals and tracking your money. "A lot of times with software we find information, but Mint uses information to tell you what to do," says Duffy, citing how the program offers weekly tips on how to adjust your spending to stick to your budget.
However, Mint has its limitations. Elmblad of About.com says the program provides relatively simplistic budgeting tools and advice that might be less helpful for shoestring budgeters. "It's great for someone who wants to set up and manage a few spending categories, but for people who are really watching their money and want to budget just about every dollar they take in, Mint may not be the best option," she says.
The smartphone is also a convenient tool for managing one's finances. Mark Steber, chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service, likes Ask a Tax Preparer (available on the iPhone) and Ask a Certified Public Accountant (available on the Android and iPhone). Both apps are free and supply answers from professionals on common tax questions, including how to itemize deductions, qualify for credits and comprehend obscure terminology. Steber also recommends the free IRS2Go app (available on the Android and iPhone), which offers last-minute and year-round tax tips, and enables users to check the status of their refund.
Stay on top of your finances. Using software to track expenditures can also add a layer of protection against identity theft. "We believe that the regular engagement in financial accounts and affairs pays dividends in overall awareness and surveillance of account activities," says Brian McGinley of IDentity Theft 911, a Scottsdale, Ariz., company that provides identity and credit protection services. As such, frequently monitoring activity on your checking and credit card accounts can help you spot suspicious transactions.
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While some use software to keep an eye on their transactions, many consumers simply want an overview of their assets now and then. "Even if you just use a [software] program to take a glance at your finances, you can stay out of debt and keep your credit score in good health," says Beverly Harzog, an independent credit card expert, consumer advocate and author of the forthcoming book "Confessions of a Credit Junkie."
Yet Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a network of accredited and certified credit-counseling agencies, says for consumers to reap the full benefits of money-management software, they need to be psychologically prepared to study their finances and make lifestyle changes. "People are often afraid of seeing their spending staring back at them in black and white, but until they do, they'll never truly be in charge of their money," she says.