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Desktop personal finance software: what you get, what to buy

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Think you can't use personal finance software to manage your money? Think again. This software is designed so you don't need a calculator, you don't have to know anything about accounting and you don't need to keep paper records, although you can print reports if you want to. Discover the basics of how personal finance software can make keeping track of your accounts, keeping a budget and handling other money management tasks easier.

What is desktop personal finance software?

Desktop personal finance software has been around for years, starting with two familiar titles you have probably heard of, Quicken and Microsoft Money. This software brings all of your accounts to one place so you can easily keep an eye on your finances and track spending and saving. Today, there are many choices for personal financial software for Windows and Mac computers, and Linux systems as well. The software is installed on your laptop or desktop computer using a software CD or a file you've downloaded from a website, and works well for tracking account balances and income and expenses, keeping a budget and running reports to help with simple financial planning for spending and saving.

Some of this software will alert you about transactions over a certain amount, account balances, when bills are coming due and other financial matters. You get the alerts when you first open the software, unless the software has a companion mobile app (most do) that send alerts real time.

Many desktop personal finance software options can download transactions from banks and other financial institutions, or you can enter transactions by hand. Some of the software can be set up to download transactions automatically when you click a button, while others require you to download transactions from your bank, then import them into account registers. The second method isn’t difficult, it requires a little extra time, though.

Some of this software is specifically designed to be very simple for people who just want to balance their checkbook, but most of the software available can do so much more while being very easy to use. You’ll find that today’s personal finance software comes with plenty of tutorials and help right in the software.

Desktop advantages

  • Unlike online personal finance software that runs through an Internet browser, desktop personal finance software is installed on your hard drive. So, if you lose your Internet connection, you can continue to work with the software to do anything other than download transactions, which requires an Internet connection.
  • Desktop personal finance software is a great option for people who feel insecure about managing money with online software apps. Your financial data stays on your computer and where you back it up to (more on that in a minute).
  • Good desktop personal finance software will let you set up a password to be used to gain access to the software. Use that feature to keep your information safe and private. If the software has no password feature and you still want to use it, you’ll have to set up your computer to prompt for a password at start up.

Desktop disadvantages

  • If your hard drive crashes, you won’t be able to access your software. This is why it’s to back up your data regularly when you use desktop personal finance software. I recommend backing up to a cloud service, like Google Drive or DropBox. You can back up to a USB drive or portable hard drive as well. If your computer crashes, your software can be reinstalled on another computer and then you can restore data from your back up and not have to reconstruct accounts and transactions from scratch.
  • Software updates can come at inconvenient times with desktop software. When an update is available, the software lets you know when you start it up -- which is usually when you are ready to work with the software. You will need to wait for the update to download and install, and it’s best not to have other software running during this process. Then, you’ll have to restart the software to finalize the update. As inconvenient as updates can be, don’t skip them. The updates have bug fixes, enhancements to features and security features.

What you’ll pay and free options

You can expect to pay from $30 to $50 for most personal finance software, but add features for tracking investments and you could pay around $75. Good free options are not easy to find, usually aren’t as easy to use as the paid software and may not have all the features you’re looking for.

Top desktop personal finance software picks

Quicken ($30 - $120, Windows) has three different versions: Starter, Deluxe and Home & Business. The Starter Edition doesn’t have enough features for most adults with families, so most people use Quicken Deluxe. The Home & Business version is for personal financial management combined with financial features for hobby income or very small businesses. Quicken offers a free apps for iOS, Android and Kindle.

Microsoft Money (free, Windows) is now available as a free download. Once powerful software, MS Money is only an option for basic financial tracking, and it no longer downloads transactions. But, it will track accounts and help you manage a budget.

GnuCash (free, Windows, Mac, Linux) works more like accounting software, but it works well for personal financial tracking.

iBank 5 ($60, Mac) is fully featured yet easy to use Mac desktop software with iPad and iPhone apps, multiple currency support for international users and a 30 day guarantee.

Moneydance ($50, Windows, Mac, Linux) doesn’t look quite as slick as Quicken or iBank, but it is also fully featured and you can make payments directly from the software. iPhone and iPad apps are free.

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