Sylvia Porter's Personal Financial Planner
Selby Bateman, Features Editor
Requirements: Commodore 64 or 128 (in 64 mode or 128 mode); Apple IIc or IIe with 128K RAM; or an IBM PC/PCjr with at least 128K RAM. One or two disk drives are also required. Printer optional, but highly recommended. The Commodore 64 version was reviewed.
For many people, gaining control of a household budget is an exercise in frustration. Where do you start? How do you organize all those daily purchases, bill payments, unexpected expenses, and (far-too-few) paychecks into a coherent picture? Faced with this confusion, many of us go from day to day and month to month with little idea how much we have, how much we owe, and what's left over for savings and longterm financial goals. This is especially critical now, when consumer debt is at an all-time high and personal savings have plummeted.
The good news is that you can bring order to your financial chaos. Sylvia Porter's Personal Financial Planner is a well-organized, flexible, and sophisticated computer program that can make a major difference in your budgeting and planning efforts. The sobering news is that you're still going to have to invest a significant amount of time and concentration to set up your personal system and then use it on a regular basis. This isn't meant as a criticism of the Personal Financial Planner, however. It's simply a reality of personal financial planning in general, whether you manage it with pen and paper or on a computer screen.
Many people will be familiar with Sylvia Porter's name. She's been a respected and popular financial adviser for years—the author of a variety of articles and books, plus a nationally syndicated newspaper column, about budgeting, financial planning and management, and economics. More recently, she's lent her name and expertise to Sylvia Porter's Personal Finance Magazine.
The editors of that magazine have contributed to the overall approach and content of the Personal Financial Planner, which is supposed to be the first module in an integrated series of financial planning and management programs from Timeworks bearing Sylvia Porter's name. The next program, tentatively scheduled for this spring or summer, is Personal Investment Planner.
Six Programs In One
The strength of Personal Financial Planner lies in its flexibility, integration of information, and its well-planned structure. Think of Personal Financial Planner as six interrelated programs which share all of your financial information:
Transaction Manager: A program that lets you record and monitor all of your cash, bank account, and credit card transactions.
Budget Manager: A budget planning tool which automatically incorporates information from the Transaction Manager.
Asset/Liability Manager: An overview showing all that you own and all that you owe.
Income and Expense Statement: A part of the program that lets you organize and then print out income and expense statements in a variety of ways.
Balance Sheet: A similar component which allows you to arrange and print your asset and liability statements.
Financial Planner: A long-range planning guide that helps you set goals based on your income, expenses, and your changing asset/liability picture.
Pull-down menus and submenus make it quite easy to move around in the system. The documentation is clear, even for someone unfamiliar with computers.
Backups Take Time
Before you can begin using the program, you must initialize a data disk for each of the program managers—three data disks in all. On the Commodore 64, this initialization process requires more than a half-hour to complete. A data disk can generally store up to 1,250 transactions, so this initialization is only an occasional necessity. However, making backup copies of your data disks (an important precaution) is also time-consuming. The backup process doesn't just add new information to the backup disk; it completely rewrites the disk each time you make a backup. Because of the delay, it's tempting to skip this step now and then—risking disaster if your original disk should get lost or crash.
At least with the Commodore 64 version, there are a few instances when the manual doesn't mention that disk swaps are necessary. However, onscreen prompts are very helpful here. And although the disk swapping can be an annoyance, the limitations lie with the 64 and 1541 disk drive, rather than with the program itself. Other computer versions, while functionally similar, have more space for information storage than the Commodore 64 version.
Once your data disks are prepared, your next step is to use the Transaction Manager to enter two-digit codes for up to five bank accounts (checking, money market, etc.) and up to ten credit card accounts, along with complete account information. As a part of this initial cataloging, you'll also set up a series of transaction/budget categories that you'll use with your various transactions. There are 14 major categories, including Income, Loans, Taxes, Groceries, Residence, Utilities, Clothing, Transportation, Insurance, Recreation, Medical/Dental, Education, Miscellaneous, and Other.
Each category has up to ten subcategories—a total of 140 separate budget/transaction items. What's more, each can be individually tailored to your specific requirements, a very nice feature of this program.
Why all of those categories and codes? If Personal Financial Planner was just a checkbook balancing program or a simple budget package, little cross-referencing would be required. But each of the categories you establish can be transferred among the Transaction, Budget, and Asset/Liability managers. Hence, the computer must have a good way of keeping track of each item. This is also important when you later want the program to find and print (on screen, paper, or disk) information on individual accounts, credit cards, or subcategories. Once you've set these up and used the program a couple of times, you'll find you're comfortable with the structure. And you can easily generate a printout of the different categories and codes for quick reference.
Calculator And Notepad
The initial effort it takes to establish budget categories is the most time-consuming aspect of Personal Financial Planner. Once that's done, much of the program transfers information automatically, or with just a few keystrokes. Templates automatically appear on the screen, letting you add, delete, and alter virtually any part of your budget. The program also lets you include information on automatic transactions—those recurring accounts such as rent, house payments, or loans—so that each month you don't have to enter all of the information by hand.
Among the many features are procedures for monthly reconciliation of bank statements; searching for, changing, and printing out almost any part of your transaction, budget, or asset/liability data; automatically updating budget goals versus budget realities; setting up graphs and charts to show important aspects of your budget; tracking your financial inventory; and using financial planning worksheets that can be compared and contrasted with past, present, and future financial information.
There are many nice touches in Personal Financial Planner. In addition to the flexibility within each of the manager sections, there's a calculator and a notepad which can be called up at anytime. Also, you can search and modify your data, print out checks, track and print out tax information, and produce custom-tailored financial statements.
Timeworks and Sylvia Porter have created a serious tool with which individuals and families can track just about any aspect of their finances. But for the program to be truly useful, you'll have to make a commitment to keep your transaction information up to date. And that means spending as much as an hour per week (sometimes more, depending on what you're doing) working with the Personal Financial Planner.
If you devote this time to using the program, you'll have a clearer picture of your financial status than ever before; your budgeting will be tied in with your daily transactions; and you'll find yourself planning for the future with concrete information. For those who have trouble budgeting, tracking their transactions, and planning toward financial goals, Sylvia Porter's Personal Financial Planner can be an excellent investment.
Sylvia Porter's Personal Financial Planner
444 Lake Cook Road
Deerfield, IL 60015
Commodore 64 version—$59.95
Commodore 128 version—$69.95
Apple IIc/IIe version—$99.95
IBM PC/PCjr version—$129.95