Financial planning tools

Financial planning tools

As we get further and further away from ever balancing a physical checkbook, a few people may hold on to old Excel spreadsheet methods of controlling their finances, but most have moved on.

Michelle sat at the big walnut desk in the home office. She slid open the drawer next to her right leg and looked at the hanging file folders, some full, most empty, with spaces in between. Funny, they reminded her of her divorced life these days: some full, most empty. Space in between.

Symbolism aside, she realized Ron had taken the folders that pertained to his part of their financial life. The ones left hanging were presumably hers. The question was: where to start? Jump in feet first? Or start at ‘square one’ with some basic financial planning software and learn as fast as she could?

As we get further and further away from ever balancing a physical checkbook, a few people may hold on to old Excel spreadsheet methods of controlling their finances, but most have moved on.

Technology has given us financial planning software and apps that run on devices ranging from full-size computers to the smallest smartphone. Some are focused on single functions such as bill-paying – linked to your bank account – while others provide a full suite of services, including investment portfolio management – connected to your savings, checking, 401(k)s, IRAs and investment accounts.

Whether simple or sophisticated, financial planning software provides a means to control your finances. And without that control, reaching financial – including retirement – goals would be infinitely harder, if not impossible.

How do you choose software? Your choice of available financial planning software and apps seems endless. So, first get clarity on your goals, what you want the software to do and how sophisticated or complex you want it to be. Then, start asking questions.

With simpler software, such as single function, does it have free and paid versions? Trial versions? How many accounts (or account types) can it handle? Can you customize reports? Do you have access to a human being for support or just FAQs?

For more robust software, also ask if it has enough features. (Or, so many features it’s overwhelming.) Is the design aesthetically pleasing? Is it easy to navigate and use? Do mobile versions have all the functionality you need? Or are you restricted to desktop versions to get all the required functions?

Does the financial planning software support multiple financial goals – like selling a home, car buying and retirement – if that’s what you need? Do mobile versions offer two-factor authentication to protect against hacking or phishing attempts on the smartphone app? On free software, is it obvious when a paid upgrade or service is offered, so you have no surprises?

What different types of financial software are there? In terms of sophistication, software starts with single-function bill paying and tax preparation. Next come the budget-and-spend options that let you track and categorize spending, often linked to your bank accounts, credit cards and other financial activities. Then comes investment software that helps you optimize your investment strategies and build out your personal financial plan.

Bill-paying software: Good bill-paying software allows you to see all your bills and financial accounts on one app. You add your bill information to the app, it keeps track and sends you reminders of when each bill is due. Software such as Prism [https://www.prismmoney.com] lets you see account balances and pay bills however and whenever you schedule them for payment. Prism is a free app that is available for most mobile phones and covers over 11,000 billing companies nationwide.

Tax-prep software: While tax preparation may not seem like part of financial planning, it is a critical part of your personal finances. And if you are going to do your own taxes, the least you should do is use the best tax-prep software. Several companies offer good software, but H&R Block and TurboTax are probably the best known. TurboTax’s Q&A interview style is like sitting with a tax preparer.

Budget-and-spend software: Budgeting software syncs with your various accounts and tracks spending. Many well-known name brands have come and gone, but Intuit’s Mint [https://www.mint.com] is the market leader today. It is free to download for use on most mobile and desktop devices. Mint doesn’t pay bills, but it tracks your bank and credit card accounts, tracks and categorizes expenses, sets a monthly budget, monitors your credit score, sets up bill pay reminders and – to a limited extent – tracks your investments.

An alternative to Mint is well-established, money-management software Quicken [https://www.quicken.com], whose Starter version does much of what Mint does, plus pay bills. Its Premier version goes much further. It tracks loans, investments and retirement accounts. It accesses Morningstar’s Portfolio X-ray tool and other portfolio analysis, market comparison and investment tax-planning tools.

Today’s gift of technology: No matter what your comfort level might be with your finances, today it is easier than ever to handle your financial planning, thanks to the ever-friendlier financial planning software.

Your first step is to determine where you are in your understanding of financial matters. Then define what kind of software you feel will serve you best at this point. As you take greater control of your finances and require more sophisticated tools, there is no lack of options to grow with you.

I am only suggesting a few software tools for you to look explore and am not endorsing any of them. I am a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER practitioner (CFP) and I am providing broad advice to the general public. Your situation may be better suited for individualized advice rather than a software tool to make the best decisions for you and your family.