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PERSONAL FINANCE / KATHY M. KRISTOF

Software That Is 'Simply (Free) Money'

September 13, 1993|KATHY M. KRISTOF

Consumers once looked at both computers and finance with a combination of fear and loathing, but in the past few years they've started to snap up products that combine the two evils.

Both personal finance-oriented software and "on-line" services are surging. The reasons may pull millions more consumers into the world of financial planning via computer.

In a nutshell, the programs and services have become simple, useful and cheap. Indeed, some software companies are literally giving their products away.

Consider Kiplinger's CA-Simply Money. Computer Associates introduced the software package in June with an offer to send out 1 million free copies to anyone willing to pay the $6.95 shipping and handling charge. The million copies were snapped up within weeks, but Computer Associates is still giving the $69.99 software away.

Why? The company figures that roughly 20% of the people who take the freebies will later pay to upgrade their packages or buy complementary software, such as Kiplinger's Tax Cut (offered at $39.95 through a Simply Money promotion). However, the company says it will start charging for Simply Money after Nov. 4.

Other programs, such as Quicken, by Intuit of Menlo Park and Managing Your Money, by MECA of Fairfield, Conn., have suggested retail prices ranging from $69.99 to $79.99. But only a software dunce would pay retail.

"Nobody sells at the suggested price," says Andy Patrizio, assistant editor at the Software Industry Bulletin in Stamford, Conn. "The prices vary from store to store, but they'd usually go for between $40 or $50."

Meanwhile, on-line services that allow you to get everything from stock quotes to financial advice over a phone line connected to your computer, are increasingly going to fixed-price formats rather than the hourly rates of yesterday, says David Brown, president of Telescan, a Houston-based on-line company.

"Customers used to be charged by the minute, but now the whole industry is moving toward fixed prices," Brown says. "We all found out that our customers were much more worried about that clock than we ever dreamed."

Average prices for on-line services range from a low of about $9 per month to upward of $100, depending on how frequently the service is used and what it's used for, experts note.

But clearly price is only a side issue. The real draw of the computer for personal finance is what it can do--like pay your bills, keep your budget and notify you when you've forgotten something. For instance, Quicken will remind you when it's time to make regular payments, such as the mortgage, and for an extra fee works with an electronic bill-paying service, so you can schedule a recurring payment to be made month after month, automatically.

Managing Your Money, which is designed for a somewhat more serious investor, will alert you through an on-screen message when it's time to buy or sell a particular stock. All you have to do is key in your stocks and so-called strike prices, says Dennis Powell, a New York-based technophile.

Simply Money also gives you financial advice. It admonishes you when you consistently go over-budget on a particular item, says Beth Roach, the company's San Diego-based product manager. And it will tell you what you ought to do to correct the problem. (The advice features were designed by the editors of Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine.)

What do the on-line services do? It ranges from simple stock quotes to complicated graphs that can give you 20 years of earnings and investing history at a glance. You can even plug in investment parameters and have the computer pick stocks for you.

For instance, Brown says you can ask Telescan to find the one stock that's got the highest current earnings, earnings projections and lowest price/earnings ratio. The system then searches through information on thousands of stocks to come up with one or two--or however many you've specified--that meet your criteria.

What's the catch? The software often requires relatively sophisticated hardware. And that costs real money. For instance, if you want to use Simply Money, you've got to have enough memory in your computer to run Windows, Microsoft's graphics operating environment, which comes on most computers sold today but is too much to handle for some older systems.

And, finally, some software is designed specifically for particular on-line services. So if you're likely to need both--either now or in the future--you've got to buy with that thought in mind.

Kathy M. Kristof welcomes readers' comments and but regrets that she cannot respond individually to letters and phone calls. Write to Personal Finance, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.

Hot Money Managers Personal finance software continues to boom, with 1993 first-quarter sales totaling $17 million. But that still represents a tiny share of the software market. Sales in millions: 1990 $39.0 1991 $48.3 1992 $57.2 Personal finance software represents a tiny share of the software market.:1990 1.5% 1991 1.5% 1992 1.6% 1993* 1.9% * Through March 30 Source: Software Publishers Assn.

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