Software Cp As Are Getting Smarter

For small-business owners who can't afford to hire a bookkeeper, keeping track of finances can be daunting. Rather than learn the complexities of double-entry accounting, many entrepreneurs make do with Intuit's popular personal-finance software, Quicken. But for those who are serious about growing a business--and creating records that might allow it to be sold later--there's a better way. A new generation of Windows-based accounting software makes it easier to balance the books without knowing the difference between LIFO and FIFO.

Most of the better programs have replaced the cumbersome general-ledger and journal sections of older accounting software with easy-to-follow flow charts: Users choose the function they want and prepare checks, invoices, and other documents. The software then converts the data into traditional accounting entries. The Windows graphical interface makes a big difference: Want to pay a customer? Click on the "check" icon and a check pops up, ready to be filled in.

ROTE RELIEF. Devotees of Quicken should consider trading up to Intuit's QuickBooks. It makes the entry process so simple--particularly for repetitive transactions--that you need type in only the first letter or two of any name or account and the program fills in the rest. With the touch of a key, users can also shift from cash to accrual accounting. QuickBooks creates "real-time" inventory reports that show all payments, charges, and credit limits at any point in the accounting cycle. A CD-ROM version includes many IRS publications as well as a wealth of information on such topics as borrowing money.

Folks with a real fear of accounting arcana should consider M.Y.O.B. (Mind Your Own Business), which offers perhaps the best hand-holding at navigating a ledger. If you reach a dead end, it helps you find your way out: Attempt to sell an out-of-stock item, and it presents three choices--build from stock, back order, or order the item. But M.Y.O.B. works best on accrual-based systems. Users working on a cash basis must put payables and receivables in the "pending" file and post them manually when the cash comes in.

Peachtree Accounting sports the strongest analytical capabilities. It lets you study trends in cash flow, receivables, and payments--and even to create "what-if" scenarios. Peachtree also provides "alert signals" notifying the user, say, when a large order might exceed a customer's credit limit or warrant special staffing. It supports all four inventory-valuation methods and allows users to update records as each transaction occurs. But the program is difficult to navigate--and that could require frequent calls to costly technical support. Peachtree charges $3 per minute, with a $25 minimum, while Intuit's service is free. Perhaps in recognition of that, Peachtree introduced First Accounting, a stripped-down version designed for novices.

The interface of Simply Accounting, published by Computer Associates' 4Home Productions, will look familiar to users of Simply Money and Simply Tax: It has the same large, intuitive icons for major functions. Simply Accounting makes it easier to import data from most spreadsheet formats. But the program doesn't provide data in chart form, nor does it allow users studying the reports to delve deeper to review individual transactions. CA says the next update, version 4.0, due out shortly, will correct the deficiencies.

Of the most widely available programs, perhaps the weakest is Dac-Easy. While it avoids accounting jargon--"accounts payable" is labeled "customers"--it lacks intuitive data-entry features, is weak at account reconciliation, and its phone support is pricey, at $3 per minute with a 30 minute minimum. If Dac-Easy has a saving grace, it may be its "contact management" capabilities: Dac-Easy lets users mine through the database to schedule sales contacts, dial the phone, and fax letters and invoices automatically from vendor and customer screens.

As your company grows, you may want to consider hiring an accountant to regularly review--and reconcile--computerized records. But today's software can help businesses make their way off the kitchen table.

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