Call It E Money Management

It's a Saturday morning sometime in the not-too-distant future, and you sit down at your PC to do a little end-of-the-month planning. First, you call up the balances from your various accounts--credit-card, checking, savings, and E-cash--and break down your spending by category. Oops, better cut down on those pricey dinners.

Your investments are offsetting some of those expensive habits--at least you hope so. Finding out is as easy as a few clicks of a mouse button, as you call up your investment portfolio. Hmmm, it may be time to get into a more aggressive mutual fund. So you quickly dispatch a software "agent" to rustle up profiles for the top-performing funds. By filling out an online form, you transfer some of your holdings into a hot overseas fund.

Just as technology is revolutionizing money, it is also set to transform the way we manage our money. "Complexity has gotten beyond the level that people can deal with," says Scott D. Cook, the founder and chairman of Intuit Inc. With programs like Quicken, Intuit's best-selling personal-finance software, Cook aims to make that complexity easier to deal with.

"AUTOMATIC AGENTS." Indeed, today's programs for personal-finance management and home banking are giving consumers unprecedented control over their financial life. But this is just the beginning. Gradually, programs are linking users to banks, electronic bill-paying services, and a broad array of vendors of financial advice that is starting to be offered online. Colin Crook, head of technology at Citibank, says software programs will be constantly at work for you, for instance, using information gleaned on the Net to optimize your portfolio. "You're going to hand off your personal affairs in cyberspace to automatic agents who represent you," says Crook.

The competition to supply these services will be heated. Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates saw the potential--one reason why he was willing to shell out $2 billion for Intuit. With that deal blocked by the Justice Dept., Microsoft is throwing its considerable resources behind Microsoft Money, a home-grown personal-finance package already offered by Chase Manhattan and others. From Money, Microsoft expects to link customers to a variety of online financial services, including electronic bill-paying. Bank of America and NationsBank recently paid $35 million for Meca Software, which makes Managing Your Money. And Intuit, for its part, has just released new programs for selecting mutual funds and planning for retirement and children's college education.

Expect banks to jump into the fray. They are sitting on a gold mine of valuable data: their customers' payment information. The statements they send out, though, typically offer little value, and consumers' credit-card, checking and savings, and investment accounts are handled separately. "There is an opportunity to consolidate that," says Richard K. Crone, a banking consultant at KPMG Peat Marwick.

With so much available to help you manage your financial affairs, someday you may be able to bag those Saturday mornings at the computer and instead just take a long weekend.

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