I've recently seen ads for online banking. Have you tried it? Is it worth getting?

Online banking has been available for some time through large national banks like Chase Manhattan or Wells Fargo. Various editions of Quicken, Managing Your Money, and other personal finance programs have been able to link up your computer with these banks via modem to permit you to monitor your account, make transfers between accounts, and pay bills. Only recently, however, has local PC banking been available in South Dakota.

I also saw the ads for PC banking through Norwest, and since that's my bank, I decided to give it a try. In fact, there's nothing to lose, because you get a thirty-day free trial to see if you like it or not. You can get PC banking for your personal accounts or for business accounts. Either way, Norwest's on-line banking service provides 24-hour on-line access to your account information. Using your modem, you can dial in and download data from up to 50 Norwest checking, savings, credit card, line of credit and independent line of credit accounts directly into your money management software, allowing you to instantly see your recent account activity and monitor your account balances. At the present time you must be using one of the following financial software packages: Microsoft Money 3.0, Money for Windows 95 4.0, Money 97 5.0, Quickbooks 5.0, Quicken 5 for Windows, Quicken 6 for Windows, Quicken 5 for Macintosh, or Quicken 6 for Macintosh.

Three different plans are available through Norwest. First and most basic, Bank On-Line allows you to access balance and transaction information for your accounts, make transfers between accounts, and communicate with Norwest via email. The cost is $4.95 per month, which includes 8 on-line sessions per calendar month, plus 25 cents each additional on-line session. The second plan is called Pay On-Line, which combines on-line banking with electronic bill payment, including automatic payment of recurring and future bills from designated accounts. For $9.95 per month you get 8 on-line sessions and 20 bill payments per calendar month, plus 25 cents each additional on-line session and 41 cents each additional bill payment. The third plan is Quotes On-Line, combining the first two plans with an on-line quote function for stocks and mutual funds. This plan goes for $14.95 per month, and gives you 14 on-line sessions and the rest the same as Pay On-line. All these fees are preceded by 30 days free. By the way, an on-line session with Microsoft Money is defined as a connection to the service via a modem connection, or with Quicken as any number of connections made within one hour.

In case you might be worried about transmitting your financial information over public phone lines, Norwest's system incorporates built-in security to keep your financial data confidential. Before you can access your account information on-line or pay bills electronically, you have to register with Norwest and receive a Personal Identification Number (PIN) that authorizes access to your account data. In addition, your financial data is scrambled to protect it as it moves to and from your PC.

Well, as I said, since there's nothing to lose I decided to try it. I went to a local Norwest branch office and obtained a PC banking application. I filled in my personal information, the numbers of the accounts I wanted access to, the plan I was interested in, my modem speed, and the version of the software I was using. At the time I signed up, I was using Quicken 5 for Windows, so that's what I indicated. You also have to indicate which account you want to be billed monthly for the service.

I opted for the basic plan. A day or two after I signed up, I decided to upgrade to Quicken 6 for Windows, the most recent version. I called the bank and was told that the PC banking package for Quicken 5 was already on its way to me, but that it would also work with Quicken 6. For security purposes, you first get a separate letter with your PIN number (which is initially generated by Norwest but which you must change to something else during your first on-line session). A few days later, the main package arrived containing the information I had to enter for each of my accounts, and instructions on how to initialize and operate on-line banking in Quicken. The instructions in the book were, of course, for Quicken 5, but I was able to figure out how things worked in Quicken 6, and in no time I was making my first call. (Don't worry it's a toll-free number.)

After hearing the familiar screeeeeee of my modem, a little picture on the screen showed two wires making a connection and little dots of data running back and forth. After about 30 seconds the modem disconnected, and my checking transactions appeared in a separate window, along with an error message telling me that the information for my savings account couldn't be transmitted correctly. Before calling the toll-free customer support number for assistance, I double-checked the setup windows for my accounts, and sure enough, my savings account had the right numbers but a box saying "checking account" was accidentally still activated. After changing it to "savings account," everything works perfectly.

When you click on one of the downloaded transactions in the separate window, Quicken attempts to match it to the corresponding transaction in the main register window by the check number and the amount. If it finds a match, you click on "accept" and Quicken puts a little "c" in the Reconcile column to indicate that this check has cleared. The "c" will be replaced by an "R" when you formally reconcile your account, saving you from having to do it manually. And, when I am occasionally distracted and forget to record a check in my checkbook, the downloaded transaction data alerts me long before I get my monthly statement in the mail, thus saving me from the possibility of accidentally overdrawing my account.

To me, all this convenience and time savings is worth $4.95 a month. I plan to stick with the service after my 30 free days are up. I would definitely recommend this service to anyone with a PC or Mac, a modem, and one of the required software packages. If you don't already use a financial management program, you might want to get used to its basic features for awhile before learning how to use it for on-line banking so things are not too confusing at first. But eventually I'm sure you too will wonder how you got along before without it.

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