We keep an old desktop computer around for occasional kid Web surfing. I don't want to pay to keep this dinosaur virus-free but one of my unbreakable rules is this: Never connect to the Internet without protection. Viruses are the pits. To circumvent spending, I downloaded the free, basic antivirus tool AVG, free.avg.com. If I decide to upgrade later, I can go for the AVG Internet Security Suite or the user-friendly Norton 360, symantec.com. Meanwhile, he is covered.
As a rule I am definitely pro Internet filters for households with kids. There are plenty available for a fee, but before I buy anything, I look around the house to see whether there's something that could work. Take Windows Vista. Any computer running Vista already has outstanding parental controls built in. I enable them to limit gaming and Web surfing time so I don't have to watch the clock and be The Enforcer. Through the Control Panel, you will get enough choices to put your kids into a tech lockdown if you want to. Not running Vista? Your Internet service provider likely offers downloadable parental control tools. Worth looking into.Budgeting
No expense aggravates me more than highway-robbery-caliber bank fees, overcharges, and late-payment penalties. But I work full time and have two tweens -- left to my own devices, I always overlook something. These days, forgetting just one bill can cost as much as a new pair of kids' shoes. Ugh! To avoid this, and to create something resembling a realistic budget, I rely on Quicken Online, quicken.intuit.com. Initially it took me about 30 minutes (most of that time was spent trying to remember my passwords!) to give Quicken the log-in information for my credit cards, bank accounts, and loans. Then I kicked back while it gathered up all my transactions, due dates, and balances into a very organized page. Now, a quick glance tells me how much money came in last month, how much went out, and what's left. The program also hazarded some pretty good guesses at categorizing every expense it found so that I could create a budget based on actual past spending. Then I set up some limits and asked Quicken to text me when I'm about to go over in any category. It will also send me alerts -- via text or e-mail -- when bills come due so that no matter how faulty my memory, the payments get made on time. The bottom-line cost of all this fiscal automation? Zip!
Christina Tynan-Wood is the author of How to Be a Geek Goddess: Practical Advice for Using Computers with Smarts and Style (No Starch Press). She offers lots more tips for saving money and finding free services in her book and at her blog, GeekGirlfriends.com.
Originally published in the April 17, 2009, issue of Family Circle magazine.