The economy has headed south, and everyone could use some help with their finances. Don’t despair, though, because we’ve collected 12 of the best downloads for weathering the downturn. Whether you want to put your household budget in order, extend the life of your PC by keeping it in tip-top shape, or save hundreds of dollars on a new productivity suite or operating system, we have what you need. And with a single exception, all of these downloads are free.
(If you’re eager to grab several of these downloads, you can see them all in our “Downloads for Hard Economic Times” collection.)
Software for Managing Your Finances
Accounts & Budgets Free
One of the best ways to make sure you don’t get into debt is to track your money, every day, properly. If you’re looking for a simple, no-cost program to monitor your money, give Accounts & Budgets Free a try. It’s no personal-finance heavyweight, but for keeping tabs on funds entering and leaving a single account, not to mention creating reports, it’s a solid bet. Input every transaction in your account, and you’ll be able to track your money by category (food, car expenses, insurance, and so on). You can also make visual reports, plan budgets, create reminders, and more.
The free software will manage only one account, but a for-pay version is available for handling more. This program is from a French developer, and the English translation isn’t always ideal, but the application is easy to figure out despite the occasionally awkward phrasing.
Download Accounts & Budget Free | Price: Free
Debt Reduction Calculator
Have you gotten in over your head, be it with credit-card debt, a car loan, a mortgage, or the like? Pulling yourself out of such a hole can be tough; each month the problem worsens, as you pay off only the interest and not the principal. Often it feels like no end is in sight.
With some smart financial planning, however, you can erase your debt. If you can’t afford to hire a financial planner–and if you’re in debt, you most likely don’t have the ready cash to do that–this free Excel spreadsheet is a great alternative.
The spreadsheet and accompanying documentation provide a variety of strategies and what-if scenarios to help you eliminate your debt, such as the “snowball” strategy (in which you pay the lowest balance first). Input your plans for paying off each of your debts, and then you can see the results, including the monthly payments, the total interest you’ll pay, and so on. Follow the strategy, monitor its progress with the spreadsheet, and change strategies if you need to.
Download Debt Reduction Calculator | Price: Free
Family Budget Planner for Excel
In Charles Dickens’s novel David Copperfield, a character speaks perhaps the greatest truth ever uttered about personal finances: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”
If you want to make sure that you end up on the happiness side of the equation, you need to manage your budget. Getting a handle on your annual finances can be difficult, but this excellent, free Excel spreadsheet helps. It lists every category of income and expense that you can imagine. All you need to do is fill in your estimates for the coming year, and you’ll see whether the likely result is happiness or misery. If the answer is misery, adjust your estimates until the numbers add up right–and then, of course, follow through on that budget.
This spreadsheet has one shortcoming that you should keep in mind: It has no area for your taxes. So when you fill in your income, input only your net income (including your interest income and dividends), not your gross income.
Download Family Budget Planner for Excel | Price: Free
Have you lost your job, or are you worried that you will at some point? If so, you need to have a good résumé at the ready. If you’re like most people, however, creating a résumé might not be your strong suit. With this program ($25 after a 10-day trial period) you can assemble a well-written, good-looking resume in an assortment of formats, so that you can distribute it via paper or e-mail, post it on the Web, or use it in any other way you see fit.
The program uses wizards to build your résumé for you. For example, you start by choosing what type of résumé you want to create–one based on chronology, one geared toward the kind of job you’re seeking, or one tailored for a specific job. From there, you choose your job level (from student through executive), and answer a series of questions. After that, you enter an executive summary, your job history, your awards and recognitions, and so on.
You then see a preview of your résumé. At that point you can make any changes, as well as alter the layout’s fonts, colors, date format, header styles, and more. When you’re done, you can output your résumé in various formats, including Word .doc format and HTML.
The program does more than just create your résumé: It also includes a contact organizer to keep track of the people you’re in touch with during your job search, and it includes sample cover letters as well.
Download Resume Builder | Price: $25 (10-day free trial)
This free budgeting program is ideal for people who like to see their monthly budget at a glance. After you enter your income and expenses, you can see it all on a single screen, portrayed graphically. The utility also shows you what percentage of your budget each expense takes up, so if you need to cut costs, you can quickly see where to begin. For tracking your monthly expenses and determining where to reduce them, SimpleD is as easy as it gets.
Download SimpleD Budget | Price: Free
Extend the Life of Your PC
In lean times, the last thing you want to do is buy a new PC when you don’t need one. If your current machine is sluggish or experiencing a problem, don’t assume that you have to buy a replacement. Instead, grab some software that can whip your existing system back into shape and keep it that way. You can find plenty of for-pay software that will do the trick, but if you want to save as much money as possible, you ought to choose free tools. Check out the following four downloads; one way or another, all will help extend your PC’s life.
Advanced SystemCare Free
If you’re looking for just one freebie that does as much as possible to make sure your PC runs as efficiently as possible, this is the tool to get. It scans your system for spyware, Registry problems, privacy dangers, and junk files, and then cleans them up for you. You can have the program perform the fixes automatically, or you can tell it which items to fix and which to leave.
By itself, Advanced SystemCare Free isn’t enough to uncover every problem your PC might have. In cleaning the Registry and sweeping your system clean of spyware, however, this tool is a great first step. And you certainly can’t beat the price.
Note that the software will install the Yahoo Toolbar by default; if you don’t want that component, make sure to uncheck the box during installation.
Download Advanced SystemCare Free | Price: Free
If your PC is slow or your hard drive is clogged, nab this superb free cleaner, which excels at eliminating years of detritus. It cleans your Registry by killing unused and bad entries, and it rids your system of unnecessary items, such as cache files. In addition, it shows you what programs run automatically on startup and allows you to disable those you don’t need.
It also sweeps away the junk that applications leave behind, cleaning debris from Web browsers (including Chrome), Windows Media Player, Windows Defender, and Microsoft Office, among many others. Within a few seconds the program can free up hundreds of megabytes of hard-disk space and get your PC running more smoothly.
One caveat: CCleaner adds a Yahoo toolbar by default. If you don’t want the toolbar, uncheck the box next to it in the installation window.
Download CCleaner | Price: Free
Frequently PCs become so stuffed with trialware, annoying free software, and “craplets” that they become lethargic, prone to crashes, or downright unusable. Sometimes the software ships with the PC; other times you’ll download software and forget that you have it.
The best way to extend the life of a bloated machine is to rid it of all the useless stuff. That’s exactly what PC Decrapifier does. It removes dozens of the most common pieces of software that junk up computers, such as Dell URL Assistant, Wild Tangent Games, and free trials. (For a full list, go to the PC Decrapifier site.) The end result? A faster PC–one that you won’t have to abandon in favor of a new machine.
Note: When you use this program, you might want to have it create a restore point first, just in case it removes something that you wanted to keep.
Download PC Decrapifier | Price: Free
A PC is only as good as the software that runs on it. And oftentimes when someone has problems with their system, the issue is the software, not the hardware. It would be a shame to throw away money on a new PC when the computer isn’t the real culprit.
This great, free utility will help make sure that the software you run is up-to-date and secure. It scans your system, finds all the software on the PC, and then reports to you when it discovers programs that should be patched or updated. Better yet, the tool then downloads the patch or update and installs the file for you when you click on it, or links you to a location where you can download the patch or update yourself.
Run Secunia PSI regularly (or have it running all the time in the background), and it will constantly check for new patches and updates. That way, you can be confident that all your software is in top condition.
Download Secunia PSI | Price: Free
Free Office Suites and a No-Cost Operating System
Looking to buy a new copy of Microsoft Office? Be prepared to pay around $300 at a minimum; the cost increases depending on the mix of applications you want. Even upgrading from your old version of Office to a newer version will set you back around $220, possibly significantly more. The same holds true for a new operating system–you can expect to pay through the nose.
In this economy, that’s a lot to spend, especially if you have alternatives that don’t cost a red cent. Check out the following three freebies, and you’ll be amazed at how powerful they are.
IBM Lotus Symphony
Once upon a time, in the deep, dark recesses of computer history, Lotus Symphony battled Microsoft Office in an attempt to become the dominant office-productivity suite.
That was then, this is now. Today, of course, Microsoft Office is ubiquitous, while Lotus Symphony is largely forgotten. That’s too bad, because IBM Lotus Symphony, as it’s now called, is quite a powerful office suite–and amazingly enough, IBM allows anyone to download and use it for free. So if you’re looking for an excellent, free office suite, it’s a great bet.
You’ll probably be quite surprised at what you find when you install it: a slick, sophisticated suite with all the bells and whistles, including a very elegant interface. Documents open in their own tabs, so you can have word processing documents, presentations, and spreadsheets all accessible in the same program at the same time in the same interface. The suite creates and opens documents in the Open Document Format standard, as well as in Microsoft Office file formats, although not the newest Office formats. (Most people, however, don’t use those new formats, so it likely won’t be a problem for you.)
Download IBM Lotus Symphony | Price: Free
This free office-productivity suite is one of the best software deals of all time. It includes a fully featured word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation program, a graphics program, a drawing program, and a database.
You may think that because OpenOffice.org is free, it’s anemic or difficult to use. Nothing could be further from the truth. It does just about everything Microsoft Office does, including opening and saving files in Office file formats, as well as many others.
It does have a few minor drawbacks. The interface isn’t as slick as that of the latest Office–for example, it doesn’t have anything like the new Ribbon. (Of course, some people hate the Ribbon, and will be happy to hear that OpenOffice lacks a counterpart.) And you won’t be able to collaborate using Word markup.
Apart from those issues, though, this suite has everything–except a price tag.
Download OpenOffice | Price: Free
Tired of using the same old operating system? Join the club. If you’re like many people, after several years of using an OS, you’d like to get a new one. More often than not, though, that means not just spending several hundred dollars on a new operating system but also buying new hardware to run it, or possibly investing in an entirely new PC.
Here’s a better solution: Use the free Wubi to install a dual-boot version of Ubuntu Linux on your PC. That way you can boot either into your existing version of Windows or into the free Ubuntu Linux. You won’t have to bother with hacking around in partitions, bootloaders, special drivers, or any other kind of messiness. It installs just like any piece of Windows software.
When your PC starts up, simply choose to boot into Windows or Linux. When you feel the need for a change, boot into Linux, and play with all of its new software toys–they’re all free too, of course. This is the best way to get a new operating system without paying a penny for hardware or software.
Download Wubi | Price: Free