Finance management pro-grams may track personal expenses, but a relatively small percentage of all banked consumers actually own personal finance management (PFM) software, and, of these consumers, few actually spend the time regularly inputting their expenditure data. What if banks could produce monthly statements that tracked expenses by category, indicating how much a household spends on food or clothing?

IBM Corp. answers this question with its recently launched Smart Check, an OnTRACK Management Systems tool that IBM has licensed to help banks' assist their customers with monitoring personal expenses. With Smart Check, purchases are grouped by categories such as home maintenance, groceries, or utilities. The categories are listed on customer checks. They write their checks as usual, and then mark an "X" on one of 21 categories printed on the left side of the item.

When the check gets to the bank, it is processed by high-speed imaging hardware that uses recognition technology to lift information from the memo line, the payee line, and the payment category. Smart Check assumes that everyone can read their own handwriting, says Geoff Emerson, IBM's director of payment solutions. Bank statements are then organized by categories, accompanied by images of customers' handwritten memo line notes.

Emerson says that by providing a simple but detailed statement, Smart Check could foster customer loyalty and attract new customers as a free service offering. For a more sophisticated implementation, considering consumers have multiple financial institution relationships, Smart Check can be used to tie together all those relationships. Information about credit card, debit card, and automatic payment transactions can be tracked by the system.

The cost of installing Smart Check varies, depending on equipment existing at a bank. Most banks could adopt the system for less than $1 million.

Smart Check is expected to make its bank debut in six to nine months, although IBM declined to say which banks are going to install it.

-mulhern tfn.com

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