Not long ago, using a microcomputer to handle personal finances was as popular as filing recipes electronically. Kitchen wizardry with the home computer is an idea whose time, alas, may never come. But if recent sales of home-accounting software are any sign, keeping the household books with micros is catching on.

Currently, there are at least 40 of these programs on the market They range in price from less than $35 to nearly $200 and run the gamut "from the very, very poor, that someone obviously did in his basement, to the reasonably complex," according to Tom Gajda, a certified public accountant and applications manager for Crescent Software Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., company that will soon distribute its own home-finance offering through Spinnaker Software Corp. The simplest programs do no more than balance a checkbook The more sophisticated can help with budgeting, collect data for tax time, provide balance sheets and net worth statements, automatically pay bills, and even write checks.

But should you buy one?

The packages that do little else but checkbook balancing are probably the hardest to justify, although they are also the least expensive. There are several situations, however, that might make it worthwhile to invest in one of the fancier packages, reports Allen G. Sneider, a CPA and partner with the Boston office of Laventhol & Horwath and director of the Boston Computer Society's Business User's Group. For example: You are finding it difficult to handle your finances or you are spending a lot of time juggling accounts. You pay a professional at year's end to prepare information for your tax return. You are having trouble reconciling bank statements or sticking to a budget. Or, for various reasons, you need to know your net worth on a continuing basis.

Of course, to get anything out of a program, you must go through an updating session at least once or twice a month. Until electronic banking comes into the home, points out John Reese, president of Tronix Publishing Inc., an Inglewood, Calif., start-up that publishes Dollars and Sense, the new home-accounting entry, "redundant data entry" is unavoidable. "The best we can do today is make that [process] not too painful."

Should you decide to spring for a program, try it out and check the documentation before buying. Above all, says Sneider, a package "should be easy to learn and easy to remember." Additional factors to consider are:

* How much time does it take to process data? What kinds of reports or graphs are generated?

* Can you clearly identify outstanding checks for bank reconciliations?

* How easy is it to "split" transactions, that is, assign portions of a single check to different accounts?

* Can you easily accumulate the year's activities for tax purposes? (Using the software for tax preparation brings an added benefit: The cost of the program becomes deductible.)

* Is it necessary to key in the check number and date each time you enter a new check?

One of the most useful features a package can have is the ability to make "automatic transactions." Certain expenses -- mortgage payments or car loans, for instance -- crop up with alarming regularity on a specific date each month. With programs that have this capacity, you need only change, if necessary, the amount and the date of the check every month. The software will then automatically write the check and debit the appropriate budget category.

There are plenty of good programs available, some of them designed for specific machines. Here are three that are attracting a lot of attention:

The Home Accountant, (Apple, TRS-80, Atari, Commodore 64 [$74.95]; Osborne, KayPro [$99.95]; IBM Personal Computer, TI Professional [$150]. Continental Software, Los Angeles). By far the best-seller, (see INC., September, page 141), The Home Accountant pioneered many of the features other home finance packages later adopted. The program balances up to five checkbooks, allows 100 different budget categories, reconciles checking and credit-card accounts, and writes checks. (IBM PC, TI Prof., Osborne, and KayPro versions allow forecasting.) Its detailed reports include budgets, personal balance statements, and income and expense summaries. The program will also spit out graphs -- although, points out Tom Gajda, "I'm not sure graphing the difference among variables are things people need in the home."

Searching through The Home Accountant's files is simple: You can hunt by date, payee, check number, amount, or a combination of these categories. Although the program does automatic transactions, you are allowed only five per checkbook, and splitting transactions among accounts is cumbersome.

The Financier Personal Series. (IBM PC; $195. Financier Inc., Westboro, Mass.) The Rolls Royce of home financial programs, the Financier is part of the company's series of financial software. It lets you keep records for any combination of budget, income, or tax categories, and checking or credit-card accounts, up to a whopping 32,767 accounts, although you are limited by disk capacity. Besides writing checks, budgeting, and producing reports that summarize activity for all these accounts, the software lets you keep an inventory of personal possessions. Splitting transactions is easy. And the program includes an automatic bill-paying feature for regularly occurring ex penses: Hit a button and it will write the check plus debit all appropriate accounts

The program's tax features are its greatest strength. Unlike The Home Accountant, which only lets you flag items that may have tax consequences, the Financier allows you to set up separate tax categories. At the end of the year it can then give you a list of all your medical expenses, say, or contributions. And, if you want, you can transfer information directly from the Financier to the company's tax preparation package without having to retype. Among the program's limitations: Individual items can be searched only by date or by check number (you choose which).

Dollars and sense. (Apple, $100; IBM PC, $165. [Tronix's Monogram Division, Inglewood, Calif. The company is a subsidiary of Softsel Computer Products Inc., the country's largest software distributor.] One of the newer entries, Dollars and Sense started shipping in late September and is included in Apple Computer Inc.'s 1983 Holiday Promotion. Designed for ease of use, the program includes an interactive tutorial/demonstration disk, offers on-screen prompts, and simplifies data entry. It lets you set up 120 different accounts, including checking, assets and liabilities, expenses, and income. It also prints out or displays reports -- year-to-date summaries, budgets, net income and net worth, cash flow and balance sheets -- and produces graphs. The program will handle 25 sets of automatic transactions (100 transactions to a set) and, of course, it writes checks.

Dollars and Sense also allows you to do some prognosticating. You could, for instance, bring up your budget and play with the figures to see whether selling the stock you bought last January will give you the wherewithal to buy the Cessna airplane you have your eye on. You could then save the model on disk for future use, like any other spreadsheet program. Monogram is planning an integrated line of software: a tax package, portfolio manager, spreadsheet, and, eventually, telecommunications to banks. "The wave of the future for home management soft-ware," says Tronix president Reese, "is via modem outside the house."

One last note. If you don't feel like buying a home financial package, you could easily create your own, using an electronic spreadsheet program -- VisiCalc, MultiPlan, or Lotus 1-2-3, for example. The program you develop, says Allen Sneider, "may not incorporate all the features that one of these tailored programs provide, but it might give you the information you're really looking for. "