Group test: home finance software

Apps

In the past, Linux was not overly blessed with decent budgeting software, and installing GnuCash was regarded by many as the epitome of a descent into dependency hell. Thankfully, things have since changed, and anyone using a modern distribution could now have the software ready to go in just a few minutes.

This kind of software is all about the data; getting it in, getting it out and doing useful things with it. In terms of getting data into the package, there are three things we need. We want software that makes it easy to add items to the spending side because you'll be less likely to update your ledger if doing so proves annoyingly difficult.

We want filters that will import transaction data downloaded from our bank account and allow easy reconciliation between local and remote records. Finally, we want to be able to set up periodic transactions that can be added to the ledger at certain points each month to deal with things such as mortgage payments.

Remember that, while the price of shares and property can go down as well as up, the cost of most of these packages will always be £0.

GnuCash

The register is where most of the work is done, but GnuCash has hidden depths.

GnuCash is the rich great uncle of the other software on test here, having been around almost as long as Linux itself. In the early days, installing GnuCash was painful, and the final application looked like it was designed for accountants. Fortunately things have evolved since then and the application now has a user-friendly sheen. The old friend is still there under the hood, but there have been numerous additions that make running a basic accounting system a more pleasant experience.

One thing about GnuCash that used to put us off was the arcane double-entry system that gave the software much of its power. This has been augmented with a selection of more basic account types, which are offered on the first run of the software. However, for the most simple system - based on our downloaded data - we found it easy to begin with a blank slate and then create a single account based on the Bank or Cash option and use this to house our data. Using this method, we were up and running within a few minutes of installing the software.

Importing the OFX data from the bank worked well, with the automated druid (a wizard by any other name) giving us the option of viewing the data before it was imported. This would be more useful if we could enable or disable individual entries, but this screen is not dynamic. The Register window itself is very tidy, with a range of icons across the top and transactions arranged chronologically.

You can add new transactions by clicking in the empty space at the bottom of the register. Today's date is added automatically, and you can tab between sections, adding detail. Reconciling downloaded transactions with your own records is equally simple; just find the transaction in question and hit the reconciliation column entry for it. As you move to the next transaction, you'll be prompted to record the change.

This can get a little tedious, so the dialog box has a pair of options to either not display the request again, or just remove it for the current session. This was a useful addition because it provides a visual cue that you're changing data (and is especially important when you realise there's no Undo option).

Volume reconciliation is also available. This is where, after entering a large number of transactions manually (ie adding entries over a week) or using scheduled transactions, you can check them against a downloaded statement for the same period and mark off matching entries. Bulk reconciliation is a great way to pick up on anomalous transactions. Automated reconciliation can be useful, but it could mean mistakes or nefarious activity go unnoticed for longer than necessary.

To create a scheduled transaction, simply right-click any entry, select Schedule and define the specifics, such as Frequency, Amount and Duration. Scheduled transactions are vital if you want to plan ahead, enabling you to see what your balance is likely to be at the end of the month, and so provides time to avert disaster or plan to make additional payments on the mortgage.

GnuCash also has facilities far beyond those needed for simple home accounts. In fact, it's a fully-fledged business management application with an extensive range of report options, tax and UK VAT management, comprehensive invoice and contact management facilities. For a small business, this feature set is brilliant and the fact that it costs nothing is astonishing.

If your needs go beyond simple budgeting and the idea of multiple linked accounts makes you more excited than it should, GnuCash is the ultimate finance package. Ordinary home users, though, may be slightly intimidated by its steep learning curve.

Verdict: A stunning piece of software. May be too complicated for basic home use. 9/10

Moneydance 2008

Use the Home tab (under File > Preferences) to define which elements should appear on the Home screen.

Moneydance is unusual in this lineup because it's the only proprietary package we're testing. The Java base makes installation easy - just drag the folder from the downloadable archive and double-click the Moneydance icon - but also means that you'll have to add an icon to your desktop or the appropriate menu.

When you start the package, which b etrays the typical Java ugly font syndrome, you can define the home currency and choose whether to use a Typical or Minimal setup. The latter, it's suggested, is best if you're migrating from another package. The former creates a file containing Savings and Current accounts, with a large and useful range of categories for income and expenses already defined and ready to use, which is a real time saver.

The Home screen is organised to give you a good overview of your current financial state and the calendar at the bottom-right highlights any upcoming payments due or expected. Above this is a section of reminders that includes upcoming events and also overdue payments. To the left is a net worth estimate and an exchange rate calculator, and other items will appear as data is added to the system. Fortunately, the elements that do appear can be edited from within the Preferences section of the software, so it's possible to tailor the home screen to your own needs.

For day to day use, Moneydance is very simple. To add a new item to the standard current account, for instance, select the account from the list, hit the New Transaction button and begin adding information. The Ledger screen where transactions appear is clean, easy to read and can be re-ordered using the column headers, just like a spreadsheet.

Importing our test data worked flawlessly, and the software provides a dynamic reconciliation option where you can record or discard transactions as part of the importing process. This is an excellent tool for checking your records with the bank's and shouldn't be rushed. The process also involves tagging each entry and hearing perhaps the best sample of a cash register ever. Once we'd tagged, for instance, a purchase from Boots as Home > Miscellaneous, the next time a Boots transaction appeared in the list, the tag defaulted to the same label, which made the entry process quicker.

Once you've added data to the register from the bank, it's easy to turn one transaction into a recurring one. Right-click on a transaction to reveal a context-sensitive menu. Select the Memorise option to define the frequency of the payment, the amount and the duration, then hit OK and the transaction will be added to the calendar and will be added to the register at the appropriate time.

In addition to a loan calculator, which can take the guesswork out of deciding if you can afford that new laptop, Moneydance also features a budget manager, a simple string-based calculator, exchange calculator (with downloadable rates) and some smart-looking printable charts covering everything from cash flow to net worth, plus an even larger selection of printable reports. For security, there's an automated backup system, good encryption and a decent help system should things go awry.

This is a great package for home users and those with modest business interests. The $39.99 price is well justified if you really need ease of use, and extensions ensure that the software can grow with you.

Moneydance offers a trial version that's limited to 100 transactions, so you can get a feel for it without shelling out any money.

Verdict: A proprietary solution that's well worth the small charge. 9/10

KMyMoney

KMyMoney will look familiar to KDE users, with toolbars at the top, sections on the left and a main window.

KMyMoney is designed to integrate with t he KDE desktop environment. The package is still in active development, so it's likely that a more KDE4.x-looking edition is on the way.

We opted for the stable 0.8 series release rather than the more fully-featured (and potentially crash prone) 0.9 development branch. Our chosen release was stable, easy to install via Ubuntu's Synaptic and simple to use. The integration with KDE was evident in the ability to pull in addresses from the desktop's address book and the familiar menu structures.

Manual input of transactions is quick and easy, though there are no default categories set up. This gives you total control over the hierarchy of categories and these can be added as and when needed. If a category doesn't exist when you add it, you're given the option to create it and define its location in the hierarchy. On the other hand, this means quite a bit of work before the package is ready to go.

This package was unable to deal with the OFX or CSV files available via our online banking service, so we had to take a round trip into GnuCash to export the file, then import it as a native GnuCash file.

This is a very comprehensive package featuring a great range of workable charts and reports as well as a decent back-up facility. Encryption is available via GPG, but this isn't handled in the Save dialog box, which may make you less likely to use it. We liked the idea of retaining a lot of information about payees, which makes the software usable as a fairly basic work/time management application, but this feature is not as visible as it could be.

KMyMoney is easy to use and makes day-to-day financial management less painful than a paper-based system. However, we'd like to see more obvious encryption options, support for more data formats and a refresh of the user interface.

Verdict: Easy to use, but loses out in the import stakes with its limited format support. 7/10.

Buddi

When importing CSV files, Buddi demands you know a lot about the data's structure.

Buddi puts great store in being simple enough for anyone to use. Like Moneydance, it's a Java application, meaning it's possible to install it on virtually any machine that supports Java and share files between different systems. Unlike Moneydance, it has an installer script that, on a standard Debian or Ubuntu system, will drop an icon into the Office section of your menu. We preferred to save the JAR file to a USB drive and use the software from that, which means it works on all three main platforms.

In terms of data import, Buddi is currently only able to handle CSV files, though we had significant difficulty getting our downloaded file into the package as we needed quite a detailed knowledge of the file's structure. This is fine if you're a bit of a geek, but casual users are likely to wonder what all the numbers mean.

Manual data entry is much less problematic. Double-click an account name to launch the register, then use the section at the bottom of the screen to begin adding a transaction. The Description section remembers previous entries (Tesco, BP, Future Publishing, etc), which makes adding this information easy, and then you just need to define the incoming and outgoing account for the transaction before adding the amount and any notes.

The accounts in question here correspond to either categories or payees (depending upon how you like to work), and, while these are not difficult to add or modify, it'd be better if we could do this while adding transactions to the register.

If you're a small household and don't need all the bells and whistles, Buddi is a good choice . It's small, portable and has a good but basic feature set. A growing number of plugins add features such as QIF import, different skins and some online sync capabilities. If your ambitions are slightly more complex, however, you should give this a miss, because you'll probably grow out of it quickly.

Verdict: Good if your needs are modest, but you may soon outgrow it. 6/10.

Grisbi

Grisbi's account management scheme has space for a ton of detail.

Grisbi is a native GTK application that, like many other packages here, is designed to be easy to use and comprehensive. It employs a series of tabs that, while initially slightly confusing, give you rapid access to various elements of the software such as scheduled transactions, the register and payees. In use, Grisbi feels more like an email client than a traditional financial application, which makes navigation fluid. Just select an option, make the changes on the left edge (or bottom for transactions) and hit the Apply/OK button.

The register itself is very flexible. Double-click a transaction to make it editable, then use the options at the bottom of the screen to change things. Grisbi comes with a huge number of pre-defined categories that can be selected from a drop-down list and edited or added to from the dedicated tab.

Our test data imported accurately and it was easy to turn a monthly download into a series of scheduled transactions using the context-sensitive menu. Reconciliation of downloaded data with manually added transactions was also painless, with the split-screen interface being put to good use. Export also worked well, with options available for QIF and CSV, however, there's no password protection or encryption support available yet, so you'll need to be careful with data and backups.

Grisbi kicks against the usual interface conventions (to a point) and makes a more familiar experience for those not versed in accounts software. It does the job of maintaining home accounts well and is highly recommended, especially if you've tried other personal finance software and found the interface unintuitive. The only caveat is that you should encrypt your backups and, depending on how your PC is used, the main GSB file itself, to keep the data secure.

Verdict: Perhaps the best (free) choice for home users, but lacking security features. 8/10.

JGnash

JGnash has an XML-based file format, but also has password-protected data encryption.

This is another Java application that's as at home on Windows or OS X as it in on Linux. We downloaded the latest stable version (at the time, 1.11.7) as a JAR file, double-clicked on it to launch and started working straight away. The startup wizard provides an option to create a new file and has facilities to encrypt the file from the start.

Import options are restricted to CSV, QIF and GnuCash files. Taking data from our previously made 300+ transaction GnuCash file took over an hour, but a QIF file was quicker, so if you intend to use this software in conjunction with an online banking service, you'll need to make sure it's able to output those files.

This software can work using either a multiple window approach, where double-clicking an account name from the list will launch a new window containing the register, or a multi-pane approach using the icons to the left of the main window. In either case, data is added to the register in the usual fashion.

We liked JGnash's simplicity. By default there are just three accounts: one is the account itself, the second takes care of income and the third expenses. When adding data, you add a payee to the system and you can use the Memo space to categorise the transaction. If you want to create extensive reports, a real category-based approach may be more suitable, but if you want an option that's simple to use and update, this is a better idea.

JGnash is able to output a selection of reports with a few tidy-looking chart options and can also output bespoke cheques to your printer.

We liked this application, especially its responsible approach to security and backup policy. The import options are limited, but if you're building an accounts system on the QIF format, it's perfectly usable. The lack of output options beyond the native format could be problematic if you outgrow the software, so think carefully.

Verdict: Import problems mar an otherwise simple but effective application. 6/10.

Our choice: Moneydance

Scheduled transactions can improve your budgeting skills, as there'll be no surprises at the end of the month.

Though these packages are superficially similar, your choice of software depends on what you intend to do and, to a lesser degree, your willingness to spend a bit of money. So we have three recommendations based on three usage scenarios.

If you're starting a business and want to integrate your home and business accounting systems, GnuCash is clearly the way to go. It's comprehensive, easy to use once you've got to grips with the whole double-entry book keeping idea, and powerful enough to grow with your business. Moreover, it works very well with data imported from a variety of sources, and can even be put to use as an invoicing and contact management system. In a business context, it's difficult to overstate how good GnuCash is.

Our second winner is for those who want lots of features and cross-platform abilities and who don't mind shelling out on proprietary software. The cost of Moneydance won't break the bank and, due to its great balance of usable features and power, is the ideal choice for the home user.

We particularly liked its backup and encryption options and found the interface (ugly fonts aside) to be easy on the eye and the mouse. If money and software freedom were no object (is that ever true?) we'd pick Moneydance.

The third winner is Grisbi, a project that, until we wrote this Roundup, we had never heard of. Its interesting interface feels more like a web browser or email client than a traditional home accounts package, which just goes to show that there are always new ways to approach things in software. Grisbi really was the easiest of the applications to use, and this is likely to be even more obvious for new users.

We have one caveat about this recommendation, though, and that's the issue of data security. The application's developers have sensibly opted for an XML-based format, but it needs some native encryption before we'd be comfortable using it, especially since our main computer is an easy-to-steal laptop.

If you opt for Grisbi, make sure your backups are encrypted using one of the integrated Gnome or KDE applications and, if there is any chance of a machine being stolen, encrypt the main file itself when it's not in use. Losing a laptop is a pain; having someone buy the entire US housing stock with your credit card would be a nightmare.The future?

One thing that arose during testing was a previously unstated desire to work across various platforms. With native applications, this simply wasn't possible, but after using the Java-based applications in our Roundup (and keeping them on a USB drive - encrypted of course!) we really began to appreciate just how useful platform independence is. Our three winners are all, to some degree, tied to the platform, but this is likely to change as cross-platform development environments become more popular and Linux makes inroads into the mainstream.

The likes of Moneydance, Buddi and JGnash are definitely worth keeping an eye on. Buddi, especially, was impressive because the same application and file were loadable across all our test machines whether running Linux, Windows or OS X. Two things that aren't difficult to understand are the need for open data structures and robust security. The former will ensure you can take your data with you if you outgrow (or grow to despise) an application, while the latter will keep you safe from people who'd love all that data.

It's likely that we'll eventually see a range of software-as-a-service solutions similar to Mint's that can offer the benefits of desktop software in tandem with a close relationship to your existing financial institutions. These outfits will earn income on your transactions (switching credit cards, buying books, etc) and so the designers are likely to aim at the broadest market. This will most likely take a 'standards-based' route to market, meaning more options for Linux users.

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Your comments

Homebank

You guys missed out on Homebank - it's a rather nice app.

I beg to differ

I used Moneydance for better than five years. I finally got fed up with the inability to get a print out of the register and reports. Moneydance authors pointed fingers at Java and nothing was ever fixed. Been a couple of years now and I am back to using gnucash. Anyone comment if Moneydance ever got around to fixing the print functions. Not that anyone would ever need them.

Moneydance printing reports

I can print reports just fine in Moneydance 2008.

It is true that there is no Print command on the register screen. You need to generate a Transactions report for the account you want to print and then print that.

Links

It would be nice, if we would have a links to the homepages.
Thank you

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