postheadericon Tech Talk: Dancing with Personal Finance Apps


Well, for a long time I've avoided computerizing my personal finances as 1) I've had very few rupees to fiddle with after paying bills, and 2) I absolutely hate fiddling. But the idea of a personal finance app is so appealing to a neat freak like myself, I decided to give it a go and report back to you on the results of my testing.

First, I looked at the big gun in the arena of personal finance software: Quicken. You've probably heard of this, as Quicken has been around since the days of DOS, and I actually used this package back in 2004 on a PC. It was pretty bad. And things only got worse for maker Intuit when the UK version was discontinued in 2005 (leaving those users stranded) and during 2009 when major bugs in this application were found introducing errors into peep's checkbooks (as if balancing wasn't hard enough). 

But I decided to test out Quicken Essentials for Mac (USD $49.99) to see how things have progressed, and I was decidedly impressed with the gorgeous interface and helpful inline wizards planted there to help you quickly get a budget created and track your transactions. Unfortunately, Quicken Essentials is a stripped down version of Intuit's PC offerings: Checkbook, Starter Edition, Deluxe, Premier, Home & Business... and more. So just deciding which full-featured package to buy was enough to make me want to forget about money and go ride a motorbike in the countryside. 

After quickly giving up on Quicken, I decided to try one of the apps raved about on all the forums: iBank -which won design awards back in 2007 and seems to be the PFA of choice for mac users. Again, we have another pretty interface but with all the features you would expect: multiple accounts in multiple currencies, checkbook reconciliation, online banking (US Banks only), with portfolio and investment tracking (also US-based), plus an iphone app (USD 4.99) that allows you to enter in expenses on the go, and automatically sync up with your machine at home. I found iBank to work very well, until I started throwing Nepali Rupees into it, and mixing things up with local bank accounts and accounts that I have abroad. In short, my totals with mixed currency transactions became totally hosed.

As I am unforgiving of any accounting software that produces errors, my trial with iBooks ended there, and I moved on to what seems to be the only competitor left: Moneydance (USD $39.99). Now when I first opened up Moneydance, I was not blown away by the interface; it looked more like the excel spreadsheet that I have used for years to manage my finances - but the more I used Moneydance, the more I appreciated the lack of colorful eye candy. After all, this is software for numbers, serious numbers...

Moneydance does all the things listed above for iBank, but it does the mixing of currency extremely well. The dashboard lists your exchange rates of the day, and you can easily change the rate and currency for any transaction that you make. As with any good personal finance package, a budget can be quickly created by looking at your transaction categories and tags. Forecasts for the coming year are easy enough to generate, and everything seems to work without a lot of fuss and muss. Well, almost everything...

At time of writing, I still haven't been able to get the free iPhone app to sync with my laptop-based Moneydance. It seems the problem has been known for over a year, and the maker "The Infinite Kind LLC" has promised a better mobile app coming soon. But perhaps you would have better luck on Linux or Windows, as this same app runs on all popular platforms, and all your data is interchangeable between operating systems. However, the android app (HandyBank) that syncs with Moneydance will cost you another USD $4.99. But that app actually works.

After using Moneydance for a few hours to set up my checkbook register, download my 401K investments, and configure both my Nepali and foreign bank accounts, I was very pleased with the results. I now feel I have a grasp on every rupee that I currently have in my virtual pockets, and I can see ahead into the future enough to know exactly how much more I need to make ends meet. What more can you ask from this non-sexy, no-nonsense software?

But before the music stops, I want to mention one current trend in personal finance apps: to get rid of the app altogether, and to manage your finances in the cloud, or in other words, from a website such as Mint.com. Mint is ad-based and free, and here they will try and sell you financial services and recommend banks based on your transaction history. The whole idea is so off-putting, I didn't even bother to sign up. After all, what would I do if the Internet went down or the power went out? I guess I would be right back to guessing how much money I had in the bank.

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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