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Editor's Note: Favorite Personal Financial Applications

Apr 04, 2009, 00:03 (15 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

I spend a lot of time on my personal bookkeeping, so I very much appreciate how this is one job that computers have made easier. Keeping good records is everything when you're in business for yourself, and now my finances are more complex than ever because I have a salaried job and some sidelines: I'm writing a book, I have a home office, and I have a number of small income-producing projects on my little ranch. None of this would be very complicated if it weren't for the incredibly Byzantine tax laws I have to deal with. Whenever I'm doing my quarterly and annual returns I think black bitter thoughts about how we pay the brainiacs in Congress to sadistically abuse us in this manner.

If the tax laws weren't so insane it would be a breeze. Money in, expenses out, tax the profit and be done with it. But nooo, such sane simplicity is against the law. My accountants are awesome: they package my annual return in a pretty blue folder, and every year it gets thicker. Some forms are several pages long, and I pay my nice smart accountants to know which one or two boxes on each page needs to be filled in. Who designs these things, anyway? Descendants of Torquemada?

I've used bookkeepers in the past, and if I could find one that was worth a darn out here at the Tail End of Nowhere I would use one again. A good one is every bit as valuable as a good certified public accountant. A bad one can mess you up something awful. But doing my own books isn't too bad, and it's good for me to see exactly where everything is going in detail.

Linux Accounting Software

I've tried many personal finance applications over the years. I started with Quicken 3 for MS-DOS. That was all right, and I didn't see much in the later versions of Quicken that made upgrading worth the bother. I used Quickbooks for a long time for business accounting and invoicing because it was the only low-cost option. But both Quicken and Quickbooks encourage sloppy habits and sloppy thinking; maybe it's different now, but back then neither one was based on proper double-entry bookkeeping. There is a reason for the double-entry method: it's the best way to expose mistakes quickly.

KMyMoney gets my vote for best personal finance manager. It has a nice readable friendly interface, and manages as many accounts-- bank, credit card, loan, investment, cash, whatever-- as you want. Initial setup is the biggest job, as it is with all accounting programs. There is not a standard file format that is common to all accounting applications, which makes it a real pain to import and export data. QIF (Quicken Interchange Format) is sort of a standard, but it's an imperfect, limited format, and Quicken stopped supporting it some years ago. CSV is a common option and it's a different kind of pain, but I've had better success with it than QIF.

KMyMoney is not for managing business finances; it has no invoicing, billing, payroll, or other business functions. For managing simple to very complex personal finances, it's aces. And it's GPL.

For business accounting I keep coming back to GnuCash. GnuCash and me, we've had this on-again off-again thing for several years. I tried it back when installing it was a tri-color nightmare. Now it's standard in most distro repos, so installation is no longer an issue. It has a pretty good learning curve, but there is a busy and helpful user and developer community, and you can make it do just about anything. Once you figure out how. Reporting, invoice tracking, tracking, tax nonsense, GnuCash can do it all. I don't believe I would use it for inventory and supply chain management, though I imagine it could be rassled into doing that too. GnuCash is also GPL.

KMyMoney does not support check printing. GnuCash sort of supports check printing: one at a time. You can't do batches. Many of the devs in both projects live outside of the USA, and are amused at how we cling to using paper checks.

Honorable mention goes to Moneydance. It is closed-source, but it's cross-platform, inexpensive, and capable of handling both personal and some business functions capably. It looks and behaves a lot like Quicken, so it's a less-jarring transition. Support is pretty good, and it also had a good helpful user community.

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