1. Software Test-Drive: GnuCash

    One of the more popular open-source (and thus free!) finance programs out there today is GnuCash. I’m a Quicken guy, and have been for a long time. While I’ve gotten quite a few emails from GnuCash users over the years, I’ve never really taken a look at it. This is an oversight on my part, as I think it’s important to keep up with the more viable Quicken alternatives out there.

    Well, I recently downloaded and installed GnuCash, just so I could give it a whirl. Maybe see how it stacks up. (I’m not about to leave Quicken, mind you. Though if I were, at this point, it’d be for YNAB3 [my review]).

    What follows is my quick test-drive of GnuCash. Please note that this isn’t meant to be an extensive, nuts-and-bolts-and-oil-leaks review of the software. Instead, I’m just looking to get a feel for GnuCash — see who it’s meant for, what sort of users it accomodates, how it looks and operates, and so on. I’ll slap up some screenshots, punch in some test transactions, and see what happens!

    • Software Used: GnuCash 2.4.0
    • Price: Free / Open Source
    • OS Used: Win7 Professional / 64bit

    GnuCash: The Basics

    As mentioned above, GnuCash is free, open-source financial-management software. The GnuCash website is simple, with very much an “open-source software” feel. The GnuCash developers present their software as:

    Designed to be easy to use, yet powerful and flexible, GnuCash allows you to track bank accounts, stocks, income and expenses. As quick and intuitive to use as a checkbook register, it is based on professional accounting principles to ensure balanced books and accurate reports.

    First point: GnuCash is NOTHING like Quicken. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; rather, it’s more about what you, as user and money-tracker, need your software to do.

    For starters, unlike Quicken, GnuCash is based upon double-entry accounting standards. In fact, GnuCash resembles Quickbooks much more than it does Quicken. What are called “categories” in Quicken are called “accounts” in GnuCash, just as they are in Quickbooks and most other business-geared accounting programs. GnuCash allows for sales-tax tables, as well as customer and vendor setups and invoice entry — none of which applies to household use whatsoever.

    Basic Desktop

    GnuCash’s homepage tells us that their software can be used for both personal and business financial management tasks. Now, when I see this particular claim, I’m immediately skeptical. Years of dealing with web readers and spreadsheet customers has made me very aware of the super-wide range of expectations (and, of course, computer-operating abilities) of personal- and business-software users. (Yes, I’ve dealt with personal-finance users who would likely excel with business accounting software, if asked. There are also business-software users who can’t get the right answer from a Windows 7 calculator without extensive hand-holding.)

    GnuCash Fits Your Average Home User? No.

    Within thirty minutes of initial install, and a cursory glance of the Help Files, I could tell that GnuCash was a no-go for your Average Home Financial User. When your Help Files, under the heading “Credit Cards,” tell you this …

    To begin managing your credit cards in GnuCash, you should set up a “Liability” top level account and under this parent account create credit card type accounts for each credit card you use. If you are tracking only the payments you make to the credit card company, then all you need is a bank account and a credit card account to enter your transactions.

    … then right away you know it’s Game Over for Joe Sixpack and GnuCash. Create a “Liability” top-level account? Yes, I’m fully versed in such accounting concepts, but I’m a money and software dork. Joe isn’t. For Joe, “liability” is whether or not you can convince your boss that it wasn’t you who broke the expensive GlassVac 9000 the store just bought.

    And it isn’t just that. When you hide accounts in GnuCash, figuring out how to unhide them isn’t easy. Sure, once you know how, it’s no big deal. But I couldn’t find anything in the Help Files that covered this, and I only stumbled upon the answer by following the “Open New Account” procedure and hovering over the “Hidden Account” checkbox. (Searching for “unhide” gave me nothing workable at all, and “hidden” gave me WAY too much to have to sort through.)

    Unhiding a hidden account...

    At this point, if I’m Joe Sixpack, I’m already done with GnuCash, and that’s even before I ask “Why does it show me ‘Profits’ at the bottom? And why do my expenses not affect my equity?” (Which may be precisely what its developers want. If that’s the case, well, I can relate. Sort of.)

    Bottom line: You’ll need at least a basic accounting knowledge to efficiently utilize GnuCash.

    Extensive Help Files…

    GnuCash has very extensive Help Files, and overall they’re very well written. Their explanation (pdf) of double-entry accounting, for example, is succint and gets the concept across nicely. I’d almost like to print it out and give it to some coworkers — it’s that good.

    Unfortunately, the fact that GnuCash’s Help Files are so extensive is also a drawback. Why? Because you’ll need them. I’m just being honest here. There’s a lot about GnuCash that ought to be self-explanatory, but isn’t. I’ve had my share of experience with financial software, certainly, and if I were going to use GnuCash seriously, I don’t see any way around spending several hours reading through the Help documentation.

    Layouts, Usage, and Such

    I’ve really come to appreciate a nice-looking and easy-to-use account register over the years. In GnuCash, every account has a register, which appears thusly:

    Register View

    Looks pretty decent, especially when compared to the desktop — which won’t win any awards for aesthetics.

    GnuCash Users enter transactions straight into the registers themselves, as opposed to doing this in a new window, which is what’s required with AceMoney (review) and many other programs.

    Split transactions are workable, but feel bulky. If you’re used to the way they’re done in Quicken, then split transactions in GnuCash will make your head hurt. Here’s a Wal-Mart expense split two ways; the register “folds out” to allow you to enter the split accounts…

    Split Trans. in Action

    … and then “folds in” when you leave the split.

    One feature I like: It’s possible to have more than one account open at a time, as each account you double-click opens up in a new tab (much as internet browsers open new tabs for additional “windows” of web viewing).

    GnuCash Reports

    With only a few transactions logged, I fired up a Cash Flow Report in GnuCash:

    Cash Flow Report

    Looks fine to me. Not great, but fine. Clicking the blue hyperlinked accounts (the equivalent of Quicken “categories”) takes you back to that account’s register for detail viewing.

    Overall Impressions

    Because it’s geared to handle the needs of both business and household finances, GnuCash tries to be a lot of things. It’s this very complexity that makes it, in my opinion, a fairly weak choice for those folks looking to a simple way to keep tabs on personal finances. Users will need to invest a sizeable chunk of time reading GnuCash’s documentation files just to get a decent handle on how it operates.

    The caveat here, obviously, is that I’m used to using Quicken for my personal stuff, and Quickbooks for my business needs. GnuCash seems far too complex to hold up as a competitor to Quicken, and yet not robust enough to measure against Quickbooks. I know that GnuCash has lots of devoted fans, because I’ve heard from some of them. More than once I’ve been told that I’m crazy, just short of certifiable, to be using Quicken when GnuCash is out there, available for free.

    Look: If I’m supposed to bow down to the fact that GnuCash is open-source, well, sorry, I don’t, really. I’m not an expert software developer. I’ll pay money for software that does what I want, easily, the way I want, and gives me more than I expect. I get that from Quicken, and I don’t feel bad about it. It’s why I’ll pay hundreds of bucks for MS Office every few years, and am happy to do it, rather than scrap away at OpenOffice as the “free” open-source alternative (which, I should add, looks like crap, and fairly often, operates like crap, too).

    Newsflash: Free is useless if the product can’t do what you need it to do.

    Could GnuCash do what I need it to do? From what I’ve seen, no. Not on the household level — at least, not easily — and not on the business level, either. GnuCash deserves a place on my list of Quicken alternatives, but after working with it for a bit, it just makes me appreciate Quicken (and Quickbooks) a little bit more.



  2. Handling Paypal Fees in Quickbooks

    How should I handle Paypal fees in Quickbooks?

    Boy, do I see that question appear a lot in my Intuit message-board travels! As a guy who’s been doing the web-biz thing for several years, I can tell you that — sit down for this — Paypal fees are really pretty easy to handle in Quickbooks. They can also be treated several different ways.

    (Readers should note that when I say “Paypal fees,” I consider the term to be interchangeable with Google Checkout fees and pretty much every other online-payment charge out there.)

    See Michael Sell Spreadsheets. See Michael Make Paypal Rich.

    I give away lots of free financial spreadsheets, and I sell a few, too. So Paypal (and Google Checkout!) and I get along pretty well. They allow me to sell stuff to the rest of the net-connected world, and I give them anywhere from sixty cents to a dollar for every product I sell.

    Paypal Fees: Cost of Goods Sold? Or Business Expense?

    ‘Netizens can, and do, argue this for hours on end: Are Paypal fees a “cost of goods sold?” Or are they simply an expense?

    To which I say: Meh, whatever. Either way, the fees get deducted from your small-biz revenue before you get to that place called “net profit.” Whether you classify them as COGS or as an expense, you end up with the same cash in your account.

    But there ARE a couple of scenarios to consider here which would affect how I treat my Paypal fees, accounting-wise.

    Paypal Fees on Products Bought for Resale

    If I, as a business owner, were paying Paypal fees when I bought products for resale, then I would consider those fees to be COGS. I’d account for them as such in Quickbooks, and direct them to a tax line for “Cost of Goods Sold: Other Costs” or something similar.

    Paypal Fees on Products You Sell

    On the other hand, if I as business owner were paying Paypal fees when customers bought product from me — and this is the situation I deal with on a day-to-day basis — then I would be pretty wishy-washy. These fees are realized at the time of sale, on every sale, since Paypal deducts them from my selling price when they deposit the sale revenue into my account. This makes them very much akin to a COGS.

    Despite this, I prefer to account for ALL my Paypal and Google Checkout fees as a business expense. To me, since they’re deducted from sales revenue, Paypal fees are just another form of the “merchant account fees” that brick-and-mortar retailers are so familiar with.

    My Way: Enter Paypal Fees With Each Transaction

    Because I like my Paypal register’s balance (in Quickbooks) to reflect what’s in my Paypal account at any given time, I enter all Paypal fees inside the sales receipt of the sales transactions they accompany.

    Why do I account for Paypal fees inside every sale transaction they affect? It’s because I reconcile my Paypal account the same way I reconcile every other bank or credit-card account, and I want to see each transaction show up in my Quickbooks register the same way it appears on my Paypal screen. For instance, if I sell a spreadsheet for $9.95, it appears as a credit of $9.36 in my Paypal account, with the $.59 fee already deducted.

    Thus, if I can account for the fee deduction on the same sales receipt that contains the sale itself, then my Quickbooks bank register will show the same credit of $9.36. And reconciling is a snap!

    Step 1: Set Up Your Paypal Account As a Bank Account.

    That, at least, is how I treat my Paypal and Checkout accounts. They’re set up as bank accounts, just like my business checking and savings accounts are.

    When money moves either to or from my checking account from Paypal or Google, all it takes is a simple transfer in Quickbooks. (In the QB menubar, BANKING → TRANSFER FUNDS will get it done.)

    Step 2: Create OTHER CHARGE Items for Your Paypal Fees.

    Next you’ll want to set up an Other Charge item (or items, if you want to separate your fees into certain categories, as I do) to represent your Paypal fees. In the Quickbooks menubar, choose LISTS → ITEM LIST. then click the lower-left ITEM button, and choose NEW to get started creating a new Other Charge item. Here’s an example of how mine are set up:

    Because I sell more than one type of spreadsheet — some are my creations, and some are created by others — I have more than one type of Paypal-fee item. This way, I can track how much I’m paying in fees for whichever spreadsheets I select.

    Step 3: Make Your Sales Receipt

    Probably the simplest way to explain this is to show you a sample sales receipt (pdf) that’s similar to what I generate.

    On that receipt, there are two items. The first, a Kafluder valve, is simply the Non-Inventory Item which the customer purchased. The second item is our Other Charge item, created above. It represents the Paypal fee of 59 cents which Paypal deducts from our sale transaction. Note that the Paypal item is entered as a negative, non-taxable amount.

    Alternate Way: Enter Paypal Fees Directly in Your Register

    In my method above, I enter the Paypal fees as an Other Charge item, and I do it inside the receipt which records the sale. Understandably, some folks prefer to have only the sale take place on the receipt. (Perhaps they send a copy of the receipt to the customer, and want it to reflect the total amount the customer actually paid.) These retailers can instead enter the Paypal fee straight into the Quickbooks register for their Paypal account.

    So, for a sample $19.95 sale to customer Joe Shmultzman (great family, the Shmultzmans), the Paypal fee of 88 cents would be entered as a transaction completely separate from the sale, and logged right in the Paypal account register itself:

    The biggest problem with this method, to me, is that you’ll be entering a separate Paypal-fee transaction for every sale you make. That could tally up to a lot of “extra” transactions, if you sell much at all. PLUS you won’t see these transactions listed this way in your Paypal account when you view it online. And that can get a bit disorienting at reconcile time.

    Alternate, Alternate Way: Log Paypal Fees Once Per Month

    I know of some web retailers who log their Paypal fees only once per month. They do this at month’s end, or early the following month, using the Monthly Report which Paypal generates.

    After they run their “Monthly Report” in Paypal, they simply make a register entry for the total amount of fees deducted, expensing it to whatever account they wish.

    Personally, this method would never work for me. I check my actual Paypal balance against my Quickbooks Paypal register balance at least every day or two. When the two don’t match, I’m not a Happy Camper. Tracking fees this way would result in my online Paypal balance matching my Quickbooks Paypal balance ONLY at the end of the month.

    Sorry; no can do. I’d go nuts!



  3. Quickbooks And Web Biz: Three Years Later

    I first talked about using Quickbooks with my web business back in 2007. Now that I’ve used the software for three years, it seems a good time to rehash my thoughts on the subject.

    Quickbooks Can Do a Lot

    If you come to the table with at least some understanding of double-entry accounting, you’ll find that Quickbooks is pretty easy to operate. For the price of, say, $150, Quickbooks Pro is a full-featured offering. Its accounting backbone alone (it can handle bank subaccounts!) is probably worth that price. Add to that the ability to create and customize invoices and receipts and so on, and the hundred-bucks-plus price tag doesn’t phase me a bit.

    I say this even though I customarily upgrade my version of Quickbooks every couple of years. (Quickbooks Pro 2007 was my first QB installation, followed by QB Pro 2009.) Such upgrading every other year is the same process I follow with Quicken, which handles my personal finances.

    But There’s This “Reliability” Thing …

    While my experience with Quicken has, since the mid-1990s, been quite glitch-free, I can’t say the same for my work with Quickbooks. Since I began using it in 2007, I’ve experienced data-file corruption at least twice. In Quickbooks, when your datafile gets corrupted, it is a very bad thing.

    This last occurrence (mid-year 2010) was so severe that I was forced to start from an entirely blank slate, accounting-wise, on January 1 of 2011. This was because I could not backup my datafile (complete with business records from 2007 through 2010) due to the corruption, AND the corruption somehow reached back through all my retained backups. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Quickbooks regularly shut itself down when I’d exit certain menus or lists. When just making it back to Quickbooks’ home desktop becomes an adventure, you know the software has serious limitations.

    And talk about fun: For the last few months of 2010, I was forced to use Quickbooks 2009 Pro on my old Dell laptop, entering records for the remainder of 2010 and using it to complete our 2010 taxes. On my newer Toshiba laptop, I installed Quickbooks 2010 Pro; I began using that on January 1, 2011, carrying over only reconciled ending balances from December 31 of the previous year.

    (I do take some amount of pride in the fact that my QB2009 datafile is so corrupted that Quickbooks 2010 can’t even open it. Nice, huh?)

    In any case, my three-years-and-two-full-data-disasters experience convinces me that Quickbooks is absolutely NOT reliable enough for anything more than the smallest of small-biz endeavors. It also convinces me that keeping a zeroed-out, accounts-and-items-only copy of your Quickbooks datafile — a fresh-start datafile, in other words, with no transactions whatsoever — is an absolute necessity. (Current users of Quickbooks who’ve not experienced such problems should note that it took me one full day, morning to night, to recreate my chart of accounts, item lists, and so on … and that was WITH me having the rare luxury of being able to keep my old company file open on one laptop, while building the new, blank file on another, AND importing from Excel when possible.)

    Where To Go From Here?

    Well, I’ll be using Quickbooks Pro 2010 for the foreseeable future. I’ve given some thought to trying out Sage Peachtree, but my comfort level with Quickbooks just won’t let me steer clear of it … yet. At least I can always make QB do what I want it to do, accounting-wise. Plus, I’ve invested no small amount of time in learning its ins-and-outs and various functionalities. The thought of “going newbie” with an entirely new software set, learning it from the READ-ME file on up, doesn’t enthuse me AT ALL at this moment.

    Down the road, though … who knows? One more encounter with datafile corruption, and I might just head for the Quickbooks exits.



  4. How to Activate Tags in Quicken

    Reader MataDorG left a comment on my latest post discussing tags in Quicken, asking how to make the tag field appear in the Quicken register. Apparently, his/her version of Quicken (2010 Home & Business, in this case) wasn’t showing the tag field at all.

    The “tags” feature is one which can be turned off and on in Quicken. When tags are enabled, the “tag” field should appear appear in the register, like so…

    If that’s not the case, then head up to your Quicken menubar to turn the feature on.

    Activating Tags in Quicken

    In the menubar, select EDIT → PREFERENCES → QUICKEN PREFERENCES. This should bring up a separate window. In the left section of that window, select REGISTER, as shown below.

    Now put a checkmark in the box labeled “Show Tag field.” Finally, click the OK button.

    That should do it. Tags should now be available in your Quicken account registers!



  5. Quicken: Cash Flow Forecast

    Over the years, Intuit has added lots of tools to Quicken — mostly, I would argue, to encourage its users to adapt an annual upgrade cycle of the software. While I adore Quicken for its performance at tracking accounts, spending, and net worth, I find myself using very few of the additional tools that its Deluxe and Premium versions offer. (As of this post, I’m using Quicken 2010 Deluxe.)

    One such tool — brought to my attention by an email a few months back — is Quicken’s Cash Flow Forecast. It’s meant to help with long-range (say, a year out or more) cashflow planning. Quicken’s Help Files explain it like this:

    For long term forecasting use Quicken’s Cash Flow Forecast feature. A cash flow forecast lets you project your cash flow for the future, based on scheduled bills and deposits and estimated amounts. Quicken can forecast your spending patterns for up to two years, and displays your account balances in a graph.

    You can get to the Cash Flow Forecast via the menubar:


    When I select that, Quicken displays a graph like this:

    That awfully smooth, upward-sloping line is meant to show me how my bank-account balances will steadily increase over the next year IF my monthly “Income Items” and “Expense Items” meet the parameters I’ve set up. (Displayed figures above have been certified by the Congressional Budget Office. So you know they’re, uh, reliable.)

    Forecasting: It’s a Lot of Work

    The graph is all fine and dandy, I suppose. However, it took me a patience-testing hour or so to get Quicken’s Cash Flow Forecast set up in a way that’d reflect anything close to reality. Initially, Quicken’s “brain” had taken my next year’s worth of Scheduled Transactions, combined it with my average monthly categorized income and expenses, and applied all of that to my household financial cash flow in a manner that I can only describe as MADDENINGLY RANDOM.

    Some “income items” appeared twice. Many “expense items” appeared three and four times. Now, I’m all for conservative planning, but come on. Those initial figures were a disaster, and way out of whack.

    I can’t imagine that any large chunk of Quicken users would be willing to plow through their incomes and expenses, category by category, Scheduled Transaction by Scheduled Transaction, just to get this thing running at a somewhat realistic clip. I did it, but only because I’m a money dork. The rest of you probably have lives.

    Just Start Over?

    The Cash Flow Forecast allows you to create and save different scenarios, which is probably pretty useful IF you have a few hours to kill. I wasn’t even willing to approach this feature, given what it took just to get the thing set up. (When making changes, income and expense items aren’t even listed in alphabetical order, for crying out loud. Who the hell came up with this?)

    I think that, if I were going to rely on the Cash Flow Forecast at all, I would start by scrapping ALL of the estimated items Quicken creates. I’d then simply enter the categories I wanted, by hand, starting with my largest categories (taxes, food, insurance, etc.) first. I’d likely keep the “Known Items,” as Quicken creates these from Scheduled Transactions, which ought to be fairly ironclad. (Ironclad, that is, IF you’re good about setting up all your recurring transactions as “Scheduled Transactions.”)

    Like a lot of Quicken “tool” offerings, there’s probably some value in the Cash Flow Forecast … but if you’re like me, it might take you so long to rebuild the Forecast data that you simply ignore it altogether.

    Sorry, Intuit. I’m opting instead for dumping a few months’ of Quicken report data into Excel, and working from there!



  6. Blurry Images in IE8

    Okay. So this post has absolutely nothing to do with personal finance, but I’m going to mention it anyway.

    Internet Explorer 8 is my browser of choice these days. Sometime in the last few months, I noticed that most web images (GIFs in particular) were just a smidge blurry. Not horrible, but enough to notice … and just enough to bug the living crap out of me.

    Numerous Google searches left me with no fix. I played around with settings in TOOLS → INTERNET OPTIONS for hours, probably, but to no avail. I figured it had to be something with Internet Explorer 8, as the same blurry images looked just fine in IE7 (the default browser on my work laptop).

    Then I happened upon the third post in this message-board thread … and BINGO.

    Turns out the zoom slider in the bottom right corner of my IE8 browser had somehow gotten changed to 105%.

    When I adjusted it back to 100%, my web images were clear again.

    Oh, the joy I felt. Amazing how such a little thing can cause untold irritation. And the fix, of course, was in plain sight the whole time!



  7. Excel: Switching Rows & Columns

    Every so often I find the need to swap (or transpose) rows and columns in Excel.

    Take a report generated in Quicken, for instance. I like to see how my spending categories change from month to month. Getting Quicken to generate a Spending Report that shows this is really easy. In the Quicken menubar, REPORTS → SPENDING → SPENDING BY CATEGORY will get you there. Generate the report, then select your Date Range. Add a column for “Month” and you’re set:

    Spending-By-Category Report

    Exporting this data to Excel is a simple matter, too. In the Quicken report menubar, choose EXPORT DATA → REPORT TO EXCEL-COMPATIBLE FORMAT, then give your data a save location and a name, and save it.

    One problem, though: When opened in Excel, Quicken reports usually have the date periods as columns, and spending categories reside in rows. What if you want your categories in columns, and your dates in rows? (This is usually my preference.)

    Thankfully, Excel makes such a switch very easy to do.

    Transposing Rows & Columns in Excel

    As an example, I created a “Spending by Category” report in Quicken which shows my auto expenses for a portion of 2010 (March 1 thru July 31):

    Spending-By-Category Report

    Exporting that to an Excel-compatible format gives me a text file, which I named “Data2.txt” and saved on my desktop. I then opened a blank Excel spreadsheet, and from within Excel, I then opened Data2.txt.

    Importing a text file to Excel like this is quite easy: In the Excel menubar, select FILE → OPEN. Navigate to the text file you wish Excel to import. Excel opens its Import Wizard, where you can change column breaks and ignore rows as necessary. When you’ve finished this, click OK to close the Import Wizard, and your text file should now be converted into Excel.

    Readers who wish to follow along with the files I’m using can get them here:

    Excel File: Sample Data (ZIP file with Data2.txt and Data2.xls inside)

    Just download and extract that ZIP file, and you’ll have the files I use below. Play with them as you wish!

    Once the text file has been opened in Excel (I’m using Excel 2010), it’s time to work some magic. We want our date headers to be in rows, rather than columns, and our categories to be in columns, rather than rows.

    First, select the area of data to be transposed. In this case, that’s B5 thru H13:

    Select the data to transpose.

    Now right-click inside that area, and select COPY:

    Right-click and select COPY

    Now place your cursor in the spot where you want the data to be moved (and transposed) into. For this example, I’ll select Cell B15. In that cell, right-click again, and choose PASTE SPECIAL:

    In the PASTE SPECIAL menu that appears, select TRANSPOSE:


    Our data rows and columns have now been switched (transposed)!

    Data is now transposed.

    I can’t tell you how many times that this feature of Excel — being able to swap rows and columns with a few clicks — has saved me TONS of work!



  8. Quicken Users: What Do Tags Do For You?

    Reader Kelsey emailed me with a Quicken-related comment a few days ago. Buried in the middle of it was a question that intrigued me:

    Categories I get, but there’s these tag things … what would anybody even do with those?

    Personally, for my household, I haven’t really come up with a good use for tags in Quicken. To this point, categories have taken me everywhere I need to go. (I’m currently using Quicken 2010 Deluxe, and have reviewed it previously.)

    Quicken Tags: What’s the Point?

    Basically, tags give Quicken users a way to “categorize” transactions outside of, and across, categories. I guess you could call tags a “second level” of categorizing goodness.

    Suppose you wanted to sort of “sub-track” your grocery spending so that you could see how much of your grocery spending was attributable to unhealthy food. You could do something like this…

    … and then run a report as necessary to see how much you’ve been spending on foods that will kill you. But in reality, such a usage of tags wouldn’t be all that novel. After all, you could do the same thing with categories. Simply have a subcategory of “Junk Food” in your main “Grocery” category, and you’d be set.

    However, say you wanted to track all your “Nonessential” spending. That’s a “tag” that could span across categories because, after all, “nonessential” could apply to Groceries, Entertainment, House Repair & Remodel, and just about any other category you could think of.

    So keeping an eye on “Nonessential” spending, via a tag named “Nonessential” or something similar, is more along the lines of what Quicken intended tags to accomplish.

    Possible Use of Tags: Tracking Your BMF

    One “big picture” idea for tag-use that comes to mind — but which I’d be way too lazy to implement — would apply to anyone who wanted to follow Elizabeth Warren’s Balanced Money Formula, as described in her book All Your Worth (review).

    Warren advocates that folks classify their outflows as one of three types: “Must-Haves,” “Savings,” and “Wants.” Then track where your money’s going, and aim for the following percentages:

    BMF Targets: 50% Must-Haves, 20% Savings, 30% Wants

    I’m good with using those three “types” to track spending and saving, and to create a plan for such, but I’m a Certified Data Dork, too. I would also want to know what I was spending on, say, groceries, household consummables, mortgage debt, and so on.

    So, in Quicken, I’d categorize my spending normally as regards the groceries, dining, and so on. But then I’d also give my spending “tags” of Must-Haves, Savings, and Wants as applicable. That way, I could quickly generate a Quicken report (utilizing those tags) to show me how my BMF-style money plan was working out.

    Possible Use of Tags: Monitoring Use-Tax Expense

    For a while, I really thought I could make great use of Quicken’s tagging feature by assigning specific tags to my use-taxable online purchases throughout the year. By assigning a tag of something like “Use Tax” to all my online purchases on which I hadn’t paid sales tax at the time of purchase, I could, at tax time, fire up a simple report and see how much I needed to remit in use taxes to my state’s taxing authority.

    In the end, though, I decided to treat my use-tax liability as what it really is — an ongoing “debt” that I owe to the state, and which I pay off in April of each year. So I accrue for it in its own Quicken liability account, as detailed in my Quicken: Handling Use Tax tutorial.

    What Have You Made Tags Do?

    I’m sure lots of people have put Quicken tags to work for them — I’m just not one of those folks. To date, I’ve been able to make categories do ALL my heavy lifting.

    So what about you? Have you come up with a great use for Quicken tags that I’ve overlooked?



  9. Quicken’s Register Calculator

    As readers probably know, I’m a big fan of Quicken. It’s my finance-tracking tool of choice, and has been since the mid-1990s.

    Last week, I received an email from reader Dennis, who apparently has caught on to something of a shortfall in Quicken’s internal register calculator. For those of you who aren’t sure what that is, here’s a screenshot:

    Quicken's internal register calculator

    If you have numbers to add or subtract, you can do it inside the SPEND and RECEIVE columns in Quicken’s register. Anyhow, here’s what Dennis had to say:

    In your review of Quicken 2010 you revealed that you have been a Quicken user for a number of years. Personally, I’ve been using it since the second release.

    I’d like to alert you to a bug in Quicken that has been for many years. I submit a bug report on this issue with every new release, but apparently one user isn’t enough to promote change. Maybe you would have better luck.

    The Quicken Register Calculator does not perform calculations in the mathematically standard priority sequence of Parenthetical, Exponential, Multiplication, Division, Addition and Subtraction operations. Using the Register Calculator, the key strokes “2+3*3+5*3” are evaluated as “(((2 + 3) * 3) + 5) * 3” resulting in 60 (the wrong answer) instead of “2 + (3 * 3) + (3 * 5)” which results in the right answer of 26. Anyone accustomed to using any standard calculator will experience this error.

    To avoid this error, it’s necessary to add repetitive values individually when using the Register Calculator (2+3+3+3+5+5+5 = 26). It’s a lot easier (and more accurate) to use any external calculator and copy the result into Quicken; however, since that last step creates an opportunity for transcription error, so it would be better if Intuit would simply fix the Register Calculator. Of course they could rename it to “Register Adding Machine” which would at least alert the user that it doesn’t function as a ‘Calculator’.

    Dennis’ note caused me to think: I can’t remember the last time I used any Quicken calculator. I almost always have Excel open, so it’s kind of become my default “quickie” calculator. And now that the calculator in Windows 7 shows you all the numbers you’ve entered …

    Windows 7 Calculator

    … as you input your formula, I have even less reason to utilize any “calc-ability” inside Quicken.

    I spent some time trying to think of a situation where having Quicken calculate this way — computing what is effectively a formula, and doing it without standard mathematical priorities — would be an issue for me, but I couldn’t come up with one. Again, I’ve grown accustomed to using Excel as my calculator for pretty much everything.

    I suspect that Intuit programmers never really intended this feature to do much more than add or subtract a string of numbers. Don’t guess I can really fault them for that, either. It’s awfully tough to program software that can do everything for everybody!



  10. How to Know You’re a Dork

    This past week, I replaced my laptop (a 5-year-old Dell Inspiron) with a fresh ‘n’ shiny Toshiba Satellite A665-S6050.

    Inherent in this upgrade was my switchover from Windows XP Home, which I loved, to Windows 7 Professional, for which I don’t yet have a verdict.

    (No, I never so much as bothered with Vista. In fact, a couple of years ago, I purchased a second Dell laptop for my wife. My first out-of-the-box change? Wipe the hard drive and its Vista operating system, and replace it with a clean, non-OEM-cluttered full version of XP Home.)

    However, based on something I just discovered, Windows 7 just got big bonus points in my book. If you’re a power user of the calculator in Windows, as I am, you just gotta love this revamp:

    Windows 7 Calculator


    And yes, I am a complete dork.