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. Review: AceMoney

    NOTE: This is a republishing of a review I originally wrote in 2010, back when I was using the Blogger platform. I’m updating prices, hyperlinks, and a few other items here.

    It’s something of a ritual: I’m consistently greeted with reader emails asking for good alternatives to Quicken and the now-defunct Microsoft Money.

    As a lifetime fan of Quicken and a current user of Quicken 2013, I sometimes have to put my now-very-iffy love of Quicken aside and consider that MAYBE, JUST MAYBE other folks might be better off with simpler personal-finance software. So I direct people to my “Alternatives to Quicken” article, first penned in 2006. I hope they find what they need there.

    It occurred to me last night that some of the lesser-known programs on that list are due for a bit of “review” work on my part. I am, if nothing else, a curious soul. I like to know what’s out there.

    Today, that “what’s out there” brings me to AceMoney.

    A couple of readers have mentioned that they use AceMoney, and like it. Now, I’ve gotten lots more reader opinion on software like YNAB, which has developed quite a following, and Simply Money. (How anyone can still use Simply Money without falling into a mental time-warp is beyond me, honestly.)

    AceMoney hasn’t garnered that much attention, understandably, but it seems worthy of a look in any case. (I’ll be discussing at AceMoney Lite, which has all the features of the full-blown AceMoney but allows the user to track only two accounts.)

    AceMoney: The Basics

    AceMoneyAceMoney is standalone personal-finance software created by MechCAD. As of this writing, the full version is priced at $30, which includes free lifetime upgrades. AceMoney Lite (their trial offering) is free, but feature-limited. AceMoney’s website tells us that the program runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac. It’s also available in more languages than I feel like counting.

    A full listing of AceMoney’s features can be found on its homepage. (They have a very informative FAQ page, too.) The features are pretty much what you’d expect: AceMoney can track your bank, cash, and credit-card accounts, and it allows for rudimentary budgeting and investment tracking.

    Version Reviewed: AceMoney Lite v3.19
    Price: $39.99 (Full Version)
    Upgrade Policy: Free upgrades after initial purchase
    Operating System(s): Windows / Linux / Mac OS X

    AceMoney in Action

    There’s no visual razzle-dazzle in AceMoney. This is no-frills financial tracking — and that’s certainly not a bad thing, especially if you’ve grown tired of Quicken’s endless bells and whistles and forced advertisements on your desktop.

    AceMoney Homepage

    That’s AceMoney Lite’s “Accounts” page, which doubles duty as the splash page when you open the program. You’ll enter transactions by clicking the name of the appropriate account (it’s a hyperlink that takes you to the Register view) and then clicking the NEW TRANSACTION button in the left sidebar.

    In the full version of AceMoney, your accounts will be grouped by type: Cash Accounts, Bank Accounts, Credit Accounts, and so on.

    AceMoney’s Register View

    AceMoney’s account registers look like so:

    AceMoney's Register View

    And as for entering new transactions:

    Enter a New Transaction

    This “entering transactions in a separate window” setup differs from programs like Quicken and YNAB, obviously. In them, you enter transactions directly into the register of the account you’re using. This tends to be a much faster method, though (I imagine) harder to program and troubleshoot. In AceMoney, if you have to enter a pile of transactions at one time, having to continually click the NEW TRANSACTION button will be somewhat frustrating and disruptive. (Thankfully, there’s a keyboard shortcut: Pressing the INSERT key pops up the NEW TRANSACTION window as long as you’re in a register.)

    Modifying already-entered transactions can be accomplished by double-clicking the transaction in question, or by single-clicking it (to select) and then clicking the EDIT TRANSACTION button. To delete transactions, simply select them in the register and then click the DELETE TRANSACTION button.

    The columns you see in the Register view are resizable, and you can change which columns appear via right-clicking the column headers. Resorting your transactions — as well as changing how they’re sorted — is a snap. Left-clicking the column headers makes this happen. Enter a transaction late? No worries! Just click the DATE column to resort on the DATE basis (either ascending or descending).

    AceMoney remembers your payees and amounts, and attempts to auto-complete them when you’re entering new transactions.

    AceMoney allows you to mark transactions as “reconciled,” and then to hide those reconciled transactions if you wish. It has a reconciliation tool as well, referred to as “Balance Account.” You’ll open this tool…

    Account Reconcile Tool

    … via another button in the left sidebar.

    Categories and Splits

    Can you categorize your income and spending in AceMoney? Absolutely you can.

    AceMoney comes preloaded with 100+ common spending categories, but you can (of course) add, modify, and delete these at will. Categories can go two levels deep (CATEGORY : SUBCATEGORY).

    As any good, self-respecting financial software would allow, AceMoney makes splitting your transactions into multiple categories quite easy.

    Enter a Split-Category Transaction

    Where do you go when you want to look at your category list? Well, the Category Window, of course:

    Categories Window

    And if you’d like to budget with your categories, you can do so. Just input a “Budget Limit” and select a “Budget Period” (month or annual) with each category, and you can generate spending reports based on the figures:

    Categories Budget Report

    AceMoney allows for lots of filtering options in these reports, also. Color me impressed.

    Scheduled Transactions

    If you’re anything like me, you’ve come to rely greatly on your software’s ability to track and automatically enter recurring, scheduled transactions.

    Can AceMoney do this?

    Yes, it can.

    Scheduled Transactions Window

    The scheduling feature allows for lots of different recurrence periods (or “Frequencies”), from “Every Day” (which is scary, really) to “Every Year.” AceMoney can enter these transactions automatically … or not, depending on how you mark a checkbox.

    There are two different views in the “Schedule” window. The first, a standard listing of all your scheduled transactions, is shown above. But there’s also a calendar view; it shows what bills will occur on what days for the current month.

    AceMoney’s “Banks” Section

    Now this is the kind of thing I love to see in financial software!

    AceMoney has a “Banks” section (pre-populated with lots and lots of bank names) in which you can store relevant and important data about the banks with whom you do business:

    'Banks' Window

    The fact that MechCAD built a feature like this into AceMoney tells me that they’re my kind of people. It’s a simple, user-driven database that makes perfect sense to include in a personal-finance program. Not only that, but it’s easy to get to, easy to fill out, and AceMoney makes it dead simple to delete all the unused banks from the list that’s already there.

    AceMoney’s “Payee” Section

    The same sort of information that you can store for banks can be stored for your payees as well. Addresses, phone numbers, website URLs … all of it can be stored in AceMoney’s “Payees” section:

    'Payees' Window

    It’s like these guys read my mind or something. I love having this info stored in my money-management program, rather than having to do it myself in a separate Excel spreadsheet or Access database. (Quicken does this, too; it’s just hard to find in that jungle of menus!)

    Reports and Charts

    AceMoney comes with thirteen preloaded report types, as shown here:

    'Reports' Window

    As you can see in the left sidebar, there are lots of filtering options available.

    And here’s an example of the charting output AceMoney offers. This is the “Spending By Payee” chart:

    Chart: Spending by Payee

    Portfolio and Investment Tools

    If you’re interested in the investment-tracking aspects of AceMoney, I suggest that you head to their website and search around a bit. I don’t focus much on the investment aspects of financial software, as I’m very much a “low maintenance” sort of guy when it comes to investing. (In other words, I leave the short- and intermediate-term trading to others.)

    Portfolio Section: Enter Investment Transactions

    Suffice to say that AceMoney can track your portfolio and investment accounts at a basic, “action/price/quantity/commission” level. It can download quotes from various sources, as well as chart your investment allocations in various ways.

    Export to Excel?

    From what I’ve seen, pretty much any register or report you view in AceMoney can be exported to a CSV-formatted file … which is then readable by Excel and other spreadsheeting programs.

    AceMoney’s HELP Files

    Though they’re not fancy, AceMoney’s HELP files are thorough and very clear — aside from the occasional typo. I couldn’t come up with a relevant question that wasn’t answered therein. (This is one of the first things I examine when I try out new financial software!)

    AceMoney HELP File Example

    Summary and Thoughts

    Okay. Being a Quicken devotee, as well as a guy who’s spent his fair share of time viewing and reviewing high-end financial software, I was prepared to be thoroughly underwhelmed by AceMoney.

    That didn’t happen.

    AceMoney is, to my mind, a really nice Quicken alternative.

    If you’re looking for something clean, simple, and focused — a pure cash-management tool without any eye candy or embedded ads — then AceMoney deserves an earnest look. There’s no clutter here. The features are all basic and useful, and all of them are right there in front of you. There’ll be no combing through endless menus, searching for the features you want.

    In fact, as I consider it, I could see AceMoney working great as a kid’s or teen’s first piece of money-management software.

    Also, if you’re running a (very) small business of some sort, or if you’re in charge of your kid’s PTA finances or something like that, I could see AceMoney doing the job on that level, too. But this manner of usage might be pushing things a bit beyond the levels for which AceMoney was intended.