3 Free Personal Finance Apps You Can Take to the Bank
Nov 10, 2010 5:00 AM PT
The Linux platform has several really good financial applications that are more than capable of handling both personal and small-business accounting operations.
GnuCash, HomeBank and Skrooge are among the best financial apps I've found for Linux. In terns of features and performance, all three are as good as or better than the well-known Microsoft Windows equivalents -- MSMoney and Quicken.
But features and performance aside, these three Linux apps have a striking advantage over their proprietary kindred. The Linux programs, being open source, are free. That means I can run them on my various desktop and laptop computers all for the same great price -- $0.
For my money -- if open source was not free, that is -- any one of these Linux financial apps fits my needs better than their Windows counterparts. Nothing I did using Windows wares escapes me in Linux.
For a while after I made the leap from Windows to Linux, I relied on AceMoney, a personal finance product that has a fairly full feature set. I even gave in and paid the upgrade fee to add the ability to maintain multiple bank accounts. AceMoney is not open source.
MSMoney and Quicken do not run under WINE. But they do, as does AceMoney, export their data to a form that GnuCash, Homebank and Skrooge can use. So if you're already using those programs and you want to make a switch, you do not have to start from scratch to begin using them.
Cash In With GNU
GnuCash is probably the top of app a real accountant would relish. It is a powerhouse personal and small-business finance manager. But it comes with the steepest learning curve of the three packages.
It is a double-entry accounting system. If all you want is an app to ride herd on your bank accounts, using GnuCash could be overkill.
Still, it will do that and a whole lot more. GnuCash tracks budgets and maintains various accounts in numerous category types. It has a full suite of standard and customizable reports.
GnuCash has the look and feel of a check-book register. Its GUI (graphical user interface) is designed for easy entry and tracking of bank accounts, stocks, income and expenses.
That said, if you do not have an appreciation for formal accounting principles, make sure you spend considerable time boning up on the documentation. GnuCash is designed to be simple and easy to use but is based on formal accounting principles.
When the counting gets beyond my fingers and toes, my eyes gloss over. The program got easier to use once I imported the files and finished the account setup. But double-entry accounting is not my comfort zone.
Here is the short version of what a double-entry system entails. All transactions must debit one account and credit others by an equal amount.
This process ensures that the books balance, according to GnuCash's documentation. Making sure that the difference between income and outflow exactly equals the sum of all assets and equity is a standard that exceeds my needs.
For business finances, though, GnuCash offers key features. For instance, it handles reports and graphs as well as scheduled transactions and financial calculations. If you run a small business, this app will track your customers, vendors, jobs, invoices and more.
Feeling at Home
Compared to GnuCash, HomeBank is a much easier personal accounting system to use. Its roots go back to the 1995 Amiga computers. It is available in 50 languages on GNU/Linux, FreeBSD, Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.
Unlike other financial software, HomeBank does not connect to your bank's computer to carry out transactions. This means it cannot update banking records in real time.
For me, that is not an issue. I disabled that feature in other financial software I used. I much prefer to pay bills and make money transfers through a secure browser connection manually.
The several banks I use only update daily records after midnight. So even if I use the banks' online banking direct connections, I will not see real-time account status.
I want a banking app that lets me track deposits and transfers and helps me spot where I spend my money. HomeBank's pie charts and graphs do that and more with ease.
HomeBank is much more than a simple ledger program. It uses categories and tags to organize transactions. Plus, this app handles multiple checking and savings accounts.
It also makes it simple to schedule recurring transactions. Banks and credit bureaus are now much less forgiving on late payments. One sure way to avoid last-minute payment anxiety is to let HomeBank remind you when to pay a bill.
Skrooge reminds me of Quicken with its dashboard-style GUI. Perhaps it is its appearance that makes this app my favorite.
It looks less like a banking ledger. The design is much more user-friendly. I find it much less intimidating.
This app is powered by the KDE4 desktop environment. I generally do not like the screen changes KDE4 brought about; thus I now favor the Gnome desktop. But Skrooge runs seamlessly under Gnome because the needed KDE libraries are installed as part of the Skrooge package.
For example, the app window is divided into banking components that make more sense than a traditional ledger view. I can see the bank's name, account and transaction details in clearly discernible windows.
Other details such as reports and filters appear in view as I click different windows and icons around the viewing screen. The size of the app window expands or collapses to reflect the real estate needed by the selected features.
The KDE underpinning lets Skrooge run on various Linux distros, BSD, Solaris and Mac OS X. Skrooge is part of KDE Extragear and is released under the GPLv3 license
I particularly like Skrooge's interface. Its colorful panels and icons take the dreariness out of banking chores.
Even better is the tab structure. Each task -- such as filtered reports, ledger entry and dashboard -- remains open as a tab line up along the top of the viewing windows under the menu and tool bar rows.
So at any given time in a banking work session, I can click an open tab to again look at the Dashboard, Income vs. Expenditure report, various pie categories, etc.
The dashboard itself is an unusual aspect of financial apps. Most do not have one. The dashboard component in this app shows the account balance per bank.
More Cool Stuff
Skrooge has the expected features and more. For instance, it can import/export files in formats for QIF, CSV, KMYMONEY, OFX, QFX, GnuCash, Grisbi and HomeBank. It has an easy-to-use scheduling tool.
But it also goes where the other financial apps don't. For example, Skrooge has infinite category levels and multiple update of operations. It also has infinite undo/redo options which are still active after the file closes.
A feature that I find very useful is the ability to track refunds of my expenses. It also has one that I wish I could put to more use: It handles multiple currencies.