Show me the money
November 19, 2012 5:58 PM   Subscribe

Recommend us some o’ that personal finance software.

We’re somewhat standard: Married, no kids, both working, decent health insurance. Got mortgage, cars, pets, minor credit card debt, modest savings. We need a way to understand wtf is going on with our finances without the mind-numbing drudgery of downloading statements, assembling in Excel, assigning categories, etc.

What can we expect from Quicken,, etc? Your best advice?
posted by LonnieK to Work & Money (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a Mac user so I find iBank to be awesome. Their iOS offerings, eh, not so impressed.
posted by Brian Puccio at 7:04 PM on November 19, 2012

I use mint; I like mint. There is nearly zero mind-numbing drudgery; about once a week I glance over my numbers and correct one or two miscategorized items or move something to one of my fine-tuned categories (for example, I have separate buckets to track going out to bars with friends vs spending on dates.) No downloading statements, almost no effort, and it lets you very quickly and easily understand wtf is going on with your finances via all manner of charts, breakdowns, and whatnot.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:36 PM on November 19, 2012

Doing it properly does involve some "mind-numbing drudgery" as Tomorrowful put it: you don't catch errors if you simply download everything and trust that what a merchant billed you is what they were supposed to. You should enter data from receipts and then reconcile to statement in order to catch errors. But maybe you don't want to catch errors. No harm in that. We only catch a small number, a handful a year. It isn't clear that it is worth the trouble.

We find Quicken to be satisfactory but as noted we don't do any downloads, the download process was awkward anyways last time I tried it for something unimportant. Quicken can be configured and trained to memorize things, so the task of categorizing stuff becomes much easier with time. It'll help you track most types of financial accounts, and has versions for small businesses as well. You do need to have some discipline when starting up to try to understand what its categories are all about, because that's what really drives the reporting functions. You cannot just use a category because it "sounds good". If you're doing it right, doing taxes at the end of the year means that many of your tax line items have been all neatly collected and are instantly summarized. Child care? Education expenses? Home repairs? Medical expenses? What about income? You can put in your paycheck and have Quicken figure out what's going to be on your W-2.

You should probably expect that you will need to adjust your financial practices a little to match up with what the software wants and expects.
posted by jgreco at 8:38 PM on November 19, 2012 does not play nice with numerous financial institutions, and that has gotten worse over time. I loved it in 2009. I almost hate it now. Before you rely on it for tracking, peruse the forums and see if there are any complaints about how it works with your particular institution(s).

If you are a Mac user, for the love, steer clear of MoneyDance. Utterly worthless, unless you love clearing duplicate entries every single time you synch your accounts.

Sorry I can't recommend any; I'm interested in finding a new software myself, so thanks for posting this question.
posted by bloggerwench at 9:20 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

You Need A Budget (YNAB for short) is my software of choice. It's cross-platform (Mac, PC, iOS, Android) with cloud sync using Dropbox. It has a very strong methodology which has helped me get rid of thousands in debt and support two people on one income while my wife goes to university. It also has very supportive forums, support and free training online (videos, webinars etc). I'm not exaggerating when I say it has changed my life several times over.

There is some 'drudgery' in capturing transactions, but honestly, because it's designed to be a forward looking tool (i.e. how and where you will spend your money rather than reconstructing where you did spend your money) it very quickly becomes second nature to whip out the phone app and record something, or even just go through the receipts in your wallet every couple of days. It also supports import and reconciliation of transactions from your bank, although I don't use that.

I used to budget on the 'put the card in the ATM and see if money comes out' system, and I was floundering for years. This software (and especially its methodology) turned me into a budget nerd a bit, but the unparalleled release from general money anxiety and feeling like I was never getting anywhere financially have been worth it.

I seriously cannot recommend this software enough. It is awesome.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:19 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding the YNAB recommendation. I used Quicken for years, perennially irritated by its cluttered overcomplexity and embedded advertising for other Intuit products and services, but didn't find a satisfactory replacement until YNAB crossed my radar about a year and a half ago. It's good software that's steadily getting better, the developers are very responsive to problems you might encounter and there's a supportive community in the company's forums. You will, however, have to do some work. No software can save you from that.
posted by jon1270 at 4:04 AM on November 20, 2012

Response by poster: Thx for all suggestions.

I absolutely don't want to record expenses. They're all already recorded in my credit card and bank accounts -- I use those for virtually everything -- and I'd expect a financial program to automatically reach into those accounts, pull those records in, classify them to some degree, and give me a monthly snapshot. (I'm satisfied with lumping my few, small cash expenditures as one 'sundries' category, quantified not by parsing out $2 receipts but simply by my actual ATM withdrawals.) Any program that requires me to go thru receipts and enter numbers daily, weekly, etc, would be out.

By drudgery I don't mean initial set-up, tweaking a few categories, glancing over expenses, etc. I mean continual, repeated busy work, like downloading 4 credit card statements every month (or even just once a year), and then combining them, massaging them into one format, and going thru that file, line by line, to categorize every item. I believe most personal finance programs will do that work for me, no?

Again, thanks for all these thoughtful comments considerations.
posted by LonnieK at 7:10 AM on November 20, 2012

Downloaded transaction records from your bank don't contain information about what you bought. All the software can tell is where you spent the money. A purchase at McDonalds is easily categorized, but Wal-Mart not so much. Some software (e.g. Mint, I believe) makes category assumptions for transactions at large, national chains, but no app is going to be familiar with local independent vendors, so at the very least you'll have to categorize first transaction with each place of business.

YNAB's payee list starts out blank; the software initially has no idea what Wendy's or Home Depot is or what they sell. But it does learn, and you can set up rules to help it categorize transactions automatically. That particular function has been rather clunky for a while, but they're currently beta testing a new version with much-improved payee settings.

I don't know whether any software reliably downloads transaction data automatically. Mint tries, but as noted above it doesn't always work. YNAB doesn't even try to do it for you; you have to go to each bank's website, initiate the download and approve the import.

Your worries seem specific enough that you should probably just take some of these programs out for a spin and see what you think. Mint is free. YNAB has a free trial period that lasts several weeks.
posted by jon1270 at 8:07 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

YNAB probably won't work for you in that case, as it is very, very focused on immediate awareness and tracking, rather than a high-level monthly view or review process. I think Quicken or something along those lines might work.

I would just say that, if you have an ambition to 'get control' of your money, no amount of backward-looking review will really get you there. Budgeting and tracking expenses is the only way, really, to control and reduce spending. It always seemed like too much of a hassle to me, but really it does become a habit - you might buy or spend money on a half dozen things in a busy day, and nothing on other days, and it takes maybe 10 minutes of my day, max, on a day when I have spent a lot. Most days I do it on my phone and it's a minute, if that. It's not really busy work - that implies that knowing exactly where your money is going has no value, which is not true.

You can get higher level in some areas - I know some people don't track cash expenditure at all, just the withdrawal (I track everything, but I'm considering changing to a simple 'Cash' category rather than tracking every penny). Equally I know people who just have a 'Spending Money' category rather than dozens of detailed sub-categories. As I've gone along I've reduced from well over 40 subcategories to a round 20 or so, and I will reduce further in future. The YNAB methodology (especially the concept of buffering spending by a month, which is the final step) makes all of this very easy.

Anyway, good luck with finding the right software.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:10 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I use Moneydance and it does the job, but I'm not thrilled with it. I used to use Quicken before they gave up on Macs and liked the simplicity; Moneydance tries to do too much and doesn't always succeed.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:28 AM on November 20, 2012

I think I just switched from Moneydance to iBank just because of this AskMe. Really, avoid Moneydance.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:21 AM on November 20, 2012

I just reviewed my account today and made some adjustments based on major changes in my budget. I love mint. I also love the phone app for it.
posted by michellenoel at 12:16 PM on November 20, 2012

iBank seems to go crazy when it finds a stock split (I am playing with a trial now after the recommendations above). LonnieK, if you have a 401(k) or other investment accounts, you might try some downloads and reconciliations before committing to purchasing the software.
posted by bloggerwench at 9:36 PM on November 20, 2012

LonnieK: "I absolutely don't want to record expenses."

Well, without some kind of tagging, it's hard to say what's an expense and what's a purchase of an asset (ie something that can be sold later, possibly for a profit).

I use GNUCash, which is similar to Quickbooks, but open source (this is important to me). I'm not confident my approach will do what you want, but perhaps it'll illustrate some principles you do care about. My setup involves two pieces of automation: account transaction import, and a boatload of "scheduled transactions." Scheduled transactions are basically recurring transactions like insurance payments, paychecks, mortgage, utility payments, etc. Still, there's a lot of expenses I didn't anticipate, and transaction import grabs the accounts via the OFX protocol. GNUCash uses some simple heuristics for transactions, so the initial few runs is a lot of classifying but it gets easier as it sees the same vendors over and over again. Mint and other systems likely have better classifiers thanks to central repositories of data.

But really, I'm not sure what kind of information you want to acquire by using this. Simple net worth calculations? Asset allocation?
posted by pwnguin at 9:57 PM on November 20, 2012

Response by poster: @pwnguin, to be honest, I guess I'm not sure either.
Net worth, allocation, spending trends, opportunities to cut, retirement as percent of goal ... etc etc.Whatever it is that constitutes being on top of one's financial situation, that's what I want, with as much automation as possible.
As you can see, this area isn't my strong point. But I like the idea of trying a few, so I moved ahead with Quicken. I expect its features, or lack of, will become apparent and I'll be able to assess other programs more concretely. Better to light one small candle than to sit and curse the darkness.
Thx all! The green is the best.
posted by LonnieK at 3:21 PM on November 23, 2012

« Older Installing Christmas lights on a outdoor 30ft tree...   |   What's a good gift to buy for someone with... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.