Online banking, credit and investing through one package
June 24, 2008 11:30 PM   Subscribe

What basic, personal accounting software do you recommend?

I would like to track:

• income
• retirement accounts
• out-come, i.e. spending on credit cards and ATM debits

This would preferably be done automatically — the software will contact the banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions electronically and download as much information as possible. We're eight years into the 21st C. and it doesn't seem necessary to spend one to two hours a day manually tracking and entering the day's business-related what-have-yous.

I don't hold investments, but if I gamble I would like to start gambling somewhat intelligently. The software would track investment accounts — and existing retirement account components — automatically on a daily basis. In particular, I'd like to be able to view how parts of my retirement account are valued on a daily basis, which I can't do currently without manually tracking its history in an Excel spreadsheet.

I don't run a small business (yet), so that is not a requirement. If it has the capability to run accounting for a small business that would be a plus.

Another criterion would be that I'd prefer a non-Windows software package, preferably something native to Mac OS X. I can run Windows software within Fusion, but due to cost and integration issues I'd prefer not being permanently locked in to that option. I can run an X11 application, but with the tradeoffs, being able to run something OS X native would be useful.

With that in mind, are there software recommendations you have?
posted by Blazecock Pileon to Technology (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The default answer: Quicken. Does everything you want. I think there's a Mac version, but if not, the Windows version probably runs fine under Parallels.
posted by zippy at 11:34 PM on June 24, 2008

Response by poster: I'd prefer non-speculative answers, if possible. Thanks.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:35 PM on June 24, 2008

I really love It's web-based, so I can securely access it from anywhere, and I can look at income and spending for every financial account I have as well as watch my spending trends. It's all automatic, plus I can create and track budgets for my accounts. It's also free.
posted by katillathehun at 11:44 PM on June 24, 2008

I'll second Web-based is really great for this kind of app. I was suspicious of it at first, but it's got a lot of good publicity and it's secure and has great budget and spending tracking. The current beta version also has investment tracking, but I don't know what features they're working on for that. It can do everything that you want outside of investment tracking very well.
posted by jjno at 12:02 AM on June 25, 2008

Quicken Mac has been some flavor of ancient for a few years at this point, but Intuit announced this January that they're working on a new Quicken Mac (called "Quicken Financial Life", I believe), rebuilt from scratch that is supposed to drop this fall. I have no idea whether that release schedule is still true, and I suspect that it'll be a weakish, tiny version of what will eventually be a decent product.

I haven't used mint since investment tracking was added, so I can't comment on that. I wasn't all that impressed with it when it first came out, part because I couldn't track my investments. It didn't seem to add all that much value to online banking, which through BofA is packed with nice features, including being able to track investments in other institutions. I don't understand why BofA can apparently make data-sharing deals with rival FIs, but Intuit can't somehow get all of them together to play nice. Baffling.

So, the question is really whether you can wait several months for an Intuit product that may or may not do what you need, in the hope that if you do eventually start a business, Quicken and QuickBooks will be able to talk to each other, or Quicken Financial Life will have grown up to have all the capabilities of Quicken Home & Business. If it were me, I would look elsewhere but keep an ear to the ground. Who knows if you can bet on either of these. Specifically, I would look at your bank's online offerings first...once I started looking, I was shocked by the robustness of what BofA had to offer in online banking that I had never noticed before. It frankly does anything mint can do and more, although the interface lacks minty slickness. Plus, I don't have to pay for it, and all the ads are for my bank.
posted by crinklebat at 12:20 AM on June 25, 2008

First off, here's a useful list on Wikipedia.

Out of the above list I would recommend GnuCash. The reasons for my choice are:

1) It uses a general ledger and double entry bookkeeping. Double entry bookkeeping is a rigorous form of accounting which can be a little tedious to do by hand but for which computers can remove the drudgery while keeping all the benefits.

2) It has been in development for a long time - over ten years. It is feature rich and the code base is very solid.

3) It is Free Software. It is licensed under the GPL and is not captive to the whims and welfare of a parent company. For something like financial software which you will typically use over a long period of time this is essential. You can rely on the software continuing to be around as long as there is a community of developers and users associated with it.

Now I don't actually use it myself but it will be what I use when I get myself organised in this area. I have, however, followed its development over the years and been impressed by its solid consistent progress.

Its origins lie completely in UNIX land. A Windows port was made a few years back and this is kept up-to-date. There is no native OS X port so you would be best served running the UNIX version. There is an instruction page here for how to do that. If that looks a little intimidating I am sure there would be people in the community very happy to help you get up and running.

posted by Sitegeist at 1:21 AM on June 25, 2008

I like Lately it has irritatingly been adding $10 to all my automatic payments but other than that it has been bug free and I love the tracking feature (do you know how much grocery prices have gone up over the last 4 months? I do and jiminy pete is it a lot.)
posted by fshgrl at 1:26 AM on June 25, 2008

For those interested, I have found two more pages on installing GnuCash under OS X.

Page 1 - On the GnuCash Wiki
Page 2 - On a user's website
posted by Sitegeist at 1:58 AM on June 25, 2008

I have been using Quicken for about ten years (on Windows, but I think my experience is relevant). I heartily discrecommend it. While its basic features are easy to use, Intuit is one vendor you don't want to be locked into.

They have removed the feature to import data automatically from most bank web sites using an openly understood format, and replaced it with a new format that can only be supported through proprietary cooperation with Intuit. I presume this costs money since most of my financial institutions refuse to do it. I don't think it's even possible for financial institutions throught the UK.

They try to install a lot of shovelware icons on your desktop of other things you can buy from Intuit or its partners. Even if you delete them, it is continually after me to buy more crap and crappy services from Intuit. I already bought Quicken, what else do they want?

Features I relied upon in earlier versions of Quicken are now only available in more expensive deluxe versions. I've had the same experience with Turbotax, which like Quicken is a decent product ruined by Intuit's poor business practices. Avoid.
posted by grouse at 2:12 AM on June 25, 2008

I'd pick mint or SQL Ledger, but I do my own tax prep, and I don't mind SQL Ledger's .csv file bank transaction downloads.

If you hire an accountant, they will almost certainly want your books in QuickBooks format. Quickbooks for the Mac has some irritating differences from the PC version, make sure the version you get handles automatic downloading of bank transactions.

Have not tried Mint, but if this comment: "Lately it has irritatingly been adding $10 to all my automatic payments" is true, it means automatic fail as far as I'm concerned. What if that turns into $100 or $1000? That is a place where your code should be QA'ed until it is bulletproof before rolling out a feature or update.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:43 AM on June 25, 2008 is good. It's less flashy than Mint, but it's the data-source for Mint and has provided services to banks, etc previously. It also has no ads. You can customize which view it starts on. You need to check out the different sections, but once you know where things are it's great. I'm not sure what export it provides but you can check out their site.
posted by ejaned8 at 6:16 AM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Once you get past the non-trivial installation via Fink, the basic functions of GnuCash work great on a Mac. I use it for both personal and business bookkeeping.

However, some of the more advanced functionality you might expect is lacking. For example, the ability to auto-import and auto-categorize income and expenses from bank records is not great (at least my banks don't seem to support auto-categorization which make auto-importing kind of useless). The income/expense reports can be informative and fun, but you can't print them without losing all formating. I'm not sure exactly what you want for investment reporting, but overall the reporting is quite limited (but you can get the source code).

One good feature is the GnuCash data file can be easily backed up and opened on any machine with GnuCash. That is somewhat true for the competitors' apps, however most of those apps are not free with versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux/Unix.

I would estimate GnuCash requires about 10 minutes a day or 30 minutes twice a week to keep manually up-to-date. Manually recording transactions has the benefit of making you more conscience of your spending. But if you get a week behind in the bookkeeping, it can be painful to catch up.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 8:05 AM on June 25, 2008

I anti-recommend It was very pretty, but useless for me.

It couldn't track mortgages or loans meaningfully. The investment reports they added didn't seem to understand a lot of my investments (it displayed all my options as things like FFPWT.X instead of PUT: FXI @ 150, or some similarly understandable notation.) Honestly, I just saw zero value add. (I actually tried all the online offerings, including quicken online, and thought they were all basically crap.)

I went back to using the Windows version of Quicken under VMWare Fusion, on my Mac. (I don't use the native Mac version of Quicken because simply put, it's not as good. Buggier, and less featureful.)
posted by Project F at 12:58 PM on June 25, 2008

Response by poster: I guess I admit I'm concerned about the security of putting all my financial records on a free web site which has bugs in how it calculates sums.

I don't feel like hacking GNUcash to make it work with electronic bank data. It looks like it doesn't work well with financial services like TIAA-CREF and Fidelity. Doesn't seem like a good long-term approach.

I guess I could run Quicken through Fusion, but the horror stories are problematic.

It looks like I may need to wait a while for the new Mac version of Quicken. If that looks promising I'll give that a shot. Thanks all for your input.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:49 PM on June 25, 2008

Best answer: After my lovely wife got me a Mac for Valentine's Day, I asked a similar question a few months back. I was looking for something to replace the PC version of Quicken I had been using for about 10 years, and I ended up choosing Moneydance. I use it for pretty much the same things you would be using it for -- tracking bank, credit card, and investment accounts.

It was a tough decision between MD and iBank -- I ended up going with MD because it is cross-platform and is extensible using Python. It's Java, so not strictly OS X native, but it's pretty snappy on my MacBook. If I were you I'd take a look at those two.

This would preferably be done automatically — the software will contact the banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions electronically and download as much information as possible.

As you probably know the availability and quality of this function depends very much on the financial institution. Some banks offer fabulous electronic access to your data, as simple as choosing "Update My Account" in a pulldown menu. Some require you to download a QIF (Quicken Interchange File) or comma-delimited version and import it manually. Some do not offer any electronic access at all. (Also, any available access may or may not cost $$.) However, IMO it doesn't take much to manually download (and import if necessary) activity, even for several different accounts. As far as I know Quicken, Moneydance, and iBank all have good support for online banking, but I don't know about the current status of GNUCash.

In the same vein you asked about getting updated investment pricing. Quicken can be configured to download stock prices etc. on startup. Moneydance has two Python extensions that provide the same functionality; unfortunately, they are not installed by default but are very easy to install and configure. Don't know about iBank's capability in this arena.
posted by harkin banks at 9:15 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

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