Choosing a Personal Finance App

I decided this week to get my older PowerMac G4 computer ready for my wife, to replace her even older PowerMac G3 desktop. Part of that involved installing Mac OS 10.5, which would move her from a Panther system to Leopard.

That meant I needed to find replacement for Quicken 2000, which we'd been running under Classic. Leopard doesn't support Classic, so I'd either need to upgrade to Quicken 2007 or find another personal finance app.

Who knew there were so many personal finance application choices to replace Quicken? I started with over thirty, found by searching my favorite software repository, MacUpdate.com. I found them by searching for Quicken, then expanding the search results to include those recommended by users. Only a few hadn't been updated in the last year (compteCCP, Economy, iBal, SpendThrift), so I was still left with quite a few to review.

I could see from the screenshots and descriptions found on MacUpdate.com and the developers' sites that programs like Buddi, Economix and Horizon were much too limited for my needs. SmartLedger and onTrack! were, bluntly, far too ugly to take up space on my screen. And the developer of BudgetfM indicated on his site that he would no longer offer an English version. (It's just as well: it, too, suffered from the ugly.)

I downloaded the remaining 21 and began my slash-and-burn routine to quickly reduce the contenders. Once downloaded, it became obvious that My Checkbook was limited; it doesn't track check numbers and, because accounts are separate documents, no true reporting exists. Finance is not only limited, but it's simplistic to the point of being complicated: I couldn't figure out how to enter transactions! Cashcow allows you to enter only amounts, no other transactional information; you can add a little more information to moneyGuru, but it can't even qualify as a checkbook register.

iCash suffers from a cluttered interface (my bank account is found in a Checking Accounts folder, which is in a Banks folder, which is in a Balance folder), as does FinanceToGo. Then there were enough little things about iFinance's interface (huge explanatory diagrams when no transaction or account was selected, large colored elements that distracted me) that I couldn't see myself using it. The same went for My Money, which irritated me with many non-Mac-like behaviors.

Squirrel is a great looking app and I'm sure it would be worthy of a review—if it were finished. It's pre-release software, though, at only version 0.7.5. There are many things missing (check numbers, category import from QIF files, splits, to name a few) and it's odd that the developer is charging ~$21 for incomplete software. If you don't buy a discounted, pre-release license you're limited to the number of transactions you can enter.

So now I was left with an even dozen.

My first criteria was the ability to import my existing Quicken 2000 data. All of these had the ability, but, as I was soon to find, most had problems, ranging from easily fixed to, well, not so much.

Some apps (CheckBook, CheckBook Pro, iCompta, Cha-Ching) require you to create your accounts beforehand and can't separate accounts in a QIF file—you'll have to export each account separately from Quicken.

More than a few apps (Cha-Ching, CheckBook, CheckBook Pro, Fortora Fresh Finance, mini$) can't import splits. And transfers in splits are a problem for a few more (iCompta, Prospects). Speaking of transfers, sometimes they get imported as categories rather than being linked to the appropriate accounts (Cha-Ching, CheckBook, CheckBookPro, Fortora Fresh Finance, iCompta).

Other than sending some non-categorized transactions (mostly opening balance transactions) to a new account, Liquid Ledger imported QIF files just fine. But iBank, Money, Moneydance, and MoneyWell were the only programs that accurately imported QIF data, including transfers and splits. (Money broke transfers in splits out to a separate transaction, but the numbers all lined up.) If you need to keep your old data in the new application, only these four will do it without fuss.

Oh, yes: Cha-Ching. This still-in-beta app (version 2, that is) also doesn't import your categories at the moment. If you're not needing to keep your old data in a new app, though, that won't matter. I decided to keep it around for the next round because I like the interface and it has a matching iPhone app.

Now that I had some data to work with, it was time to see what each of the contenders would tell me about it. Generally, personal finance apps provide budgeting tools and reporting tools.

Budgets allow you to quickly see where you're missing the mark with your current finances. Neither CheckBook nor CheckBook Pro do budgets.

MoneyWell allows you to quickly create a Spending Plan, but its “bucket” system of budgeting may be daunting for users used to Quicken—it was for me. Fortora Fresh Finance accurately showed my actual spending and the difference from my budget, but displayed it in a manner that was difficult to read. iCompta was difficult to read, also.

Money? Easy to read. Ditto for Liquid Ledger, Prospects, Moneydance and iBank.

Moneydance and iBank, by the way, were the only programs that allowed me to put transfers into my budget. Why is this important? Because when I make a payment on my mortgage, I don't show it as an expense, but instead as a transfer to decrease a liability. Cha-Ching, too, since it uses a tag-based budgeting system, allows me to track mortgage payments, savings transfers, etc. as budget items.

mini$ only shows a total for the month, not where you're at for separate budget items.

What about reports? I suppose that Quicken is the standard here; Quicken 2000 has over a dozen reports that are useful to a home user, with four that I thought were essential: balance sheet (net worth), income statement (income and expenses), cashflow report, and monthly budget analysis. Nearly every other app fell short here.

Cha-Ching is finally out, with absolutely no reports to show. iCompta left next, with only a category summary—and even that is display only. mini$ only displays its three report types, so it's gone, followed by CheckBook and CheckBook Pro for weak reporting and no budgeting.

None of the remaining apps had more than five of the reports that Quicken offers, with the single exception of Moneydance with eight (including all but a cashflow report for my essential reports).

And it's here that I left off reviewing these apps, so disappointed with the remaining five that I decided to stick with Quicken a little longer. I had a copy of Quicken 2006 that came with another Mac, so I continued with it for a couple more years...