It has often been said that free software developers are a self-interested
bunch. They will work on programs which are interesting to them
personally, while avoiding projects which they may never use. That is why
we have several complex window managers but little in the way of free
If this saying is true, one might well wonder: why has it taken the
community so long to develop a truly capable personal finance manager?
Almost every developer will have a checking account of some variety, bills
to pay, taxes to deal with, etc. Tracking accounts in paper registers is
tedious and error prone - and nearly impossible once a few complications
(such as, say, a spouse whose attention to detail in these matters is sporadic at
best, not that your editor would know about such things, honest) are thrown
in. Keeping track of one's finances is clearly a job for
Be that as it may, this is an area which has not drawn much attention from
the development community. There has long been little choice for those
wanting a free finance manager, and the available applications have lagged
behind the proprietary offerings. Perhaps all those desktop hackers are
simply pretending not to notice as their spouses balance their checkbooks
That said, the situation is not all bad. Your editor has managed his
eternally frightening finances with free software for some years. In more
recent times, the number of available packages with a minimum of useful
functionality has grown. So it's time for your editor to put together a
review of what's available. Personal finance managers are complex
applications; as a result, a comprehensive review will be long. This
review will be done in two parts; this part looks at basic account
functionality, while the next will cover more advanced features.
There are a number of projects out there, but this review will concentrate
on three of them. Many of the others have not advanced beyond a simple
list of transactions, and many of them have seen no development for years.
There are also a few proprietary alternatives available for Linux, but they
will not be reviewed here.
This review looks at:
- GnuCash. This package is the
reigning champion of free money managers; it was first reviewed in LWN in
1999. The most recent release is 1.8.11, which came out in February,
2005. GnuCash is a GNOME application, but it has not yet made the
transition to GTK2.
As we will see, GnuCash remains the most featureful of the free money
managers, though the others are starting to catch up. This package
also has high aspirations: it would like to be a full accounting
package suitable for use in businesses as well as at home. So,
GnuCash is unique in using double entry bookkeeping for all accounts.
This is a mixed blessing; the business-related features of GnuCash
have been slow to mature, and they seem to have distracted some
attention from the personal finance side of the application.
Nonetheless, GnuCash is the program to beat in the free software
community. For this reason, both of the other programs reviewed here
are able to import data from GnuCash files.
- Grisbi is a GNOME-based money
manager with a distinctly European feel - in fact, the program is
developed primarily in French, with an English-language version only
becoming available in 2004. Much of the documentation still lacks an
English translation. The current version of Grisbi is 0.5.7, released
in June, 2005.
- The leading KDE-based application is KMyMoney. Like GnuCash,
KMyMoney aims high, and would like to be useful for small business
needs. It features double-entry accounting, but lacks some of the
other features implemented by GnuCash. KMyMoney 0.8 was released
in August, 2005.
First impressions matter, especially when one is dealing with one's money.
So Grisbi's initial screen - essentially a large, empty, gray box with a
small menu bar on top - can be a bit disconcerting. A personal finance
manager should be designed to work well for people who are not particularly
familiar with computers, so it would be polite, when starting from the
beginning, to lead the user through some sort of initial setup. Or, at
least, give a pointer in that direction.
KMyMoney starts in the usual manner for KDE applications - slowly, and with
a lot of strange stuff written to the standard output. Once you get past
that, a splash screen comes up, followed by a window with a place to click
to go through a set of setup screens. It asks for a bunch of personal
information, the purpose of which is not entirely clear. Next, the user
gets to pick a "base currency," with the Afghani being the rather unhelpful
default. Almost every imaginable currency is available, from the Mongolian
Tugrik to "Gold." After picking from a directory of account templates
(they could have set a default from the currency the user just
chose, but don't), the user lands in the main KMyMoney2 screen.
GnuCash throws up a "tip of the day," immediately overlaid by a little
window giving an opportunity to create accounts from scratch or import a
QIF file. The former option yields a "druid" which enables a choice of
currency and presents a set of common accounts to create. GnuCash arguably
has the most capable and friendly startup mechanism, but it must be said
that its continued use of GTK1 shows. It simply is not as pretty as other
GNOME applications, large pulldown menus (currency choice, for example)
cannot be navigated with the scroll wheel, and it feels generally older.
One way or another, users will have to create accounts in their shiny new
finance manager. So each application provides an account creation screen.
We'll get into those shortly, but, first, it's worth looking at the types
of accounts which are supported by each application.
- A money manager must support accounts which hold money. All three
of them understand basic bank accounts - KMyMoney distinguishes
between checking and savings accounts, though it is not clear how it
treats them differently. All three have "cash" accounts - bank
accounts without the bank, essentially.
- Another common feature is accounts for liabilities - loans, credit
cards, etc. Grisbi provides only a single "liability" account.
GnuCash adds credit card accounts as a separate type, while KMyMoney
goes even further with a separate loan account type.
- All three packages have accounts for assets - a place to keep track of
the value of your car, for example. Many dotcom veterans will
appreciate this; it makes the "net worth" calculation look much nicer
if you can include the value of that 1999 Ferrari. GnuCash has a
separate "equity" account type which is used for initial conditions -
your net worth before GnuCash entered the picture. The equity account
is needed to make all of the double-entry accounts balance out.
- GnuCash is alone in having income and expense accounts. This type of
account is required if you are going to do double-entry bookkeeping -
every transaction must be represented as a transfer between accounts.
Since KMyMoney claims double-entry capability as well, it presumably
implements a similar type of account, but they are presented to the
user as "categories."
- Grisbi does not have any sort of account for investments. There is a
general "investment" account type in KMyMoney; GnuCash, instead,
provides separate currency, stock and mutual fund account types.
- Finally, GnuCash has "accounts payable" and "accounts receivable"
account types which are used with its small business features.
GnuCash takes a "one big window" approach to account creation - everything
one may wish to add is to be found there. Some of the fields are obvious,
others less so. "Commodity" is, for most accounts, the currency in which
the account is denominated. The "account code" is a number which,
seemingly, only affects the order in which the accounts are sorted in the
main window. It is nice to have the control, but a modern user expects to
be able to effect that sort of ordering just by dragging the accounts
around. The account type must be chosen from a tiny, scrolling window.
With GnuCash, one must also choose a "parent account," because accounts are
stored in a hierarchical manner.
What the GnuCash account creation window lacks is any way of creating
accounts (such as mortgages) involving regular, complicated payments. That
capability does exist, but it is to be found deeply under the
"actions" menu in the main window. The "Mortgage/Loan Druid" is highly
capable, though with some strange defaults (interest rate of 0.001%, for
example). It understands things like escrow accounts and mortgage
insurance, and can set up everything which is needed to track the loan. It
gives every impression of being a feature which was bolted on relatively
late in the game, however.
KMyMoney has the slickest new account creation dialogs. A request to
create an account leads to a series of graphics-heavy windows appropriate for the type of
the account. Unlike GnuCash, KMyMoney tracks "institutions" as separate
entities, and can (optionally) associate accounts with them. Accounts
involving regular payments (such as credit cards) will draw an offer to set
up a scheduled transaction. Setting up a loan requires entering interest
and payment information as well. The mortgage mechanism is a little less
sophisticated (it does not understand escrow accounts, for example), but it
has everything which is truly needed.
KMyMoney implements hierarchical accounts, but there is no way, in the
account creation process, to specify where in the hierarchy an account
should be created. Accounts can be moved later, however.
Creating an account with Grisbi starts with selecting the account type.
Then the main application window is taken over by a form where the relevant
information can be filled in. Grisbi, like KMyMoney, keeps track of
financial institutions. Grisbi accounts can also have minimum balances
associated with them; running an account below the minimum yields a
Grisbi accounts have a currency associated with them; your editor was
somewhat surprised to see that the Euro was the only option provided. As
much as your editor would have rather had all of his accounts in Euro over
the last few years, that is not the case. Currencies, as it turns out, are
one of the stranger corners of the Grisbi interface. It is possible to
change the list of "known currencies" under the Edit->Preferences menu.
Clicking on the "Add" button yields the usual lengthy list of currencies,
sorted in a way seemingly designed to force both North Americans and
Europeans to scroll for a long time before finding anything useful. Once
the currency has been "added," it is available for use in new accounts.
But this dialog is not available until at least one account has been
created. So those of us unlucky enough to have our accounts in $US must
first create a throwaway Euro account before adding our native currency
(which Grisbi clearly knows about) to the "known currencies" list.
Grisbi has no notion of hierarchical accounts, and no "druids" for the
addition of more complicated accounts.
Personal finance applications offer no end of features and capabilities to
users. What most of those users will spend their time actually
doing, however, is entering transactions into the program. It would
thus make sense for those working on this kind of software to focus a great
deal of effort toward making this task quick, easy, and relatively easy to
GnuCash is the clear winner in this area. The register window has all of
the information required, and is highly configurable. Transactions can be
entered quickly, with no need to use the mouse once the process is
started. GnuCash remembers transactions, so it can expand names and cut
back on typing. Nicely, it seems to have some way of tracking which
descriptions are used most often, so the suggested expansion is usually the
one you want. For payees which have been seen before, GnuCash will fill in
the transfer account (read "category") and the dollar amount seen the
previous time. As a result, many transactions can be entered with very few
keystrokes. The only slight glitch is that the transaction memory is local
to each account, so things do not always expand when one might expect them
GnuCash allows the date to be changed with the + and -
keys (= works in place of +, saving wear on the little
finger). A + in the number field will generate the next check
number. This number is calculated from whatever was entered last, rather
than from the largest number ever seen; this feature is much appreciated in
households where more than one checkbook is in use for the same account.
Unfortunately, there is no way for GnuCash to help effect any control over
what the spouse does with that other checkbook.
The KMyMoney register, instead, is harder to work with. Starting a new
transaction requires an action with the mouse. Thereafter, everything can
be done with the keyboard, but more keystrokes are required. When GnuCash
proposes an expansion for a payee, a single tab is sufficient to accept it,
set the category, and move the cursor to the amount field. KMyMoney
requires a combination of tabs and carriage returns before it will move on
to the category field - and, if you get the combination wrong, it will
simply enter an incomplete transaction.
Several fields must be tabbed through to get to the
amount. KMyMoney will remember categories and amounts (but only after you
find and turn on the relevant configuration option).
KMyMoney can also guess check numbers (again, after an option has been
explicitly turned on), but it is a simple "biggest yet" calculation with no
attention to the numbers the user is entering at the time. The check
number cannot be incremented or decremented with any keys that your editor
was able to find. KMyMoney will warn the user if a transaction with a
duplicate number is about to be entered; GnuCash does not perform that check.
The date can be adjusted using the up and down arrows, but
something inspired the KMyMoney developers to have the arrow keys adjust
the year of the transaction by default. Even your editor does not
normally get quite that far behind in his checkbook maintenance; it should
not be necessary to hit two right-arrows to be able to change the day of
KMyMoney requires the user to choose between five different types of
transaction to enter: checks, deposits, transfers, withdrawals, and "ATM."
GnuCash has done away with that distinction; everything is a transfer.
Things are simpler that way; there should be no need to categorize
transactions for the application in this manner.
While KMyMoney is, in many ways, a very nice application, the slower
transaction entry process would, on its own, be enough to disqualify it as
far as your editor is concerned. Fortunately, none of the issues mentioned
here should be particularly hard to fix.
In many ways, Grisbi almost gets transaction entry right. It is possible
to get through most of the form by tabbing, payees are expanded and
previous information substituted, and check numbers are guessed based on
what was entered previously. Your editor had some difficulty at the
beginning, where Grisbi was convinced that transactions were being entered
in Euro; since the account was in dollars, Grisbi asked for a conversion
factor. Once told to use dollars for transactions, however, Grisbi
remembered - but transactions should default to the currency associated
with the account.
Dates can be adjusted with + and -. Unlike GnuCash (and
a number of other programs), Grisbi does not accept = as a
substitute for +. Each Grisbi transaction always starts with the
current date; it would be more useful to use the date of the previous
transaction, as GnuCash and KMyMoney do. But the truly obnoxious feature
is that Grisbi assumes that all transactions are done with a credit card
(for a checking account, even), and telling it that a check is involved
requires using the mouse. That slows down the entire process.
GnuCash is also able to work with banks supporting the (German) Home
Banking Computer Information (HBCI) protocol, but your editor, lacking bank
accounts in Germany, was unable to test this feature.
There is much to be said for not typing in transactions at all. Quite a
few banks will make transaction information available via the OFX/QFX file
format, and all three programs reviewed here are able to import that
format. GnuCash sorts imported transactions into three piles - those which
it cannot import at all, those which need to manually have transfer
accounts (categories) set, and those for which it was able to guess
categories itself. The category assignment process is a bit cumbersome (it
would be nicer if the same interface was used here as in the register) but
effective. The automatic assignments appear error prone, so one needs to
glance them over before finishing the task.
Grisbi will simply import the whole set of transactions into the indicated
account with no category information at all; the user must go in afterward
and fix things up one by one. Unfortunately, your editor was unable to
build OFX support for KMyMoney.
The other common time-consuming task performed with personal finance
managers is account reconciliation, otherwise known as the process of
figuring out why the bank thinks you have less money than you thought you
had. The reconciliation process tends to be tedious, with occasional
unpleasant surprises. A finance manager can do nothing about the financial
pain involved in reconciliation, but it should at least make the process as
quick and straightforward as possible.
The GnuCash reconciliation process starts with a request for a statement
date and ending balance. GnuCash attempts to come up with a default date,
but the results are occasionally strange. The window also asks whether
subaccounts should be included in the process, and gives the opportunity to
enter an interest payment. The actual reconciliation window contains two
panes; GnuCash, unlike other programs, separates deposits and debits for
this process. The key by which items are sorted can be selected by
clicking on the column heading - a nice feature if you like to have checks
listed in number order, rather than by date. Reconciling items is a simple
matter of clicking on them. Double-clicking on an item will bring up a
register window with the cursor at that item, allowing quick corrections to
be made. The register window can also be used to enter new transactions
(all those ATM withdrawals you forgot, for example) at any time.
The reconciliation process in KMyMoney is similar; during the setup phase,
it also allows the entry of bank charges, however. The reconciliation
window has a single pane, with deposits and debits mixed together and
sorted in date order. There does not appear to be any way to change the
sorting order. Double-clicking on a transaction allows it to be edited in
place. KMyMoney allows the user to "postpone" the completion of the
reconciliation process, and will remember the relevant information for the
The Grisbi reconciliation option is hard to find - it is not anywhere in
the menubar. Instead, one must go to the "transactions" window, then
hit the "reconcile" button on the lower left. Statement information is
then entered in the left column; there is no provision for the entry of
interest payments or bank fees. Clicking on transactions will cause them
to be marked as reconciled (at least, one assumes that "P" means reconciled
in some language); double-clicking allows them to be edited in the bottom
part of the window. The process is ended with the "OK" button on the lower
left; that button is not active until everything balances out (there is no
Conclusion to Part I
With the features described above, any of these three programs can be used
to keep track of a set of bank accounts. Personal finance programs can
offer much more, however. The second part of this article will cover some
of the other capabilities expected of a contemporary finance application,
- Scheduled transactions - tracking (and reminding about) payment which
are to happen in the future.
- Loan tracking, including tracking the current principal balance.
- Reports. Can you see where the money is going, how it got there, and
make a nice pie chart out of it?
- Investment tracking: stocks and funds, dividend reinvestments, capital
gains, use of online price information, etc.
- Budget creation and tracking.
If space and time allow, the second part may also include a look at the
business features offered by GnuCash. Or that part may have to wait for
the Exceedingly Grumpy Editor's Guide to Small Business Accounting
Your editor's final comment is this: for many years, there was only one
free personal finance application of any note: GnuCash. It is now
interesting to see there are three viable programs out there. The
situation has changed significantly - for the better - over the past year.
Come back for the second part (to be published, probably, near the
beginning of October) to complete the tour of what these programs can do,
and a final recommendation from the editor.
[Part 2 is now available]
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