November 8, 2005

Personal finance software for GNU/Linux

Author: Jem Matzan

Intuit Quicken and Microsoft Money are two popular Windows-based packages for personal financial management. GNU/Linux offers several similar applications -- most of them free software -- that can meet or exceed the capabilities of the proprietary programs. If you can adjust to a different interface, you might find you like one of them more than the better-known alternatives.

Moneydance

Reilly Technologies' Moneydance is the only proprietary program of the bunch. The license is restrictive in all the usual ways -- you can use Moneydance on only one computer, you can't use it for commercial purposes, and you can't modify it or give it out to anyone.

Moneydance is written in Java and therefore requires a Java Runtime Environment. I tested it on the 64-bit Sun JRE version 1.5.0 for Linux (a configuration that can be difficult for poorly written Java programs) and had no trouble installing or running it.

Despite being proprietary, Moneydance seems to be superior to the other financial tools I tested. It can import Quicken .QIF files, retrieve updated account information directly from bank Web sites that support the OFX protocol (there is a long list of participating banks, and if yours is not listed you can add yours via manual settings, or download data from your bank's Web site and import it manually into Moneydance), and it has an extensibility architecture that allows you to add extra program components. The default extension list includes tools for importing text files, predicting future balances, an online updater for Moneydance, Yahoo! stock quotes and currency exchange rates, a Python scripting interface, and a credit card payoff calculator. I didn't discover any other official extensions outside of the default list.

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Moneydance saves its files in an XML-based format, which should be about as portable as a file format can be. You can generate graphs and a wide variety of financial reports, and export them to .QIF or tab-delimited text files if you like. If you want to use Moneydance data with tax preparation software, you can export to the TurboTax .TXF format via a beta extension that you can, upon request, get from the Moneydance programmers. Presumably this will be added to the default extension list when it is deemed production-ready.

The interface looks nice and is easy to navigate. I didn't have to read any manuals or help files to figure out how to use any portion of the program. My only real gripe about Moneydance is its lousy integration with GNU/Linux desktops; when you install it it fails to generate any GNOME or KDE menu entries, so you'll have to start it from the command line or navigate to the program binary through your graphical file manager.

jGnash

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GPL-licensed jGnash is also written in Java, but doesn't have a cool installer program like Moneydance has. To run the program, you have to use the java -jar command from a terminal, which is about as user-unfriendly as a program binary can be. Don't expect any integration with GNOME or KDE, either -- if you want jGnash in your menus, you will have to add it yourself. I had no difficulty running the program on a 32-bit version 1.5.0 JRE, but on a different machine with a 64-bit version 1.5.0 JRE, jGnash froze when I tried to quit, forcing me to kill its process from the command line. jGnash is designed to work with a JRE version 1.4.0 and newer.

Like all the programs I used for this article, jGnash can import from Quicken .QIF files. As an added bonus, it can also import GnuCash data. Like Moneydance, the default file format jGnash saves in is XML-based, although it's not the same file format Moneydance uses. Export formats are inconsistent: you can export some reports to PDF, HTML, and comma-delimited text files (.CSV), but others offer only .CSV export. There is no .TXF export support in jGnash.

The jGnash interface is minimalist, but still a cut above GnuCash's barren interface. Instead of a lot of fancy buttons, most of the functions in jGnash are executed through the menu system. jGnash has six possible GUI "look and feel" sets, and about two dozen graphical themes, but I found the defaults to be the most attractive. One big negative point about jGnash is its speed: it's extremely slow in its calculations, even with only a few simple entries of test data to work with. On a dual Opteron workstation with 4GB of RAM, it took about 15 seconds just to bring up a profit and loss calculation window after I selected it from the menu. I'd hate to see how long it takes with a year's worth of bank and credit card transaction data in it.

KMyMoney

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KMyMoney is a free software program optionally included with KDE in some GNU/Linux distributions. It's much like Intuit Quicken in terms of its interface; even the forest green opening splash screen is reminiscent of Quicken.

Most of the same functionality is present in KMyMoney as in Quicken, except there is no ability to communicate directly with financial institutions, and it lacks .TXF export functionality. As far as file importing is concerned, Quicken .QIF and GnuCash data can be imported into the KMyMoney format. There is no ability to export to anything other than .QIF, however, so don't expect to come out with a PDF, PostScript, or plain text file.

GnuCash

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GnuCash is a free software program often included with GNOME-based GNU/Linux distributions. It's not as intuitive as the other programs profiled in this article, and it takes some time to get used to its way of doing things. I tested version 1.8.11, which was most current at the time. Since then, 1.8.12 has been released, reportedly with the ability to import online banking data in the OXF format.

Like all of the other programs I tested, GnuCash can import Quicken .QIF files. It's a little light on features, though, compared to Moneydance, and nowhere near the expanded functionality of Quicken 2005 Premiere. GnuCash can also export to .TXF files for transport to tax preparation programs.

CrossOver Office

And then, of course, there is CrossOver Office, the WINE-based Windows API emulator and graphical program installation framework. According to the CrossOver Office compatibility list, four Quicken versions are supported: 2002, 2003, 2004, and to a lesser extent, Quicken 2005 Premiere. I tested Quicken 2003 Premiere on CrossOver Office 4.2, and found it to work rather well. The only glitch I found was the disappearance of the button graphics. For those die-hards who just can't leave Quicken behind, CrossOver Office may be the perfect solution.

Conclusions

GNU/Linux supports several excellent financial planning and tracking tools. All of them will work for basic home finances, but if you're a heavy-duty Quicken user, your only choice may be to keep the program and run it through CrossOver Office. For those who don't use any of the business-related features of Quicken, Moneydance represents a good alternative. All of the other programs have only part of the functionality of Quicken. Since they are all free software and can readily be downloaded and experienced, there's no harm in trying each of them out.

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