May 2, 2007

Review: Moneydance 2007

Author: Ben McGrath

Linux users have a multitude of choices for personal finance applications, including GnuCash, KMyMoney, Kapital, and others, not to mention being able to run Quicken under WINE. One good alternative that runs on multiple operating systems and manages finances with ease is Moneydance.

Moneydance isn't free, but it does run on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Unix, and Solaris, due to it being coded in Java. It offers all the basic features most users need, such as checkbook balancing, basic exchange rates, and easy importing from Quicken, while also offering some more interesting and useful tools to judge the state of your finances, such as graphs that can indicate your net worth over a period of time, and easy reminder setups to make sure you're almost always in control.

You can download a free trial version of the software that's limited to 100 transactions, with some of the features disabled. The Linux downloads come in two versions: with or without Java prepackaged. If you want to unlock the software's full potential, you'll need to purchase it for $30.

To install Moneydance in Linux, open a terminal window, navigate to the directory where you downloaded Moneydance, and run ./ if you already have Java installed, and ./ if you downloaded the version bundled with Java. The Java-less installation checks to make sure you have Java installed before going through with the installation, and if not will automatically download Java for you.

The first time you run the program, you're presented with three options: you can create a new file to record all your transactions in, open an existing file, or import a file in QIF, OFX, or OFC format. When you create a new file, Moneydance uses its own format, with the extension of .md. If you import a QIF file from Quicken and save your data, it takes the Moneydance format. Upon my first attempt at importing a QIF file, I found that Moneydance duplicated some of my prior transactions from Quicken. A quick visit to their forum explained an easy workaround. I had to set up each of my accounts, checking and credit card, manually, and then import the information from the QIF. This wasn't too big of an issue, and the problem seems to stem from how much data is actually available from the imported files. In short, filetypes won't always play nice with each other, but it can be made to work.

After you create a file, you choose what your primary currency is. Moneydance offers 44 different choices. Next, choose whether you want to run in a standard or minimal account set. A standard account set includes checking accounts, loan accounts, liability accounts, as well as general income and expense accounts. Minimal account sets include just checking and savings, and leave you to import your data from other financial management programs.

Setting up accounts is pretty simple. You need to enter standard bank account information, such as the account and routing numbers, for Moneydance's check printing and online banking functions. If you're setting up a credit card account, you can enter a card's annual percentage rate, while liability accounts ask for your initial liability.

Once your data is set up, you can begin entering transactions. If you're security-conscious, you can encrypt your data with a choice of either 56-bit DES or the somewhat slower Triple DES. If you ever need to get your information out of Moneydance, you can export it to .QIF or Moneydance XML files.

If you have finances in multiple currencies, you can view the current exchange rates in other countries. This is updated via a list from Moneydance, as long as you have a current Internet connection. If you have multiple accounts set up, Moneydance will also automatically calculate your net worth. If you own stocks, you can grab an extension that will automatically synchronize with the latest Yahoo! stock lists. You can set reminders that will automatically alert you of an upcoming transaction or bill. The interface to the program is intuitive -- in just minutes I had all of my information entered.

Moneydance supports online banking, but in order to get it set up you have to do some legwork. First and foremost, you need to make sure that your bank supports direct OFX connections. Setting up an online banking account or bill payment is easy -- for either, go into the transaction register of your account, and in the top left you should see a tab for online transactions. Drop the tab down and click on either "Set up online bill payment" or "set up online banking," depending on your needs. Moneydance works with a large list of banks; if yours isn't on the list, you can manually set up an account after you get your bank's OFX ID and URL. After you've configured your bank, you need to input your user ID and PIN that your bank gives you.

If you have some form of Web-based banking with your bank, Moneydance can import your settings and transactions from there, provided the bank supports OFX. I was not able to import the settings from the Web site successfully, but I was able to obtain a downloadable file (.OFX) from my bank, which Moneydance accepted with ease.

Moneydance also offers advanced budgeting and monitoring tools for your finances. You can have up to 10 budgets going simultaneously, and Moneydance can even calculate an initial budget based on your previous transactions. To create a new budget, open the Budget manager from the dropdown menu located at the top of the program. If you'd like to review your budget, select View -> Show Budget Status in the top menu, and you'll be presented with a graph in the top of the main toolbar. You can also create a budget report for a specific time period, and Moneydance will show you how over or under budget you were.

Moneydance can manage loans easily. You can set up a wide variety of loan options, varying the APR, the amount of payments per year, and the total amount of payments you'll be making. The software automatically calculates your monthly payment, but you can set a specific payment as well.

Moneydance will print on pre-printed checks, but will only print the date, amount, and the payee. It can't print your routing and account numbers, but you can opt to print your address. Printing checks itself is simple -- you go through the register and mark whatever transactions you intend to be checks as "to be printed," then select the Actions dropdown in your transaction window, and set it to print your checks. Here Moneydance worked out well for me -- I don't write checks a lot, but for setting up mass bill payments it was easier to use the software than to write each individual check out.

Moneydance also offers its core API so that users can develop their own extensions through Python and Jython. It includes sample code, necessary libraries, and an ANT build file to allow compiling and signing of extensions. The project's developer page also includes sample extensions, as well as links to a mailing list for Moneydance development and common issue resolving. When in Moneydance itself, you can obtain a list of available extensions via an Internet connection from the Extensions menu in the top bar, or by clicking the "Check for new updates/extensions" link below all your account information. An extension that I found particularly useful was one that imports Yahoo! stock quotes.

If you need support for anything Moneydance-related, you have a couple of options. Read the User Guide first, as many times it can answer your question right off the bat. You can also try the online support forum, with topics ranging from installation and configuration to Moneydance development, and even general finance talk. There is also a mailing list, as well as a Yahoo! discussion group. For matters of a more private nature, the company offers email support.

Of course, when you first find that you need help, you can always turn to the Help section of Moneydance itself -- 16 chapters of tips, tricks, and tutorials ranging from simple transaction input to a full-on guide to configuring your online banking experience.

Moneydance isn't without its drawbacks, one chiefly being that it's not free software. As a personal finance application, though, Moneydance is worth checking out. Its intuitive interface and easy setup should be a welcome choice for any new Linux users looking for personal finance software, and the ability to develop extensions may attract seasoned users looking to get the most out of their experience.

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