App of the week: GnuCash

Having recently been admonished by listening to some messages by Andy Stanley to pay closer attention to my personal finances, and my expenses in particualar, I thought I should give GnuCash a try. (Andy actually mentions Quicken, but I had come across GnuCash before, and I will try anything that’s free first). Anyway, I am highly impressed with GnuCash. It definitely beats trying to track expenses on a spreadsheet.

GnuCash definitely seems to be one of the more polished Free/Open Source applications out there. The first thing that strikes you as really brilliant is the documentation. In fact, in this area, GnuCash shines. The application is really well documented, which is outstanding for an Open Source app. As part of the “Tutorial and Concepts Guide” there is also a little explanation of the basics of accounting, which should really be enough to get anyone started. Another place you realize that much effort was put into documentation is the tooltips: They are helpful, everywhere, and explain things in detail.

GnuCash is very easy to use, and you can get up and running with it in minutes.. When you create a new file, a wizard presents you with a choice of a number of templates containing different combinations of accounts. The default includes a set of accounts which caters for most of your common income and expense scenarios, and is a good choice to start with. However, as you go along, you will see that it is really easy to create, delete and change accounts to suit your needs. In short, I found GnuCash to be rather intuitive and uncomplicated.

There are some really nifty features which will make you never go back to a spreadsheet: It is really easy to capture transactions: Double-click an account in the account tree window to open its register view, from where you can make entries very easily. A few buttons at the top allow you to quickly alter the accounts, and navigate through transactions. As I said, very intuitive and well thought out, and the documentation makes the whole experience a breeze.

I started by importing a statement in OFX (Open Financial Exchange) format that I downloaded from my bank’s internet site. (A number of popular formats are supported). The only slightly tedious process I found was to identify each the corresponding account for each imported transaction by using the dropdown. Something along the lines of an arrow which brings up the accounts menu-style (I believe there is a term for that) would make the workflow quicker, but it’s hardly a problem.

The application provides a rich set of features, many of which you might never use, and some are probably only useful to business users. One useful feature I stumbled across however, is the ability to make a scheduled, or recurring, transaction from a particular one. That is useful for automatically adding transactions for debit orders that go off against your account. Another great feature is

Finding transactions is very easy. It was very useful to be able to search for transactions as I went through some slips to match them up against what I imported from the statement. This also highlights something else about the polish of the application: The key bindings generally work well and as you expect them, complying to the norms that I think everyone is used to: Ctrl-F brought up the search dialog, Ctrl-W closes windows, etc. So there is very little guesswork; things work as you expect they would.

Moreover, GnuCash comes with a wad of reports with which you can quickly analyze your finances. I have not spent much time on going through them, but my first impression was that they could perhaps be made easier to use. While you can set options for a report, it would be more useful in some cases, if you can run a query, e.g. by entering a range of dates in a panel above the report, or something of the sort. However, as in other contexts, the toolbar adjusts to provide you with the relevant buttons to give you access to the most-used functions.

The only other thing that has me a wondering a little is the number of files created by the application. I don’t know what they are all for, but they seem to make a bit of a mess, so you are best advised to save your work in a directory of its own. As an alternative, you can save your work to an SQLite database file, which then seems to store everything in a single file. (Data can also be stored in a MySQL or PostgreSQL database).

Overall, I am very pleased to have made the acquaintance of GnuCash. It is a very mature and useful application. Now there is no more reason to fiddle with spreadsheets, or wonder where the money went. (Perhaps we can hear about GnuCash in a future message by Andy Stanley).

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