Project Freedom

December 14, 2008

Over the past few months I’ve been searching high and low for some software that will assist me in managing my personal finances. Ultimately what I want is something that will let me lay out my budget and then proceed to track my expenses against my budget so I can see how I’m doing. This will help me answer some very important questions like:

  1. Is my budget realistic? 
  2. Where am I getting into trouble? 
  3. What are my biggest expenses and can I do anything to reduce them?
  4. How much money have I actually got available (after paying my bills)?
  5. Is there anything on the horizon that I have to put some money aside for?

Knowledge is Power

All of this knowledge is power because it means I can make informed decisions about whether or not to spend depending on my circumstances. Frequently my wife and I have found ourselves saying “No we’d better not, I don’t think we can afford it”, when the reality often is that we can easily afford it. Lucky for us we tend to err on the side of caution and end up with a bit stashed away because of this attitude, however the same principle applies in reverse to those who aren’t so cautious. It all boils down to living within our means which is often quite comfortable – we just don’t know it yet. Most of the time we don’t have to go without, nor do we have to run the risk of getting ourselves into trouble.

We do currently have a system, though it has many moving parts and I’m not really satisfied with the ability to mine more detailed information out of it. What’s more is that I tend to lose a lot of the more fine grained information as it passes through the various stages of being entered into this spreadsheet and that software package. What I’m really after is a solution that is both simple and powerful, without all the accounting-speak. It should have a simple, well designed UI without too much clutter which  belies the underlying power of the application.

Bottom line is that I don’t want have to spend an entire evening every week bringing it up to date, 15-30 mins a week is about all I want to spend on this. I also want to be able to get my vital stats such as cash flow and available funds at a glance. I need something I can look at the start of the day and know exactly where I stand.

Playing the Field

Now being the self-confessed code junkie that I am, my mind immediately jumped to all sorts of fanciful notions of building the damn thing myself. At this point I had to stop and say to myself “Dave, you are not going to build this. There has to be any number of software packages out there that do exactly what you’re looking for and more.”, this was mainly for the benefit of my poor neglected wife however. Deep down I really wanted to write this thing all the same…is there any hope?

Anyway for the record I’ve sampled the following apps so far:

In addition to these I’ve also tried any number of so called budget tracking spreadsheets and access databases.

How Do They Stack Up?

So what did I think? Well, rubbish to be completely honest. I’m sure that all of them fit their niche quite nicely however none of them seem to be able to adequately combine a solid budgeting tool with an expense tracker, let along in an easy to understand, intuitive interface. The ones that came closest in my mind were the online ones,  which leads me to a new dilemma.  I absolutely cannot stand online budgeting tools. In this regard I have to completely agree with Richard Stallman that some things just don’t belong on ‘the cloud’. I don’t really care what the social networking advantages of doing so are (ala Wesabe) I’m just not comfortable in handing over all my financial details to some website (that isn’t a bank an never will be) and hoping that they don’t:

a) Use my information for some nefarious purpose.
b) Accidentally leak my information for others to use for said nefarious purposes.
c) Lose my data when they’re evicted from their hosting provider for not paying their bills.
d) Do any other stupid things that may result in financial loss or general inconvenience on my part. 

That said, being online has the distinct advantage of being available almost anywhere which is a big plus if you’re the kind of person who spends very little time in a fixed location.

Back to Square One

Unfortunately that leaves me back where I started which is I still don’t have an all round tool to help me manage my finances effectively and gives me my vital statistics in a timely fashion. Looks like it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get coding. 

Ideally I want this thing to be a cross-platform desktop app, with a slick user interface and constructed in such a way that we can easily integrate access-anywhere capabilities via the web. You know so you can check before you make that impulse purchase.

Developer Team Assemble!

If you are like me and are frustrated with the current personal money management offerings and you’re interested in contributing then let me know.  If I get enough interest then I think I’ll open source it so I can speed development of the thing up.