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Byte-sized bean counters

Byte-sized bean counters
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First Published: Tue, Jun 29 2010. 09 06 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Jun 29 2010. 09 06 PM IST
Ever wished you could use some sort of accounting program to manage your personal finances but banished the thought because of the complexity of the bean-counting software you’ve earlier espied (think the dreaded tax-time Tally sheets)?
You’re not alone. No matter how simple an accounting program tries to be, many invariably end up with phraseology that leaves most of us scratching our heads in bafflement. Or googling to grapple with the terms. Or giving up because it takes too much time. Yet all said and done, the benefits of setting our accounts in order are enough reason to overcome the initial anguish.
Abacus-phobes still snorting at the idea, listen up: A personal financial management program is a smart way to track your income and expenditure. With these, you can set up a monthly budget and visualize your cash flow. You can monitor your bank balance, savings and other assets, and keep tabs on loan liabilities. In a nutshell, you’ll know exactly where you stand financially, with an overview of your “assets minus liabilities equals income plus equity minus expenses”.
Some of you enterprising folk, familiar with spreadsheets and formulae, do often tailor a basic accounting system for yourselves. But unless you can give it a lot of thought, spreadsheet accounting will be a half-baked affair—and can be pretty tedious.
On the other hand, many modern-day munimjis don’t cost a penny and often simplify things to a degree that your chartered accountant won’t. So prior knowledge of bookkeeping is not necessary.
Start small—with something that is free to use and easily manageable—and learn as you go along. Don’t choose a program that will perplex you with multiple options.
Web counters
You could start with a simple Web application such as Buxfer just to get the hang of it. However, this is very rudimentary and will only give you a basic idea of how the cookie crumbles. Opening an account here is a brief affair, though, and barely takes 45 seconds. Good if you want to keep it speedy and simple.
Another Web application, BudgetPulse is far better for a detailed record of inflow/outflow for your checking (current) and savings bank accounts, credit card transactions, assets and liabilities, apart from daily and budgeted expenses. The interface is uncluttered and friendly, though a tad slow. You can generate charts and reports on expenses, income, net worth, etc., too. The Web program can import CSV, OFX, QFX and QIF file formats and export to CSV. This is useful if you have existing accounting data that you want to import to BudgetPulse; or if you want to take data from BudgetPulse to a spreadsheet program such as Excel.
If you simply want to track your expenses and nothing else, try Xpenser . In fact, this one allows you to record your expenses via email, iPhone, SMS, voice, Twitter, IM, and then some...
There are several other free Web applications out there too. Unfortunately, some of the better known and more widely used personal finance programs, such as Mint and Quicken (now part of Mint), are inaccessible in India as they are designed to link to your bank accounts.
Offline accounting
However, you could get an application that works offline. One of the more comprehensive free personal finance downloadables is GnuCash. Fairly expansive and easy to use, the program guides you through the initial process and is quite intuitive. The tabbed layout makes the numerous accounting heads easy to explore. On the assets side, you can clearly earmark your income under various heads (such as salary bonus, gifts, interest, other sources, etc.) Right from expenses on utilities (electricity, garbage disposal, gas and water) to groceries and gifts, insurance (auto, health, life) to entertainment, there is an expansive list of expense heads too. Details on automobile expenses can be input under fuel, parking, repair and maintenance. The tax section is US-oriented, so you can use this part only as a broad head. Liabilities, more usefully, consist of credit card outstandings and loans. It exports only to HTML, but you can always get the HTML file into Excel, properly formatted.
AceMoney Lite is another good, user-friendly, free download to organize and track your income and spending. No frills, no bells and whistles. It takes a very straightforward, no-nonsense approach. Not only can you follow investments, you can also set up reminders for recurring payments. Report and graph generation is easy and fast. AceMoney is more flexible than other programs, too, as it allows you to name various categories and heads (rather than restricting you to only what is available in the predesigned dropdown lists, as with GnuCash). However, the main drawback with the Lite (free) version of the program is that you can only manage one person’s account with it. But it is definitely a very good starting point for newbies.
Up for a bit of a challenge? Try HomeBank. Feature-loaded, it allows you to maintain a detailed record of income, assets, expenses, and other financial categories. While it has everything you could possibly ask for and more, it takes a while to figure this one out. Getting to online help is a tedious rigmarole and involves signing up for it again. So unless you have loads of time on your hands and have developed an affinity for unravelling complicated software, tackle this challenger last. However, the program is a decent option overall once you get the hang of it.
Balance on phone
If you feel that sitting in front of the computer to do accounts is not for you, you could try a phone app.
Though not comprehensive, these are handy, on-the-go bean counters. If you have an Apple iPhone or an Android-based touch-screen handset, you will appreciate the intuitiveness and the simplicity of set-up, plonking in and viewing data with minimum fuss.
The iPhone, in particular, boasts several good programs for personal finance management. Pennies, for instance, lets you establish a monthly budget, and then record and track daily expenses right on the phone. Interestingly, the $2.99 (Rs139) app also displays a fuel gauge to indicate what is left of your budget.
Similarly, Balance (freeware) on the iPhone allows you to input and track all credits and debits in one account (it could be your bank account or a running monthly budget).
Then there’s KashBook (also free), which lets you do all this as well as keep an eye on your credit card account.
For Android handsets, there’s Loot (free again), a useful little expense tracking and basic budgeting tool. This one even supports multiple accounts and repeat transactions.
For more serious mobile accounting, you could turn to no-frills, all-gravity Budget Droid. It conveniently allows you to set up custom categories with budgets, and tracks expenses against each of these.
Nokia users can try Florin Finance Tracker, a €1 accounting app that maintains a record of your income and expenses, with on-phone graphical reporting of your expenditure record.
You don’t have to be tied to your phone with these programs either, as they can export (and mail) the entire flow report as an Excel-importable and -readable CSV file. Of course, you need to download and instal these programs on to your phones yourself.
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First Published: Tue, Jun 29 2010. 09 06 PM IST