After a year of the "keep receipts in a big folder!" methodology, based on a "we don't need no finance software!" philosophy, I've found both to be somewhat lacking. After reviewing and sifting through a blizzard of options (including libre and closed-source software, desktop and web-based, gratis and paid) I decided to limit myself to...
- web-based services
- with minimal basic functionality (deal-breakers for me: secure, must get information from most of my online accounts, help me budget, and give me an easy "from X time to Y time" summary view)
- that costs $0
- and easily export/sync to a standard file format you can work with using other programs on your desktop (no lock-in).
- Mint is a spending tracker that automatically recommends products and services to you.
- ClearCheckbook is "an online checkbook register with the added bonus of viewing reports, setting budgets, creating reminders and more."
- Yodlee is what Mint is built on top of ("that with which Mint is built on top"?).
- Wesabe is a money management tool with community features built in.
- Does the program make me feel happy when I use it? (This is largely a function of thoughtful UI design.)
- How easy is it for the program to download and use financial data from your bank, etc. accounts? (best: automatic.)
- How many of my accounts can be linked to the program, so I don't have to enter transactions in by hand? (best: all of them.)
- Will it force me to review my finances on a regular basis? The most likely scenario for this is some sort of push communication, for instance "email me updates once a $timeperiod. (best: yes, and we'll make it compelling for you to track your progress, and as a bonus, it looks pretty.)
- Can I check my financial status on the go? The most likely scenario for this is being able to get reports via SMS, email, and/or IM. (best: yes, and we show you all your budget category status numbers too.)
- Can I update my financial status on the go - in a way I'll actually do it? For instance, being able to SMS in "I spent $1 on a cookie, this comes from my 'fun' budget" would fit the bill. (best: yes, and you can fill in all the fields via SMS/etc. you'd be able to fill in online, so you don't have to go back and add metadata to your transactions later.)
- How many and which programs does the file format you export to work with? (best: yes, Mel, we work with tax preparation software...)
- Do you import file formats from other financial programs? (Not super-important, but in case I ever switch to something else and then want to go back...)
- Is the program smart about moving/renaming/merging/splitting/<insert-set-operations-here> categories and/or tags for expenditures? (best: yes, and there's an undo.)
- What other cool things can you show me that I haven't thought of?
For each service, I am going to...
- Create an account.
- Link it to as many of my financial accounts as possible (savings, checking, IRA, stocks...).
- Input (manually, with the online interface) May 2009 expenses so far.
- Check my budget status (with the non-online interface) before taking any spending-money actions during the next week.
- Input (manually, with the non-online interface if applicable) May 2009 expenses during the next week.
- Review my financial status on Monday, 5/18.
- Try out the criteria in the list above I haven't exercised yet.
- Draw up the final ranking.
- Make a decision.
- Export and back up my financial data
Stay tuned for the results.