Thoughts On Personal Finance Software Packages – And Why I Don’t Use Them

I recently had a lengthy IM conversation with a reader who asked me what financial software I use to keep my finances in order. I responded with the truth: I use Microsoft Excel (I received Office as a gift – otherwise, I would use OpenOffice Calc). This launched a lengthy discussion about various software packages and why I don’t use them.

The two “big” commercial personal finance packages (Microsoft Money and Quicken) are pretty similar – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Their interfaces are a bit different, but most of the primary functionality can easily be found in both packages: tracking expenditures, keeping track of your investments, and so forth.

However, there’s one big problem I have with both of them: they’re both the equivalent of attacking a peanut with a jackhammer. Both packages have reached a point where they’re so laden with features that they’re not intuitive to use or figure out, and the time investment required to learn the package and figure out the flow of work that works best for you is rather large.

I know very well that if I were to sit down and really invest the time to get one of these packages customized to how I want to do things that it could be very useful, but the truth is that I mostly am seeking a small number of data views to understand where I’m at: the balances of all of my debts and their interest rates, my monthly net worth calculation over time, and my active account balances. Guess what? With the exception of the account balances, these were all easy to set up in just a few minutes in Excel and I have them exactly like I want them.

I’m sure that Quicken and Money fans will respond to this post by listing a ton of features of their favorite software package that I’m missing out on, but that in itself is another problem: it takes significant time to really take advantage of those features. I’m not really interested in downloading and labeling transactions every single day (or facing a huge backlog of them after a week or so) just so I can see my current account balances – I can already see these things through online banking. I also don’t want to spend time correcting debits and credits between various accounts so that the reports on each account aren’t completely nonsensical – sure, I could “learn” the ins and outs of each system, but why not just do them in Excel?

Even worse, both mainstream packages force you to upgrade to a newer version within three years because they shut off many of the online features.

In the last month, I thought that it might be interesting to write detailed reviews of both packages and perhaps a “getting started” guide for each, so I downloaded them both and gave them a long time to prove themselves to me. I spent hours trying to use each program and figure out what’s good and bad about each of them, and all I kept facing was interfaces that took a lot of work to figure out and maintain and regular program crashes. For me, this is just not something I’m interested in dealing with just to track expenses, and I can’t honestly recommend either to my readers.

I’ve given both packages an extensive chance to prove themselves to me, and all I’ve faced are unintuitive interfaces, time investment without fruition, program crashes, and confusion. The time would have been better spent for me just to set things up how I like in Excel and move on with life – so that’s what I’ve done. I’d love to hear a truly compelling reason why I should abandon my Excel spreadsheets and move to one of these software packages – after trying each for several weeks, I certainly don’t see it.

You can try a sixty day trial of Quicken Deluxe for free if you want to give it a whirl. Similarly, Microsoft Money Deluxe has a ninety day free trial.

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