In the past, Linux was not overly blessed with decent budgeting software, and installing GnuCash was regarded by many as the epitome of a descent into dependency hell.
Thankfully, things have since changed, and anyone using a modern distribution could now have the software ready to go in just a few minutes.
This kind of software is all about the data; getting it in, getting it out and doing useful things with it. In terms of getting data into the package, there are three things we need. We want software that makes it easy to add items to the spending side because you'll be less likely to update your ledger if doing so proves annoyingly difficult.
We want filters that will import transaction data downloaded from our bank account and allow easy reconciliation between local and remote records. Finally, we want to be able to set up periodic transactions that can be added to the ledger at certain points each month to deal with things such as mortgage payments.
Remember that, while the price of shares and property can go down as well as up, the cost of most of these packages will always be £0.
GnuCash is the rich great uncle of the other software on test here, having been around almost as long as Linux itself. In the early days, installing GnuCash was painful, and the final application looked like it was designed for accountants. Fortunately things have evolved since then and the application now has a user-friendly sheen. The old friend is still there under the hood, but there have been numerous additions that make running a basic accounting system a more pleasant experience.
One thing about GnuCash that used to put us off was the arcane double-entry system that gave the software much of its power. This has been augmented with a selection of more basic account types, which are offered on the first run of the software. However, for the most simple system – based on our downloaded data – we found it easy to begin with a blank slate and then create a single account based on the Bank or Cash option and use this to house our data. Using this method, we were up and running within a few minutes of installing the software.
Importing the OFX data from the bank worked well, with the automated druid (a wizard by any other name) giving us the option of viewing the data before it was imported. This would be more useful if we could enable or disable individual entries, but this screen is not dynamic. The Register window itself is very tidy, with a range of icons across the top and transactions arranged chronologically.
You can add new transactions by clicking in the empty space at the bottom of the register. Today's date is added automatically, and you can tab between sections, adding detail. Reconciling downloaded transactions with your own records is equally simple; just find the transaction in question and hit the reconciliation column entry for it. As you move to the next transaction, you'll be prompted to record the change. This can get a little tedious, so the dialog box has a pair of options to either not display the request again, or just remove it for the current session. This was a useful addition because it provides a visual cue that you're changing data (and is especially important when you realise there's no Undo option).
Volume reconciliation is also available. This is where, after entering a large number of transactions manually (ie adding entries over a week) or using scheduled transactions, you can check them against a downloaded statement for the same period and mark off matching entries. Bulk reconciliation is a great way to pick up on anomalous transactions. Automated reconciliation can be useful, but it could mean mistakes or nefarious activity go unnoticed for longer than necessary.