With the exception of about 8 months where I used YNAB I could tell you nearly every purchase I’ve made going back to January of 2000.
Will I ever need that data? Probably not. But I’m a sucker for keeping records and knowing where I spend my money so that I know what I can, and cannot, spend in the future.
I can tell you when I spent too much on beer or CDs, how I went wrong on spring break trips (at least with my wallet) and plenty of other tidbits that have allowed me to avoid the need for more formal budgets and have meant that, even while I made no money, I have never, in 25+ years, carried over a balance from one month to another on a credit card.
I won’t deny a lot of my luck is just that, luck, but keeping good records really has helped me push that luck in the right direction during the many times it could have gone elsewhere. For that I believe it has been totally worth it.
How I use finance tools
Throughout all that time I’ve stayed to the basic features of various software packages that have been available since the 90s except for one: mobile apps. That means I manually have entered, verified and reconciled every single transaction I’ve made for over 20 years. I don’t bother with the auto-downloads of bank data and I have, over the years, manually built up my category list to what works for us allowing me some very granular insights to how and where I spend my money.
To make this work I do put everything on credit cards. I have since the 90s, before selling data was just as big of a revenue stream for many as selling services. Throughout much of that time, particularly when I travel, that has been a very necessary way to spend. As I’ve gotten older it’s stayed simply because it works for me. Over the last two years I’ve started carrying a small amount of cash again but I rarely touch it. If I can’t record it I don’t need to spend it and that has really helped me.
What software works
To make this work I’ve used a host of tools over the years. Today I am on Quicken but I’ve also used Moneydance, Moneywiz, Gnucash, YNAB, iBank, Mint, Firefly III, Microsoft Access and probably a 1/2 dozen others.
Software changes to using something that will keep up has been important. For that Quicken and Gnucash have been, easily, the best. They’re reports are good, I can open associated files with them as far back as I have them and they’ve never let me down, even as I’ve tried the “latest and greatest” alternatives over the years.
In fact, throughout all that time there is only one app that has really let me down in terms of keeping my data, YNAB. I used it for about 8 months in 2020 and, while it was easy to use and their support was great, it’s the only data in all that time I’ve ever lost simply because there was no perceivable way to get that data back out when I came back to Quicken.
As I write this I’m also playing with Gnucash again, particularly as I’m looking at moving back to Linux longterm. In nearly all ways it is as good as Quicken except for one… It has no good way to add data from my mobile device. This means that if I leave home without my laptop all I can do is save receipts until I get home. This can get really annoying really fast.
What’s the point?
So why am I on a rant about this today? As the end of the year approaches I’m weighing my options again and I currently have 3 criteria:
- The data has to be portable: I don’t want to worry about switching platforms or devices again. I need to be able to access my data from every device I have now or might have in the future
- I have to own the data: I just can’t trust a SaaS service with this kind of data. It’s too sensitive for one and SaaS services tend to induce lock-in which would break my first rule.
- No “fad” products: Finally, I don’t need the latest and greatest fad. I need an app that will be around for years to come.
The last 2 items are actually fairly easy to hit. Quicken and Gnucash are both ancient (in software years) and allow me to own my data, even if Quicken’s sync comes close to violating the 2nd item. The problem is that neither of these apps meet the first item completely. I can choose either an app that works on Linux or an app that works on mobile, not both. This week’s goal will be to try to solve that problem.