Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

Personal Finance App

I’ve been looking for the best way to keep track of, and plan for, my personal finances using my Mac and iPad. I’ve already been doing this for many years, and have been using my current app for about eighteen months, but often have the feeling that I am not really as in control as I want to be. I decided to have a new look at what is available and see if I could do better.

Disclaimer: I have deliberately not reviewed or provided detail on any of the apps I tried. I was genuinely trying to find an app or system that works for me and I only tried enough to make a personal decision about an app. It is perfectly possible that I missed or misunderstood things and I may be wrong in the decisions I reached. It’s offered in case it might be useful, but how you run your personal finances is by definition a personal matter. What you need, want and what your experience might be could be very different to mine.

What was I looking for?

Weighing a pig does not make it fatter. Being able to track and predict your income and spending will not make you rich, or even solvent, but equally, only knowing what is in your wallet and bank account today makes it very hard to make and stick to a plan that will pay off debt, keep you solvent and allow you to meet your goals.

There are solid, old-fashioned ways of keeping track of your money but these easily break down in an online age where we can spend and move money instantly, where so many bills are paid automatically or by tapping a card or phone and where most of us have more than one account, a credit card or two, some savings and investments, paypal and so on, especially when some transactions may not be in our main currency.

For me, a useful personal finance app needs to let me do the following:

  • I want to be able to see the past, present and future of all my money. The past is a record of everything I receive and spend. Present is a clear and reliable picture of what I have now and what it means and future is the ability to predict based on known income and expenditure but also to track against future goals, whether for saving, paying of debt or for particular things.
  • I want to keep enough information so I can understand where money came from and where it went, but do not want to keep every possible detail of most transactions. I want to be able to enter information whenever and however I want to.
  • I want to be able to check, correct and reconcile transactions so that what the app says about my bank and other accounts is accurate. For me personally, being able to do this manually is fine. I quite like the reassurance of looking at a statement or online banking screen and finding the matching transaction myself but I can see the appeal of automatic and online updating.
  • Probably above all, I want to be able to model the future to make plans and then monitor closely how the plans are progressing. The value of knowing what income and expenditure you have in the past, present and future is the ability to make decisions about your financial behaviour and those decisions (e.g. to spend less, or earn more) often have to be sustained and quite often are not easy. The power of an app is where it can help you to be clear about your plans and about how far you are sticking to them, and the consequences if you do not.
  • I use an iPad Pro and an iMac. The apps I use most work seamlessly on both, even if not identically, without much conscious thought from me and with work I do on one more or less instantly, and reliably, reflected on the other. I need a personal finance app that does the same.
  • Like everyone else, I have a long list of less important desires from a finance app. I do want to be able to have multiple accounts, multiple currencies, repeating transactions (like standing orders) and for it to be pleasing to use. It also needs to be good value.

What I found

I was surprised that there are relatively few personal finance apps for the Apple ecosystem. While other types of software have overwhelming lists of possible apps, many of which seem to do the same things, in personal finance I kept being sent back to the same ones: Banktivity, Moneydance, Moneywiz, You Need a Budget and Moneywell.

In fact, Quicken for Mac came up the most often, but it is not available in this country. I discounted You Need a Budget despite many rave reviews. I used to use this app, years ago, until it moved to an expensive subscription and it is based on an extremely specific model of personal finances, which I had always found restricting. I also dislike its evangelical-style “advice” and zealous mission. it always felt to me like a company that spends much, much more on marketing than on product. Its model means that it does not handle some aspects well or at all (e.g. investments).

Banktivity interested me greatly, and I spent a full fortnight actually using it “for real”. It seems to do everything and is often described as a “heavyweight”. I liked its reports, which looked very good and which allowed me to “dig down”: clicking on an item showed detail on it. It has an impressive ability to track and keep records on investments and it has a comprehensive ability to set and track simple budget plans. After spending a fortnight using it, I gave it up. I found it had a number of bugs which meant that I just could not trust it. To give one example, standing orders I set up relating to bills, would sometimes be recorded as credits. It also has strict rules which mean that it is next to impossible to set up and correct things from the past (e.g. to set up a new standing order from a month ago, instead of for the future.) Even within a fortnight I was spending much more time looking at and correcting the details of lots of transactions to find out why the current balance did not match what I thought it should be than I was actually monitoring and planning my money. I was exasperated by their poor support. I logged three specific, urgent, support requests when I hit bugs, which simply did not get a reply or rather, were replied to several weeks after being made, and without any useful advice. Finding out that some of the bugs I had hit were reported literally years ago, and users were still complaining about them, underlined my experience and feelings. I dropped it.

I took a free trial of Moneydance. It looks reliable, accurate and usable. Its ability to plan and budget, and its reporting, seem simpler and less useful than I have found elsewhere. It’s appearance is tired, but it worked reasonably well to record transactions. I did not feel the need to explore it in detail and did not want to pay for it.

Moneywell was very interesting. I very much liked its emphasis on budgeting and its concept of financial events (e.g. known or likely future payments and income). I was attracted to this app and tried to use it, but it feels very much like a work in progress rather than a working, finished app. For example, reporting is very limited and data does nt sync between devices. It was rescued from oblivion a couple of years ago and the new developer has a long list of fairly essential features that are “coming back” but not yet. I will watch this app, but could not adopt it for real use.

I ended up where I started, with Moneywiz. It’s by far the best of the ones I looked at, and not just because I have been using it every day for eighteen months. It looks good. Entering and editing transactions is excellent and the synchronisation and use across the iMac, iPad and iPhone is exemplary. When I have had to contact support over the last 18 months (maybe three times to clarify specific things) I have had a definitive solution within hours, every time. Basic reports are very good.

It’s not perfect. There is a neat and flexible way of setting up “budgets” which monitor current and future spending in a period you decide, but setting these up is not based on what is available to spend. You have to calculate that yourself. There’s also no way to monitor income in this way, only expenditure. The report generator is good, but you cannot have income and expenditure in the same report (except for the cashflow report) and there is a more or less complete lack of investment reporting. The app is reasonably frequently updated, and genuinely does online banking in Europe (the only one I have found that does) but despite a subscription model they have never delivered all their roadmap and it feels like development is driven by the interests of the developers (so it’s very good at bitcoin and cryptocurrencies) more than by the needs of the average user (e.g. being able to filter so that you do not see reconciled transactions).

I ended up where I started and it looks as if I will be waiting for an app that does everything I want. Moneywiz is the nearest for now, for me, and basically does what I need it to. I do have to keep a separate spreadsheet to be able to set sensible budgets and goals, when this is core to what I want an app to do for me. That’s frustrating, but I feel I have had a good look at what is out there, and will continue as I am for now.