You never know how some people will react when you ask them to share a recipe. Some will cheerfully tell you how to make any of their signature dishes, without a second thought. Others jealously protect their secret technique or ingredient from everyone, even their best friends. Software works on much the same basis. Some companies protect their code behind walls of data security and non-disclosure agreements. Others publish their source code for anyone to see, use and improve. That's referred to as open-source software, and it can be an economical option when budgeting software just isn't in your budget.
GnuCash is an unusually powerful open-source financial program. It uses a simple, checkbook-style layout for recording your payments, so its basic functions are easy to use. It'll also generate a number of predefined reports and graphs for you, or let you create your own. However, GNUCash goes well beyond the basics. It will also track your investment portfolio for you, keep tabs on holdings in multiple currencies and reconcile all your statements. If you're self-employed, you can even use it to keep your business' books. It will import files in Quicken format, or the Open Financial Exchange format — OFX — used by some institutions.
Grisbi lacks some of GnuCash's industrial-strength accounting features, but it has more than enough power for household accounts. It has a simple, straightforward interface that's easy to understand, and you don't need to know much about accounting to use it. It will keep track of an unlimited number of accounts, keep up on your investments, adjust for international currency exchange and categorize your expenses in any number of ways. It can also encrypt your financial data, keeping it safe if your laptop is lost or stolen. You need an Internet connection to read its help files, which might be an issue if you work on the road.
HomeBank is another full-featured personal finance program, available free for download. It's a mature product, originally released in the 1990s and continually updated since that time. It offers a simple process for creating a budget, and then tracking how well you've adhered to it. It supports bank and investment accounts, imports data in multiple formats and handles multiple currencies easily. The interface is simple and easy to understand, and it supports unusual features such as "tagging" your expenses. This is often handy, allowing you to assign multiple tags to the same transaction and letting you sort and search on different tags.
Sometimes, you don't necessarily want a program with all the bells-and-whistles. If you just want some help with the mechanics of budgeting, dsBudget might be all you need. It's a simple, lightweight program that uses your Web browser as its interface. You don't need Internet access to use it: using the browser just reduces the program's size and makes it feel familiar. Use dsBudget by setting up your income and expense categories, then enter your transactions periodically. The program has several reports and graphs available. You can even keep the program and data on a flash drive, and move dsBudget between computers.
Choosing a Program
These are just a few examples of open-source budgeting and personal finance programs. There are many more available from reputable download sites, such as Download.com, Tucows.com and SourceForge. These sites allow you to sort the programs by popularity and rating, helping weed out poorly designed products. Try to choose a program that meets your needs without exceeding them. For example, GnuCash does almost everything but its learning curve is correspondingly steep. If all you want is a little help managing the bills, it's overkill. However, if you need to track a range of accounts and investments, it's worthwhile taking the time to learn a more powerful program.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.