June 3, 2010

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Finance is personal
Manage your cash for free
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Sometimes, they actually do know when to quit.

Last November, Microsoft stopped distributing its Office Accounting software. That included the standard paid version as well as a free Express version. Could be there’s some grand plan in the works to come back with some other product and dominate that little niche, but more likely it’s just because of the huge variety of similar software already out there.

And a lot of it is free.

Generally, a company puts out a few different editions of its accounting product, ranging from simple home finance to serious business stuff. It’s not always the most basic edition that free — it’s often the cheapest of the business software, because those customers are more likely to upgrade later.

The big player is Intuit, with two major titles: Quicken and QuickBooks. The former is more home finance and home business-focused, while the latter gets into things like inventory and payroll. Both have free versions.

Quicken’s offering is Mint.com, which it didn’t develop itself, but acquired last year. As a web-based tool, it has the advantage of being available anywhere, but your data isn’t stored on your own machine. Since many personal finance packages rely on Internet links to your credit card bank accounts, this isn’t as unusual as it might sound. It’s also a read-only system, only allowing you to look at your accounts, not move money around.

On Intuit’s business side is QuickBooks Simple Start Free Edition. The only difference between the free edition and regular Quick Start is that you can only manage up to 20 customers and vendors, while the regular edition has more than 10,000. The next step up, Pro, also adds support for multiple users, more business reports, inventory management, purchase orders, multiple currencies and import options from other software and your bank accounts. That’s right, Simple Start makes you type in all bank transactions. Great if you’re worried about security, but it doesn’t sound so simple now, huh?

Prefer open-source software? GnuCash is for you. It’s aimed at personal and small business users on Windows, Mac and Linux. It uses the “double entry” method to ensure that for every debit there’s a corresponding credit. It accepts the QIF and OFX files that many banks offer as downloadable summaries of your account activity. It even incorporates some features of higher-end business software, like invoicing and customer management.

If you’re willing to wait for a big rebate — we’re talking over $100 — you can pick up Sage’s Peachtree Accounting Pro 2010. (They’re already selling 2011 versions.) It’s the second in five tiers of Peachtree; the first is called, um, First, while the third is oddly named Complete, followed by Premium and — are you sitting down? — Quantum. Pro is more than enough for a home business, so as long as you look for the advertised rebates, it’s worth a look.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg. Lesser names have their hands in personal accounting too. In a brilliant marketing move, one company decided to call their free accounting software Free Accounting Software. Website? FreeAccountingSoftware.net. The latest version is from 2006, though. More recent software is NolaPro, a web-based program with a free download version. They make their money with “pledges” toward future features and by selling support services.

For business or home, there’s money management software out there that you’ll probably like. And you don’t have to pay a cent.