On the advice of many friends, I tried to use You Need A Budget. I gave it a seriously long, proper evaluation: over a year. But I just couldn't get it to work for me. I don't want to try and explain why. To be honest, those same friends who advocated for it fairly strongly, also gave me a pretty hard time for giving up on it!

Despite it not clicking for me, there are a few concepts from YNAB that I quite like:

  • "give every dollar a job". Or: Budget your entire income.
  • The jam-jar budgeting approach of carrying budget "pots" over from month to month, so you can budget a small amount towards a large thing over a long period.


Jimmy Kaplowitz suggested back in 2012 that I should take a look at GNUCash. It took me a few more years before I did. The eventual trigger point for me was organising an event where I paid for a load of things on behalf of others and needed to track who had paid me back. It excelled for that.

I've continued to use GNUCash to manage my personal money — that is, my "play money" and anything I've accumulated — but I haven't committed to it for my family finances. Practically speaking that would lock my wife out of them, which wouldn't be fair. But also because GNUCash's shortcomings (and despite its strengths, it certainly has some) mean that I don't expect I will be using it into the indefinite future, even for my personal stuff.

The most significant drawback, in my opinion, is GNUCash's support for scripting. Sometimes, there's a laborious but easily-mechanisable (in theory) task I need to perform that would be ideal to script. GNUCash has built-in scripting support using Guile — the GNU lisp/scheme dialect — but this is limited to Reports only, I don't think it can be used for a task such as "match a series of transactions using one or more filters or regular expressions, and apply a transformation to them, such as change the account to which they are posted", etc.

It also has a C library and auto-generated bindings for other languages. This has a horrible API, which is carried over into the language bindings. Documentation for the whole lot is basically non-existent too.

Plain-text accounting

For that reason I set out to find some better tools. There's a lot of interest and activity in plain-text accounting (PTA), including tools such as beancount, ledger or the Haskell re-implementation hledger. In a future post I'll write about PTA and hledger.