Reviewed: the best iPhone finance tracking software
So you spent $200 on your iPhone and an average of $4.37 per month on apps, and now you want it to tell you not to overspend. Funny how that works. You’re not alone, though. One of the most common uses for smartphones and PDAs has always been expense and budget tracking… and with good reason. Even an old Palm can make a nice wallet companion, and the iPhone lends itself well to a higher-end twist on the (relatively) ancient role of an electronic finance manager.
A Personal Finance Manifesto
Personal finance is… well, pretty personal. And while everyone wants their software to do a few major things, you’ll likely have your own thoughts on several key areas: complexity vs simplicity, detail vs speed, aesthetics vs function. Most apps are designed very thoroughly towards one of these ends.
In general, though, the best apps are the ones that are solidly-built (conceptually as well as architecturally), quick to use, and present whatever data they do generate in a way that is helpful and straightforward. However, they most likely don’t provide a ton of features. I’d say that “feature-rich” is definitely not the ideal: personal finance apps apps shouldn’t pretend to be Excel.
Doing A Lot With Little
It goes without saying that iPad apps for finance are more complex than their iPhone siblings. The larger screen is seemingly irresistible to developers, who appear unable to hold back from adding menus, tabs, and buttons. Not only do the apps have more functionality, they all (at least right now) expose those functions in a way that creates unnecessary distraction. This is not an approach I advocate, and for this reason, for today I will be focusing exclusively on iPhone apps. This has more to do with approachability than anything else: those apps are more likely used on a day-to-day basis.
What We Look For in Personal Finance Apps
Primarily, this review focuses on three things:
- use of design and unique style elements to highlight relevant features and information
- successful understanding of the user’s needs
- ease of use; complexity vs simplicity (or, how well an app does what it sets out to do)
Let’s get started!
The Players: Moneybook, Expenditure, myExpenses, MyWallet+ and Pennies
In the lineup, we’ll take a look at Moneybook, Expenditure, myExpenses, MyWallet, and Pennies. There are many other finance apps, and I’m happy to add them to the fray, but I’ve selected this group due to their focus on doing a similar task in several unique ways. I’ve also selected PocketMoney as an example to learn from (ie. a “don’t do this” case study).
If you’re the kind of person who just wants to see who came out ahead, go for it.
Using an iPhone Finance Tracker
First impressions count. The main screen customers will see is the expense entry view: after all, if the app does its job well, it’s going to get a lot of use. The expected workflow of these apps is as follows.
TRANSACTION –> OPEN APP –> CHECK BALANCE –> ADD TRANSACTION –> CONFIRM or RE-CHECK BALANCE –> EXIT
Battle of the Clones: Moneybook vs Pennies vs Expenditure
Both Moneybook and Pennies use a large visual “gas guage” icon (Pennies‘ is more prominent) to show how much money you’ve spent this month, while Expenditure simply displays the remaining balance. All three programs also display a list of your Top Categories, which Expenditure lets you change to Recent Transactions or Top Months. This is really all the info one needs to quickly and easily keep up with their finances, and that’s the point– all three programs brilliantly omit extra features and keep everything in one place. They’ve also opted to use a single “record” button, which you tap to add a new transaction. The programs then display a calculator-type keypad, with a place to choose an icon to represent the transaction’s category (Expenditure displays this choice only after you type in an amount). The programs’ approaches start to differ here, in that Pennies records only expenses while Moneybook hides the “income” category pretty well (most users would assume it isn’t even there). Expenditure wins here with its quick, obvious toggle between Income and Expense.
However, Moneybook provides easily the most stylish view, and also allows you to add a note or set a date for the transaction as well as do full calculations in this view. Pennies does neither, while Expenditure does allow notes and dating but not calculations.
However, this view is not at all intuitive to access. While in the Transactions view, turn your iPhone sideways (just like the Stocks app) to get an animated breakdown of money in and money out over all your categories. Simple and beautiful. Moneybook also offers a free online login at my.moneybookapp.com where you can upload your data (directly from your phone).
COMPARING INTERFACE DESIGN
In general, Expenditure‘s interface approach does considerably more “hand-holding”, presenting the user with only one choice at a time and stepping through them in a linear fashion. After entering an amount, you select a category, then either ignore or use the controls for setting a date or adding a note.
In Moneybook, these controls are subtle and out of the way, since most often you will be entering a transaction for the current day, without a note. The visual “noise” created by extra controls that are not used frequently is not necessary and adds complexity.
Expenditure‘s “look” — sort of a proto-Calendar.app style — strikes me as dated, though it’s not unprofessional. A final issue I have is that Expenditure’s three main toolbar icons, for Repeating, History, and Settings, are not labelled and not terribly clear, adding additional complexity. I much prefer Moneybook‘s use of shading and dark buttons labelled in the standard iOS style. I also appreciate Pennies‘ simple, visceral gauge and ultra-clean layout. Both of these apps also add a nice “homemade” touch to the Expenses view, with scotch tape or paper clips holding the papers together. These may strike some people as silly, but it keeps the apps looking fresh and usable in a way that (Expenditure‘s) boring numbers and lists can’t.
Pennies‘ interface is the simplest of all, since it has only one feature — tracking expenses by category. Pennies cutely adds itself to your transaction list with a “thanks for purchasing!” note. One thing that struck me as strange: Pennies requires one to use it for a full month before the History view works at all.. hard to tell what I’m going to be able to see without daily usage. Are there charts? I don’t know, and won’t find out for 28 more days. To summarize so far:
Moneybook by Noidentity ($2.99)
PROS: has an online component, great charting features, very little complexity, beautiful interface
CONS: some icons/features are hard to find, difficult to track Income, somewhat slow startup from “cold boot”.
Expenditure by Shape ($1.99)
PROS: clean, simple, with a main screen that can show several possible views; great price.
CONS: no charting, interface shows unnecessary functionality when not in use (notes, dates), no online support, doesn’t break out “per day” expenses
Pennies by Design with a Knife ($2.99)
PROS: another beautiful interface. Also shows the number of expenses to date on its main screen.
CONS: Cannot track income, can’t customize category names, no charting, no adding notes or dates, no online component
Overall, I prefer Moneybook‘s appearance and advanced features (charting, online sync) to Expenditure‘s, though Expenditure is quicker to launch and easier to use fully. I recommend Pennies if your requirements are extremely basic, as it is very simple, but very good at everything it attempts to do.
MyWallet+ (Mina utgifter) works like a simpler, less flashy version of the apps showcased above. It features basic tracking and bar charts, as well as the ability to track income and expenses. It’s not entirely without style; there are subtle gradients, shadows, and the overall look is nicely “pro”. However, it’s just not as intuitive as the others, nor is it as helpful. The “Add Transaction” button is hidden away in the top-right corner, while the user can only view one month of data at a time (in either the main or History screen).
It also has no online component, and no breakout of advanced stats (money average per day, number of transactions, etc.)
One nice feature it has is the ability to use “subcategories” (see the screenshot for an idea of how this works). I don’t find anything glaringly wrong with MyWallet+, but I can’t recommend it over the others shown above.
MyExpenses is a more… uhh, “unique” take on the finance tracker. Its interface is overtly “futuristic”; a sort of 1998 Web design-meets-1980s-computer-game mashup that I found really, surprisingly awful. MyExpenses tries to separate the process of adding expenses vs income by providing two “add transaction” buttons– the only app of its kind to do so.
Below the blue-gradient main screen, which devotes an immense amount of space to the two transaction icons, you get a breakout of your spending by category for today only. Which makes it incredibly difficult to make any sense of your finances without investigating the long-range charts. This is a massive flaw.
Tracking your spending happens in the Balance view, which (obviously) only tracks your remaining balance via a line graph. The top of this view has buttons for “d,w,m,y”– which are understandable in this context, but struck me as very a poor choice in an app that is three times the cost of better-designed alternatives.
There is no option to track spending by category over time. However, there is a secondary view (“Categories”) which provides a pie chart of your categories. This pie chart, it must be stated, uses the ugliest colors I have ever seen. And they can’t be changed. Nothing can.
MyWallet+ by block21
PROS: Ability to use subcategories, which are more exact but are counted in their “main” category, “pro” interface CONS: No online support, only basic charting, no transaction counts, limited views of your data, interface feels boring despite its classiness
MyExpenses by blueshellturtle ($7.99)
PROS: Ability to track your balance over time
CONS: Horrifically garish colors and styling, poorly-labelled buttons, lack of charting in most of the places it would be useful, price is double or triple the cost of alternatives
WHAT NOT TO DO: POCKETMONEY
PocketMoney tries to accomplish so many things, it becomes a poster child for what not to do in a finance tracker.
Perhaps it’s designed more as a full-on finance manager, in which case it isn’t really fair to compare to the others, but I wanted to call attention to several of its flaws and their potential resolutions.
It exports the Quicken format, which is pretty cool. But it’s as though someone took the standard iOS trimmings and just threw them together without regard for the finished product.
You get an icon selector that displays filenames (for what purpose?) and looks like it came from the early 90s. You get menus with a dizzying array of identical, text-only buttons (the most grievous sin). And while you may enjoy the ability to add bank account numbers and contact info to your accounts, the incessant pop-up help when you do so is infuriating. I understand that the program is complex, but having pop-up help is not the solution: having a more usable product is.
SO WHAT’s WRONG WITH IT?
The main view isn’t totally unapproachable: the bottom of the screen has controls for flipping between Accounts or Budgets, and the Accounts view lists your balances in each account. Simple! An “eye” icon (which takes up the bottom-right corner) lets you filter this view, but filtering isn’t used all that often: it should be available only when needed, or as part of the view itself (see 2Do’s task filtering for an idea).
And this “tools” menu has got to go. Featuring a screen-full of text-only commands (“File Transfers”, “Go to date”, “Adjust Balance”, “Mark Transactions cleared”, and the red “Rollup”–note the arbitrary capitalization), this menu is unnecessarily complex and wordy.
Each of these functions could be part of a specific part of the view– say, a Balance ticker that had an options menu, and a button at the bottom of the list to mark the transactions as cleared.
I had no idea what “rollup” means, but when clicked, it says (in 9-point type) that it will “compress the transactions you are currently viewing into a single entry. This can reduce the size of the database and improve speed.”
Again, I’m not a developer, but this strikes me as exactly what is wrong with PocketMoney: this is a choice that shouldn’t exist, to solve a database problem that in all likelihood really shouldn’t be there, with descriptive text that seems unsure of itself (it “can improve speed”? Is it going to, or not? Do I need to do this regularly? Do I need to do it at all? Why does this option appear if I don’t need it, and would it appear if I did?).
Viewing an account’s “Report” creates the resulting chart, which, while thorough, is as bland and uninspired as can be. There is no texture or shading, and there are no color choices (see left). They are placed directly on the iPhone’s gray, pinstriped background (which is normally hidden as much as possible). recalling the Windows 3.11 aesthetic with a startling clarity. I look at this and I immediately think, “wow. Someday, we’ll have two hundred and fifty-six colors.”
Choosing between seeing pie and bar charts is done via the “eye” button, which now inexplicably lives in the top-right corner instead, and which brings up the absolute silliest multi-selector I’ve ever seen. (You get to choose “none” or “pie” on one side, “item, amount or count” in the middle, and “up or down” on the right. The entire concept needs to be thrown mercilessly in the trash and remade as separate options.) Pie charts feature a large Plus icon in the center, which seems to have no function at all.
Couple this with help that is available only when online (what if I’m not sure how to use something while I’m on the subway?) and you have an amazingly confusing program for no solid reason. Make that an amazingly confusing program that tries to explain itself to you whenever you don’t want it to.
Can it Be Saved?
There are many ways to improve PocketMoney. For one, the program needs to have as little on-screen as possible for the given task at any one time. (One quick way to free up space is to remove the “PocketMoney” header in every window, and to label things as clearly as possible.) Another is to rethink the interface in terms of it not being a computer program (note the “delete” key on the calculator, the strange proximity of “equals” (the end of a calculation) and “clear” (the beginning of one).
Another example: the budget view has a month displayed, which looks like a button. (As an aside, is it just me, or do all the buttons here have the gradient the wrong way? ie. shaded part on the bottom instead of the top?) Clicking on this “month” button lets you pick the timeframe to look at, but NOT the month. This makes very little sense. Or the two arrows at the bottom of the budget view, which are unlabeled and take up a good 60 pixels of usable space (on either side) to cycle through only two choices: the budget deficit, or the amount budget was “beat”. This entire function could be a simple switch. PocketMoney is an admirable attempt at packing in a lot of functionality, but it needs to adhere to the iOS guidelines with a bit more rigor. There’s a reason they were invented: to prevent less-trained designers from making bad (but totally understandable) choices. One of the smartest things the PocketMoney team at Catamount could do is design each screen to have only half– or even three-quarters– of the options it currently does, and to display them only when absolutely essential.
PROS: Imports Quicken, sophisticated multi-account tracking, sophisticated chart periods, advanced features like check clearing, transaction fees, and account transfers, great budgeting features (see how well you’re following your category budgets across any timeframe you choose). Pie and bar charts.
CONS: Interface is a mess. Menus are unintuitive. Major features hard to locate. Program tries to do so many things but is successful at only one (budgeting).
Of the small, lightweight finance apps, my vote is with Moneybook, though MyWallet+ has most (but definitely not all) of its features. If you don’t need ANYTHING beyond basic expense tracking, you’ll be OK with Pennies. I recommend Expenditure if you really need the discipline of a step-wise approach, and don’t mind its inability to make charts– or if you happen to not like Moneybook‘s appearance.
If you really need the advanced features in PocketMoney, it DOES do more than the other apps on this list, but I think we can do a lot better. Stay tuned for a roundup of the more advanced financial managers– including Moneywell, iBank, and more!