The Real Skinner on GnuCash

By Court Skinner

I’m just getting started in a new, at least to me, software for keeping track of money. The software is the open source, GnuCash, which is available for download here A rather cynical but thorough review of it is available here:

I just want to encourage folks to check it out, play with it and see if it is not more fun than Quicken and it’s ilk for personal money tracking and somewhat simpler than Quickbooks and it’s ilk for small business tracking. You need to understand the basics of double entry bookkeeping, but it is a lot easier than you might think. If you have mastered the accounts, categories and classes in Quicken then just think accounts for all. You create a table of accounts with Assets, Expenses, Equity and Liabilities at the top (though any account can be created at any level and the sub accounts can go as deep as you have the patience to keep track of.) You can also create accounts on the fly and edit them once created. Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting comfortable with the idea that anytime money moves from somewhere it has to move to somewhere else, e.g. if your Bank is an asset and you spend $11.52 on entertainment, an expense, then the value of the asset goes down and the value of the expense goes up.

Actually, I like the idea of thinking that money that comes in (income, of course) then goes from an income /account /into an asset /account /(e.g. a bank account, a broker account, or whatever) and then out via expense /accounts/ and what’s left over ends up in equity accounts. If more goes out than comes in then you’ll need liability /accounts. /After a while thinking this way become second nature and you really begin to appreciate all the work the developers of GnuCash have put into this.

Once you’ve identified the account type the set up dialogues make it very easy to create accounts and as you learn more you can tweak things until the GnuCash works for you. Unlike most software where the developer needs to be recognized as smarter than you are. Have you ever tried to put a lower case letter following a period in Microsoft’s Word?

Setting up stock accounts is quite fun, but to get the automated pricing operation to work you have to add a PERL application in Windows. (You’ll have to add it in Linux and Mac as well, but those folks are more used to the techniques.) Turns out that to make it work you have to add the
version of AUTOPERL that the software will recognize, not too old, not too young, but just right. Once it is set up, of course, it works like magic. I found that any stock that I could find a price for on Yahoo I could automatically update in GnuCash. You add stocks with the security editor, prices with the price editor and then buy them in your Broker account and once it is all set up you can look at your account the same way as you would with your broker’s on line software.

I haven’t automated my bank account yet, but I can easily download a QIF file and import it. There are a few gotcha’s in this process, but with patience all becomes clear and after a while it just

The other nifty tool is the search engine. You can enter whatever you want, but my favorite is “value”. If you are looking for what happened to that entry for $11.12 just put that in the value search and it will show you all the transactions that contain such a value. Then you can update the accounts as required. If you want to add the sales tax then put in the cost in place of the total and a new line will show up aimed at the “imbalance account”. You can change that to the Expenses: Taxes:Sales Tax account by highlighting it and typing in Ex:T:S and taking advantage of GnuCash’s memory of what your account names are.

The next nifty thing to do is report. You can do budget, transactions, account, P&L, balance sheet, etc. Just click on reports and play.

I’ve been working on this for a couple of months after being a Quicken user for 20 years. I found out that I can open the account in Windows, fool around, close it, then open it in Linux and see exactly where I was. The data file is universal. Very slick.

If you are in the market and have the patience to learn, then check it out. If you have a question post it on the blog and I’ll try to respond.

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Court Skinner is the founder of Computers for Everyone in East Palo Alto, California. He is a retired seminconductor executive who serves on his local planning board and is running for the local school board. Court’s website is