Thoughts Media Review Team
Join Date: Aug 2006
Watch the Pennies with Spb Finance 1.0
Spb Finance claims to be the most ambitious personal finance program ever attempted on the Pocket PC platform. There are already other personal finance programs out there, so does this one have what it takes to win you over?The design of Spb Finance is certainly ambitious - a multi-tier platform consisting of the Spb Finance Database, the Spb Finance Data Object Model and an interface for add-ons. There will be three editions of Spb Finance - the stand-alone edition, an edition that synchronises with Quicken and one that synchronises with Microsoft Money. In addition, the planned add-ons (shopping list, loan analyser, travel expenses manager and portfolio manager) will certainly put Spb Finance head-to-head against the sort of financial planning systems you'd normally expect to run on a desktop computer. The rest of this review will look at what the stand-alone edition delivers.Getting started
Setting up Spb Finance is pretty much like starting to use any other financial package, involving one-off activities like defining additional currencies you might use and specifying the accounts you have.Figure 1: Currencies in Spb Finance
By default, Spb Finance comes with the US dollar defined as the sole currency. If you don't live in the US, it is likely that you'll want to change this to reflect your own home currency.Figure 2: Editing the home currency
If you want to add further currencies, useful if you travel abroad and want to keep track of how much you've spent in "real money", you have to specify the name and symbol for the currency plus the exchange rate against your home currency. What I like about the currency interface is that you can enter either rate (i.e. $ per £ or £ per $) and Spb Finance automatically fills in the other value. A nice touch.
You might have your own favourite source of exchange rate information but, if you don't, I like the OANDA currency converter
.Figure 3: Adding a new currency
One of the downsides of currencies, though, is that they apply to an entire account, which is OK if you've got multiple accounts in foreign countries, but not very useful if you have occasional transactions in a foreign currency. For example, with Spb Finance at the moment, it isn't possible to go on holiday to a different country and enter charges to your credit card in the local currency and have the product show you how much you've spent in your home currency.
When you are done with the currencies, it is time to create your accounts. Spb Finance supports five different sorts of account - cash, bank, credit card, asset and liability. The PDF manual doesn't provide any explanation as to when you might want to use each sort of account, but the names are fairly logical.Figure 4: Defining a new account
Once you've picked the account type, you enter the name and a description, followed by the currency and the opening balance.
Figure 5: Adding the name & description to an account
Figure 6: Specifying the currency for an account
Figure 7: The opening balance for a new account
If you already use a finance package and it can export a QIF file, you can import that into Spb Finance to save you the trouble of re-entering all of the data by hand. Some finance packages (e.g. Microsoft Money) don't follow the QIF specification very well. For example, Money doesn't specify an account name in the contents of the file or include details of the categories defined. Spb Finance spots that an account hasn't been specified and prompts you to specify which account you want to import the data into. Unfortunately, because of the missing category information, transactions imported from Money don't have categories assigned to them.
For the stand-alone version, of course, the import process is supposed to be a one-off one-way process, so once it is done, that's it.
Managing Your Finances
Now the accounts have been set up, let's look at day-to-day use of Spb Finance. The Accounts view shows each account and its balance.
Figure 8: The Accounts view
If you've got lots of accounts, you can tell Spb Finance to filter the display to just those accounts of a given type (e.g. just the bank accounts). You can also change the sort order of the display - name, type or balance, and then ascending or descending.
The bottom of that display shows current balance and ending balance. The manual says that the current balance is the current balance of all the accounts while the ending balance is the balance of all the accounts after all the transactions take effect. As far as I could tell, these two numbers were always the same, regardless of which accounts were being displayed and the state of the transactions in the accounts.
Clicking on an account takes you into the register view for that account.
Figure 9: The expanded Register view
The default view shows all of the principle information for a transaction across two lines - the date, payee, amount, reference, category and reconciliation state. There is also a condensed view that uses a single line and shows the date, reconciliation state, amount and an item of your choice which defaults to payee, but you can change it to reference, category or memo.
Figure 10: The condensed Register view
You can also change which account is being displayed in the register - including showing all accounts! I like the idea of that, but feel that the software needs to have some way of indicating which account each transaction is coming from. It would also be neat to be able to specify which accounts are combined, in case you don't actually want ALL the accounts but, say, all of the current accounts.
Entering a transaction into an account is easy. Clicking on the New option on the menu (either on the Start page or within the Register view of Spb Finance) brings up the New Transaction window where you can specify the account, a reference, the date, the payee, the amount (and is it coming in or going out), the reconciliation state, category and class. There is also a memo tab to allow you to enter text to help you to remember what this entry is for.
Figure 11: Entering a transaction
Figure 12: Specifying a category for a transaction
Categories are handled just like any other finance system that uses them. There are two sets of category - income and expense. Within those, there are the primary categories and then there are subcategories, if relevant. Spb Finance comes with a reasonable set of categories built in, but it is very easy to add your own. You can either do this from the transaction window by clicking on New against the drop-down menu or from the View menu of the main application.
Figure 13: Creating a new category
One thing I didn't like about picking a category from the drop-down menu is that it seemed fiddly. The menu displays eight entries and it got a bit tiresome trying to find an expense category in the middle of the list. The software needs to allow you to enter the first few letters so that this process becomes easier.
The software does do this for payee names. As you enter the name of the payee, it tries to match it against it against previous names, presenting you with a list of matches. Clicking on the matching name pulls in the values from the memorised transaction, thus saving a lot of data entry. It is also possible to edit memorised transactions for future use.
Classes are another way of organising your transactions. For example, if you are going on holiday, you might want to categorise your expenses as usual (e.g. dining out, gifts, etc) but to specially mark those ones that occurred during your holiday so that you can see how much you've spent overall. Initially, there aren't any classes defined. It isn't possible to have sub-classes - there is only the one level.
Figure 14: Creating a new class
It is possible to split the transaction amount between multiple smaller transaction amounts. Examples of where you might do this include your salary (to track tax payments or pension contributions) or if you are depositing multiple cheques and want to keep track of which ones contribute to the whole. The interface to the split functionality is very easy to use. For each sub-transaction, you can specify the category, class, description and amount.
Figure 15: Splitting a transaction into sub-transactions
I've mentioned the reconciliation state of a transaction a couple of times. A transaction can have one of three states - nothing, cleared and reconciled.
In case you've never come across reconciliation before, here is a summary of how it works. When you first enter a transaction, it has no state. If you have online access to your bank account or credit card account, you might note that the transaction has cleared through the banking system, so you might change the state to reflect that. Finally, when a statement arrives, you would go through the statement, marking all of the transactions that match to be reconciled.
There are just two problems.
The first is that Spb Finance doesn't support the concept of balancing an account. With this process, you would specify the date of the statement along with the opening and closing balance of the statement. The finance software would then display any transactions that have not been reconciled. You would click on each transaction that is present on the statement with the aim being that once you've clicked on all of the matches, the software agrees with the figures you put in at the beginning. Without this process, it becomes a very arduous task to make sure that you've kept your electronic financial records in sync with what the bank believes.
The second is that changing the reconciliation state is painful. It requires four clicks - click on the transaction, click to get the drop-down menu, click to pick the state, click on OK. It would be better if the software either offered it on the context menu (so that would be long click then single click) or put the reconciliation state into a separate column so you could click in the column itself to change the state.
One of the benefits of categorising your transactions is that you can then start setting yourself a budget. For example, you might allow yourself to go to the cinema a couple of times a month. With Spb Finance, you can keep track of how much you are spending in a category against the budget you've set yourself.
Defining a budget is easy - by going into the budget pane and clicking on New, you get the New Budget wizard. After picking the category and clicking on Next, you can decide how you want to define the budget. The software is really flexible - you have the option of specifying a fixed amount for every month or quarter, for the current month, quarter or year, or specifying different values for different months or quarters.
Figure 16: Choosing a category for the new budget
Figure 17: Specifying the time range for the spending limit
Figure 18: Specifying a spending limit for the current quarter
Figure 19: Specifying spending limits for each month
Once you've defined your budgets, the software shows how much you've spent and how much remains against the defined budget for the timeframe specified. You can pick arbitrary start and end dates, or the software provides a comprehensive choice from a drop-down menu. If you have overspent on your budget, it is highlighted in red.
Figure 20: Keeping track of your budgets
Figure 21: Specifying a time range for budgets
One of the strong features in Spb Finance is the report section. The software provides graphs for your net worth, account balances, profit & loss, spending by category, income & expense plus a report of filtered transactions.
Figure 22: The Net Worth graph
Figure 23: The Account Balances graph
Figure 24: The Profit & Loss graph
Figure 25: The Spending by Category graph
There are a lot of customisation options for the reports. For each report, you can specify which accounts are used, which categories are reported upon and which classes.
Wrapping Up The Features
There are a few items that haven't been covered yet in this review:
- Backup and restore. The software provides two menu entries for this functionality. However, one strong point of the software is that all of your information is kept in a single file which means that you can back it up through ActiveSync.
- Import and export. As well as being able to import QIF files, you can also export your financial information in that format if you want to move the data into another package.
- Options. There are three things you can set under options - the font used in the display (and the size - nice touch for the hard of seeing), whether or not auto-completion is turned on and the Today plug-in. Spb Finance allows you to specify which accounts are summarised on the Today screen but, for security reasons, you can only change that list from within Spb Finance and not from the Today settings page. Clicking on an entry in the Today screen takes you to the Register information for that account.
Figure 26: The Today screen with account information
- Password. It is possible to set a password in Spb Finance. In addition to prompting for the password when you enter Spb Finance, the password is used to encrypt your data file … so don't forget it One drawback is that Spb Finance only prompts for the password when you start running it - and there isn't a quit or exit menu entry, so you have to end the application through some other means if you want to make sure that anyone picking up your Pocket PC isn't going to get access to your information.
Where To Buy
- Currencies need to work at the transaction level as well as at the account level.
- There needs to be a way of quitting Spb Finance when you've finished with it so that anyone trying to access your finances gets prompted for the password.
- Reconciliation needs to be improved.
- There is no support for regular transactions (e.g. automatic payment of bills or transfer of money from one account to another).
- There is no support for interest-attracting accounts, e.g. savings, loans, mortgages. It may be that this functionality will be provided by the loan analysis add-on.
The software can be downloaded from PocketGear or purchased for $19.95 (affiliate link).
This program will work on any Pocket PC device. The program takes up 634K of RAM on the device and can be installed to a storage card.
Gotchas aside, this is a great piece of software. The layout is really clear and consistent. The product is feature-rich and shows great promise as Spb delivers on its promise of the add-ons and the other editions. I really like the fact that the Pocket PC can now be a complete finance management system in its own right rather than being dependent on a desktop PC.