I'm often asked which personal finance software is the best. I strongly recommend YNAB 4, the system I personally use. It is by far the best budgeting system on the market. The software is fantastic and the methodology is extremely effective. You can read the review or Try YNAB 4 with a FREE 34-Day Trial!
This new release (2.0) reportedly has many new features and improvements over the previous edition. It is said to give you “More Security and Reliability, More Control, and More Speed.”
*Note: This is a review of CommonCents 2.0. There has since been a new version (3.0) released which states the following NEW features:
- Reminders and Notifications
- Goal Setting and Tracking
- Improved Financial Reports and Graphs
- Streamlined Importing Functionality
- Multiple Document Attachment
- Archiving Capabilities
- Export Manager
Version 2.0 Features
As a quick summary, here are some of the features that CommonCents 2.0 states on their website:
- Enhanced Data Encryption
- Local or Remote Storage (convenience for some, more security for others)
- Backup and Recovery Manager
- Log Manager (to help with customer support)
- Options Manager (with some added functionality such as auto-assigning envelopes for payees)
- Enhanced Budget Manager (can now allocate income by % or $)
- Enhanced Scheduling Options
- Improved Importing Functionality
- Payee Manager
- Hot Keys (to help with data entry)
- Improved Transfer Options
CommonCents 2.0 (enDevelopment’s flagship product) has stuck with the same envelope-style budget and still uses the checkbook-style register.
It appears that CommonCents 2.0 was a big improvement upon the previous version with quite a few features added.
How Does CommonCents 2.0 stand up against the competition? Let’s dig in and find out.
My Experience with CommonCents 2.0
I took my first impression of CommonCents from the website advertising the product. It was very clean, shiny, and web 2.0-ish.
Interested in a quick overview of the personal finance software, I chose to check out the Demo. It was insightful and gave me a quick feel for the application. I was somewhat surprised to see that the actual application didn’t have the same look and feel as the website (not as shiny or polished).
For those Mac lovers out there, I’m sorry to say that CommonCents is currently only offered for the Windows platform. You can, however, use an emulator (like I did) to run it just fine.
The download process went pretty smoothly. It took a total of maybe 2 minutes to go through the process. The screenshots detail most of the steps taken.
Upon launch of the program I was reminded that I have 60 days to use the software before I have to buy a license.
Setting Up CommonCents 2.0
Once you register and get your first glance at the application you’re greeted with a welcome screen with some suggestions to help you get started.
They suggest 3 things: 1. view some online tutorials, 2. read the “Introduction” in the help files, and 3. use the “Preparation Checklist” to get organized. I like that CommonCents kind of walks you through the process and doesn’t leave you staring at an empty piece of software wondering what to do.
Having said that, it also causes me to wonder if the system isn’t quite as simple as they originally made it out to be (I need a preparation checklist to use the software?). I did as they suggested and checked out the resources. Although I don’t know if they are absolutely necessary, many will find them helpful when getting started.
CommonCents Main Screen
Along the top are buttons for the different “managers” that you’ll use throughout your budgeting. These include: Vault, Account, Envelope, Income, Budget, Report, Reconcile, and Backup managers.
The main section of this screen is a register for your transactions that looks much like a digitized checkbook register (in fact, it reminded me a bit too much of my checkbook balancing days and brought back some bad memories).
To the right we have a listing of the different envelopes we are tracking in our budget (you can edit which envelopes appear here – more on that later) along with their current balances.
At the bottom is a listing of our different bank accounts and their balances.
My first thought after getting into the software dealt with the disconnect between the appearance of the software and the look and feel of the website.
Maybe I incorrectly expected the two designs to be similar, but I found the software application to a bit too grey and unfriendly.
This is just a personal observance (and preference for more friendly applications) and shouldn’t have much effect on your budgeting effectiveness.
Customizing Your Budget Envelopes
This isn’t exactly the order that CommonCents tells you to go to get started with the software,but this is how I see it making the most sense. Start first by customizing your categories (envelopes) the way you’ll use it.
The reason I say this is because once you start adding accounts with opening balances, you’ll want to split the amount into your envelopes to start budgeting.
To edit the envelopes click on the Envelope Manager button. I personally found the need to do quite a of customizing with the envelopes to cater to the way I like to budget.
I thought that there were a number of envelopes that clearly should have been child categories to certain parents (for example, Rent and Home Repair could be child categories to Household). At the very least, I didn’t think that some categories were grouped together as nice as they could have been.
I ran into an error when I tried adding a ‘Personal/Entertainment’ envelope because there was already an ‘Entertainment’ envelope. The error is fine, but it’s the way the error was displayed that I thought was interesting. It said:
“The changes you requested to the table were not successful because they would create duplicate values in the index, primary key, or relationship. Change the data in the field or fields that contain duplicate data, remove the index, or redefine the index to permit duplicate entries and try again.”
I only bring this up to show that there could maybe be a little more thought put into the user experience here. For those not familiar with computers or databases, that sentence makes very little sense and leaves them a little wide-eyed. Remove the index? Primary key? Field? Sure, I know what those are, by my mother sure doesn’t.
A simple “That category already exists, please either name it differently or delete the other category.” would have worked just fine.
The only other gripe I have about the envelopes section of CommonCents is the way that they are ordered by default. It’s alphabetical (which is fine), but there is no clear hierarchy to the envelopes or any convention to help you see the different envelope groups (parent categories) more clearly.
This may be due to the fact that I’m used to YNAB’s budget which clearly shows the relationship of each envelope to the next. Even a simple ‘Tab in’ for each child category would help it out a lot visually.
I will say, however, that I like that CommonCents allows you to add and remove custom categories as you wish. I feel this is an essential function to any effective budget.
Setting Up Accounts
I decided to stick with the default Cash, Checking, Credit Card, and Savings accounts they give by default. After clicking on the account at the bottom, enter a starting balance in the register.
Being that it uses envelope budgeting, you will need to set up an initial budget (allocate to your budget envelopes) with this opening balance. You can start dividing up your opening balance by clicking the button. This is where the ‘preparation checklist’ will come in handy if you chose to fill it out.
You can see in the screenshots below that I allocated the “income” into different envelopes (rent, savings, etc.).
I found as I was going back and forth between adding new envelopes and splitting the money in different categories, that there was a good 2-3 second delay after I hit the Split button. (I often clicked a second time, thinking that I hadn’t clicked it the first time… but I had.) *Note: A user recently informed me that this delay is no longer occurring. Thank you CommonCents!
I found that this delay continued for each time I edited a transaction and quickly became quite annoying.
Adding & Editing Transactions
Adding Transactions Manually
While adding transactions manually wasn’t necessarily difficult, it just wasn’t as quick as I would have hoped. I like that they allow you to tab to each new area of the transaction. This helps immensely.
For a while I was frustrated by the fact that I had to get the mouse and click for each new transaction that I entered. I then remembered the mentioning of ‘Hot Keys’ and looked it up in the Help menu. By typing ALT-N, a new transaction will be initiated. Remember this if you’re entering a large number of transactions! You’ll be glad you did.
I also liked that you can change the width of the columns in the register to best suite your needs. Except, I couldn’t change the width of the category column. Being that some of the categories are relatively long, you can’t see the whole category without clicking the drop down arrow. This plays a big part since you must start typing the category using the parent category and can’t type in the name of the child category.
For example, as you can see in the image below, after typing “Personal” and arrowing down, I wasn’t able to tell which cateogory I was selecting. I was looking for: Personal/Fun Money:Hers
Is this a deal breaker? Probably not, but it’s the culmination of little things like this that can make an application more difficult to use.
You can import transactions into CommonCents 2.0 by clicking on ‘Managers’ at the top, then selecting ‘Import Manager.” The import manager opens up and you can select which account you want to import into and then upload the file.
Also, enDevelopment Team: May I suggest having an icon for the Import Manager at the top since that will likely be a very frequently visited manager?
I ran into a little trouble here. The CommonCents documentation states that it can import the widely accepted .QFX format. But when I tried to upload the .QFX file, it gave me this error:
Now I don’t know if this was just a fluke, one-time thing or if it really only accepts .OFX files for the current time. I tried multiple times and couldn’t get it to work. Unfortunately, my bank doesn’t offer an .OFX file download. I’ll be sure, however, to check back in the future to see if it has been fixed.
If the importer works as advertised, however, it sounds like it may be pretty nice. I like that you have the option of editing the transactions before they go into the register.
The Income & Budget Manager
Much of your budgeting will be done in the Income Manager and the Budget Manager. You can set up different sources of income in the Income Manager so that when you get paid, all you have to do is go into the income manager, select the income (change the amount if necessary) and have it enter the income transaction.
The reason why it’s important to set up income sources like this is because you can tie them to the budget allocations that you choose. By going into the Budget Manager you can set up different allocations of your income for each source of income. See the screenshots:
You’ll notice that the Budget Manager didn’t allow me to complete the process until every dollar was allocated to the envelopes. This is called Zero Based Budgeting, and I love it – it’s extremely effective.
The main thing that I don’t like about the budgeting functionality is that there are too many steps to move money between envelopes. What this means is that in order to alter your budget throughout the month you have to go into the budget manager (or the individual income transaction) and edit the allocated amounts.
For example, say part way through the month I decide to take a little from my Restaurant envelope and put it into the Grocery envelope (because we want to eat healthier). If I go the Budget Manager route, it takes me 8 clicks, two data entries, and two new windows to change the amount. That’s a lot of clicking. (*Note: a user recently informed me that it only takes 5 clicks now.) Wouldn’t it be easier if you could just edit the envelopes straight from the envelope window at the right (and take only 2 clicks)?
*Update: You can use the Transfer Manager to move money between envelopes (which was easier and more intuitive), but this still required 9 clicks.
I’m personally one who monitors and (and sometimes alters) my budget on a weekly basis. Having so many extra steps to change the amounts a little would get old real quick.
CommonCents offers a number of different reports. Although they may not be the reports you were expecting to see. Most personal finance software has reports in the forms of bar graphs, pie charts, etc. The CommonCents reports, however, are all simple data listings. This, for example, is the Envelope Register Report (click to enlarge, if you wish):
This may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your preferences. I like some of the reports they offer, but also recognize the benefit of some good graphical reporting when trying to visualize our spending and areas in which we can improve.
For your reference, here is their list of reports:
There are a number of different ‘Managers’ that you can use to manage the system. In order to not bore you with the details of each, here’s a quick summary and screenshot of each:
Reconcile Manager: A tool to help you reconcile your bank statements with your CommonCents software.
Merge Manager: A nice feature that allows you to permanently merge (and alter all previous transactions) two envelopes. You probably wont use this much, but when you need to, you’ll be glad they have it.
Transfer Manager: Allows you transfer money between accounts or between envelopes. While this is nice, it would be nice to have that kind of functionality using a transaction in the register or using the envelope window at the right.
Memorized Transaction Manager: Allows you to schedule transactions.
Payee Manager: You can edit the payees that CommonCents has remembered for you.
Log Manager: Keeps a log of your activities to be used if you need support. The fact that they have this feature makes me wonder if they’re anticipating having problems?
Backup Manager: Nice feature and pretty self explanatory.
CommonCents 2.0 Price
Once your 60 day trial (a very generous trial length, by the way) is over you can purchase a license for continued use for $34.95. This isn’t a bad price for an envelope budgeting package.
Although, in my personal opinion, I would rather flip the slightly larger bill for some of the better envelope solutions out there.
CommonCents is a less expensive alternative to some of the other envelope budgeting systems. The envelope budgeting method is a time-tested method to manage your money and works extremely well. It causes you to be responsible for each dollar you bring in and each dollar that goes out. I like that CommonCents reinforces the envelope principles and a zero based budget.
I found, however, that CommonCents wasn’t quite as polished, simple, or quick as other similar systems. There were numerous little areas that needed improvement, and when they’re all taken into account, the program as a whole is little too tedious for my tastes. Issues such the .QFX importing issue, the transaction editing, and the budgeting functionality (among others) were all somewhat of a turnoff.
For those, however, that have learned their way around the CommonCents software and like the way it functions, its envelope budgeting will be highly effective. They have a great 60 day trial, so you may as well give it a try to see if you like it.