Adventures in Gnucash on the Mac

Why use Gnucash?

I switched away from Quicken about seven years ago because of Intuit’s greedy annual upgrade ransom fee and its insane crashiness. The final straw came when it managed to corrupt all the backups one day while I tried to recover from an error. I had it set to maintain its maximum of 8 automatic backup copies, but I apparently restarted the application at least that many times in the process of figuring out what had happened. My data vanished, trying to re-import from backups wasn’t working properly, and I was ready for a fresh start.

So, after doing some research into the available alternatives, I switched to Gnucash and have used it ever since then. It’s free and quite powerful, doing as much as I need it to, and then some. It’s open source, and it runs on Linux and the Mac, providing a bit of security against obsolescence. That becomes very important once you build a history with an application, as will happen with a financial package.

There are a number of other reasons why I switched, but they mostly boil down to trust. I lost faith in Quicken’s ability to reliably keep me organized. Conversely, I trust that Gnucash will be around for the foreseeable future, and that my data will continue to be useable without having to keep throwing money away for upgrades that don’t bring me bug fixes or any useful new features.

How to try it for yourself

Two projects distribute Gnucash for Mac OS: MacPorts and the Fink Project. I have used both distributions, and when they work, they work equally well. During the recent transition to Mac OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard), the Fink folks were quicker to get get Gnucash operational under the new operating system, so I also moved to Fink when upgrading to Snow Leopard. Gnucash earned a reputation in its early days as being very difficult to install, but thanks to the work of the Gnucash developers, as well as the MacPorts and Fink teams, installation is no longer difficult, only time-consuming. Set it up to run overnight, and you shouldn’t expect any hitches.

Twice I have been caught by upgrades to Mac OS causing Gnucash not to run, while its maintainers worked to support changes to the operating system. Fortunately, this was not a large problem, because I just used Gnucash on the Linux computer in the mean time.

In the the four months that passed since I started writing this post, there is now a Mac-“native” version that is can be downloaded as a regular disk image and dragged to the Applications folder. This simple installation scheme will hopefully enable easier adoption by more Mac people. As of this writing, the 2.2.9 version that is available has an apparent bug that prevents the help system from functioning. All the help documentation is present, but it is hidden. The following links should make it easier to get to the documentation after Gnucash is installed in the Applications folder.

If those links are not helpful, locate the Gnucash application. Right-click on it, and choose “Show Package Contents.” Then navigate to Contents→Resources→English.lproj. You will see folders for “GnuCash Guide” and “GnuCash help.” The main page of the Guide is index.html. The main page of the Help is help.html.

The help files actually do a pretty decent at explaining how the double-entry style of bookkeeping works, and how to help Gnucash work for you. I have picked up a lot of hints over the years, and I’ll try to share some of them in the future as they come to me.