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Why is the ability to have a split transaction (e.g. one transaction, but categorized into two or more parts) beneficial to personal finance management software?

What are the most typical use-cases for split transactions?

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No accounting software can be accepted by users without support of split transactions, especially enterprise users. Consider the case where you pay for restaurant and want to split the actual check portion from the tips portion, as the most trivial example. – littleadv Feb 11 '14 at 22:55
Could you just do it in two transactions? – dragonroot Feb 11 '14 at 22:56
You could. But most people don't, most people leave tips as part of their payment for the whole checks. – littleadv Feb 11 '14 at 23:01
Your quote condones programmer-centric approach, but instead advertises user-centric one, which in my opinion is equally bad. Trying to fancy every whim of an ignorant user is a dangerous practice which may lead to sloppy, bloated, imbalanced, unstable and unmaintainable product. As long as programmer and user aren't actively working together to find a technologically-viable and practically-usable consensus, nothing good comes out of this. Also, your quote does not do justice to me - I came here specifically seeking user advice and practical use-cases. – dragonroot Feb 12 '14 at 10:08
My answer is my practical advice. The quote is extra, meant only to point to Cooper's work, because he addresses fundamental challenges with how software is designed. FWIW, he has a lot to say about users and their whims, too. As a piece of advocacy intended to change how software is designed, his choice of words can seem harsh to those in the industry [and I'm a developer, too.] I didn't intend it to insult -- sorry. I found it enlightening, opening my eyes to errors in design that I was committing. Please don't let my choice of quote dissuade interest in the work. – Chris W. Rea Feb 12 '14 at 13:04
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Split transactions are indispensable to anybody interested in accurately tracking their spending.

If I go to the big-box pharmacy down the road to pick up a prescription and then also grab a loaf of bread and a jug of milk while there, then I'd want to enter the transaction into my software as:

  • one single transaction for the total amount, but
  • some part of the amount categorized as "Healthcare - Prescriptions", and
  • some part of the amount categorized as "Groceries".

I desire entering precise data into the software so that I can rely on the reports it produces.

Often, I don't need an exact amount and estimated category totals would have been fine, e.g. to inform budgeting, or compare to a prior period.

However, in other cases, the expenses I'm tracking must be tracked accurately because I'd be using the total to claim an income tax deduction (or credit). Consider how Internet access might be commingled on the same bill with the home's cable TV service. One is a reasonable business expense and deduction for the work-at-home web developer, whereas the other is a personal non-deductible expense.

Were split transaction capability not available, the somewhat unattractive alternatives are:

  • Ignore the category difference and, say, categorize the entire transaction as the larger or more important category. But, this deliberately introduces error in the tracked data, rendering it useless for cases where the category totals need to be accurate,


  • Split the transaction manually. This doesn't introduce error into the tracked data, but suffers another problem: It makes a lot of work.

    First, one would need to manually enter two (or more) top-level transactions instead of the single one with sub-amounts. Perhaps not that much more work than if a split were entered.

    Worse is when it comes time to reconcile: Now there are two (or more) transactions in the register, but the credit card statement has only one. Reconciling would require manually adding up those transactions from the register just to confirm the amount on the statement is correct. Major pain!

I'd place split transaction capability near the top of the list of "must have" features for any finance management software.

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+1, but a small comment about your last sentence: personal ? What about commercial, they don't need splits? I'd say any finance management software must be able to support split transactions flawlessly, its one of the most basic features, as you said. – littleadv Feb 12 '14 at 8:44
@littleadv Agree. I was trying too hard to stay on-topic. Fixed. – Chris W. Rea Feb 12 '14 at 13:06

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