Gilad Edelman, writing at Wired, makes a compelling case that Intuit’s intention to buy Credit Karma is less about owning a competitor and more about getting access to the significant amount of user data said competitor has collected over the years. Here again, we are seeing very clearly the cost of “free” (emphasis mine):
While those people don’t pay to use Credit Karma, they do turn over their financial information, as well as the kinds of behavioral and location data that other companies, like Facebook and Google, track. The platform’s algorithms then help lenders microtarget users with offers for credit cards, loans, and other financial products. Credit Karma gets a cut when users sign up.
Intuit makes it clear that they want to know users’ “complete financial identity”, and couches it as a way to offer “the best loan and insurance products for them.” It makes me sad to know that my steady use of Quickbooks over the last few years, even as small an amount as it is in the grand scheme, has helped fund this sort of behavior. I’ve noticed a conintued dark pattern in which indivdiauls, and especially small business owners, are scared into thinking that they can’t keep their own books via the tried-and-true spreadsheet. Even when we’re paying for a service so that a company shouldn’t have to sell personal data, the quest for constant growth in this land of extreme capitalism is too much, it seems, to handle.
In January, I was musing about how Quickbooks had largely stagnated, and was citing long-standard features (and I mean years-long standard features) of its own product as a reason to justify a sudden 47% price increase. I wasn’t thinking it then, but I’m definitely thinking it now: this is a monopolist’s move. It doesn’t matter whether your product or service is any good if you’re the biggest, and nearly only, game in town.
I’ve recently taken to reading Matt Stoller’s BIG newsletter, and given my recent forays into figuring out things for my businesses, I’ve been thinking a lot about how QuickBooks has become less and less effective and more and more confusing. I keep seeing descriptions of it as being the “industry standard”, but despite having used it for about five years now, it’s not gotten any more user friendly for my purposes. If anything, it’s actually gotten worse.
While thinking about how QuickBooks holds something of a monopoly in the accounting space, I also found myself thinking about Intuit, the parent company of QuickBooks and TurboTax. ProPublica has done some extensive reporting on Intuit’s lobbying efforts to prevent the IRS from allowing citizens to file their tax returns for free, with efforts to not only prevent the IRS from developing that software, but also by using deliberate design and search-based tactics to ultimately force users to pay for the service when it should remain free. I first encountered this reporting from an episode of Reply All last summer.
What’s notable from my own experience is that despite using two distinct versions of QuickBooks (the Simple Start Online for one, and the Self-Employed for the other), I’ve found that the supposed integration of the Self-Employed version with the Self-Employed TurboTax to be largely unreliable, meaning that the supposed benefit of simply hitting “send to TurboTax” for a Schedule C has never really worked for me.
What does monopoly positioning have to do with this? I’ve stuck with QuickBooks as long as I have in part because I thought it was the only option for me. I selected it in part because it was supposed to integrate so well with TurboTax. As with so many other giant corporations in today’s landscape, the only way to vote is with my dollars (and perhaps some thoughtful reasoning on the Internet, should others find themselves asking similar questions), and it’s time my dollars found better use in more ethical companies.
I’ve written before about the growing pains I’ve been experiencing with running each of my two businesses. I’ve stuck with Quickbooks Self-Employed for one of them for the time being (the other I use the more robust Quickbooks Online), in part because the added value of TurboTax being included was a nice perk.
Yesterday, I received an email that the price for the Self-Employed version is going up once again, by $8 (a 47% increase over the previous price). Intuit casually mentioned some “new features” in their email to justify the increase, but oh wait! Those new features they cited included automatic mileage tracking and the abilty to pay estimated taxes from within their dashboard, both of which are features they’ve had pretty much since I started using the service in 2015. They even include the same nonsense line in their FAQ page here.
In the past, I’ve requested the ability to keep track of mileage based on odometer readings, citing privacy and confidentiality for the services I provide, and it’s been crickets. I’ve also suggested having even single entry bookkeeping (rather than the ‘ledger’ they provide which shows only amounts spent or earned, and not an account balance for reference) in order to more accurately reconcile. Again, no response.
I get that a company has a right to raise prices, but it’s nonsense to declare that features that have been in place for years are the reason why. The service has essentially remained unchanged in probably about two years now, with the only real improvement being the addition of invoices/payments in 2017. (Interestingly, they neglected to mention this in the current trumpeting of “new’ features.)
At this point, I’m at a bit of an impasse. I manage my books best through good old-fashioned spreadsheets, but it’s nice to have an invoicing system that also has the ability to manage payments. Is it worth the price any longer to leave it in the hands of the biggest fish in the pond, or is it time to move on? Ideally I’d like to move on, but now just to figure out where to go from here.
I’ve been working on getting a clearer picture of the finances for each of my businesses. I do a fair amount by hand, in part because it helps prevent automation from making me complacent, and in part because Quickbooks Self-Employed is less than reliable. I’ve used it for years, and while it’s taught me a lot, I’ve definitely outgrown it. But even though I mostly just use it for invoicing, TurboTax, and helping estimate taxes, it’s an exercise in frustration. It deleted transactions I’d sorted for business once I started using a dedicated checking account and stopped using my personal acount (and so stopped having my personal account transactions be pulled in for review). Today, it wouldn’t show any but the latest invoice, and required multiple refreshes before they finally reappeared.
I use the more robust Quickbooks Online for my second business, and it’s been generally better, having none of the issues I just described above.
Basically, here’s the essential lessons learned: if you do any sort of freelance work, keep a separate checking account for it (even if you’re not a formally structured entity). Use it for all business-related needs. When considering options for accounting needs, consider reliability as much as you consider price.
I understand the appeal of auto-mileage tracking for business, but it’s incredibly problematic. I used it for a while when I first started using QuickBooks Self-Employed, but found it overwhelming to have to sift through every single trip I made. Its other challenge was that it also tracked every trip even when I wasn’t the one driving. Perhaps I was riding in someone else’s car, on a bus, or in a cab. I also found it incredibly invasive in terms of privacy: not only was it tracking and storing every place I went to work, but every place I went on my own time, a record, right alongside my business trips, of every place I went.
Granted, our phones do this already without telling us, but I see no sense in keeping an even more easily reported record of this. In both of my lines of work, client and patient privacy is essential (not to mention federally mandated), and I see no need for the IRS to know the exact location when other data should be sufficiently detailed. I include the date, the start/end mileage of my vehicle, and a note of who the trip is for (my own company directly, or otherwise the agency with whom I am contracting for a given assignment). I manually input my miles using an app called Mileage Log+, and it takes care of handling date, time, distance, etc. Selection of location (using GPS on your phone) is thankfully optional. And all records can be exported into CSV format for use in your own spreadsheet, which for me is much easier to then organize and review.
It’s the simplest, most direct way I’ve found that, after a bit of set-up, is also the most efficient. Also, it spares the “need” for an $8-10/month subscription that other mileage tracking apps seem to want to command.
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