NEAT SOFTWARE

Some number of years ago I got over excited about a scanner by the company Neat, who provided software for organizing your receipts, important documents, business cards, etc.  The Neat Scanners were expensive and, if the software had lived up to the hype, would have been a really, really cool thing.

And although I didn’t contribute to it, Neat had some success selling its scanners.  These were scanners specifically designed by Neat that could handle smaller-sized documents better than a traditional sheet-fed scanner.  I’ll admit I was a bit too enamored with the product, I had (have) a relatively unhealthy addiction to office supplies and this fit that addiction perfectly, while adding a tech component.

But back then, I didn’t consider that Neat was at its core a software company.  Sure, you could get scanners (big and small) that were Neat branded, but it was ultimately the software that was doing the heavy lifting, both converting and analyzing text from scanned documents, and serving as a first pass data entry clerk entering expenses or business contacts at a desk in some corporate high-rise.

Fast forward several years, and I found myself pondering the organization system that I have in place for my family’s finances.  This is one of those things that I reinvent every couple years and change how I’m doing it.  We had just moved into a new house, and although we did a fair amount of decluttering throughout the process of selling and buying a home, we still had too much “stuff” that I didn’t want to keep around anymore, namely, documents, receipts, etc., that were in some cases over a decade old.

I spent a good amount of time moving when I was growing up, living in 12 different places during the first 24 years of my life. When you do that, you get really good at downsizing your stuff, because you learn (through evictions and late-notice moves) what is most important, and what can be left behind.  But when things finally stabilized after buying our first house, it slowly started to fill up with that stuff, and my [perhaps latent] tendency to be a pack rat came through.

Yet I digress.  So there I was, looking at 4 of those plastic filing cabinet drawers filled with credit card statements, hospital bills, tax information, and other miscellaneous garbage from so long ago, on top of a plastic bin filled with 7+ years of receipts. Some of that stuff I knew I could shred immediately; other bits I knew had to be kept and filed away ad infinitum. It got me thinking about Neat again, and I thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be great if I could just scan all this stuff into a cloud service and be done with it, but still get to it forever?”

Enter Neat.  I checked back in with it, and found that they weren’t really making the scanners anymore, although you could still get refurbished models without warranty on Amazon. So I started small and picked up a refurbished portable scanner, powered and connected via USB, for $60.  Not a bad deal–then I went to Neat’s website and signed up for the effectively cheapest solution that met my needs, the “Premium” tier which had (most importantly) the ability to have Neat’s cheapest hourly workers cataloging 30 expenses monthly for me.

It’s also important to note that the software integrated with Quicken, which I have been using since 2015 to track my family’s spending and budgets.

As any typical cloud product is, there are Mac/PC apps you can download to interface with their service, or you can do it all through a browser.  Because I was going to be scanning, the Mac client was the way to go.  And it started off OK–I could scan receipts in using my refurb scanner, or using the smartphone app, and it would take care of the rest for me.  If Neat’s workers were reviewing the receipts, they were nearly flawless, but if Neat’s AI was doing the work it would pull in around 75% of the data accurately on its first attempt.  So, from my point of view, removing the need to enter 75% of the data into Quicken that I normally would, and instead rely on Neat, was a pretty good deal for $10/month and a one-time scanner purchase of $60.  On top of that, Neat provides a digital filing cabinet that can be set up with any folder structure you desire, also allowing you to store and search information other than receipts, which was an added bonus.

On day 1, everything started off fantastic, and like usual, I was excited to get started on my new project.  Then I hit the first hurdle: Quicken integration.  I will admit, as an aside, that this issue I encountered was never submitted to Neat for help; the Premier plan gets you access to unlimited support and I’m sure I could have sought out their help, but I resorted to Google for my solution rather than Neat’s support team.  Anyway, after entering and reviewing the first group of expenses I tried to export them to Quicken–easily done with a right click on what you want to export.

The resulting file is one with a .qif extension, a legacy file extension that Quicken decided in the last few years was not secure enough–and so they discontinued its use and support for it in their products.  Kind of a bummer, Google pushed me to a third-party program that would convert  the .qif file into a more recent .qfx file, which could be imported into Quicken. After confirming it worked with the free trial, I paid the $10 for the software.  It was a simple interface that got me to my goal, so ten bucks was fine.

So, I did that for a while, and then hit my second hurdle: my scanner died.  The onboard motor decided to give up, and since I picked it up refurbished with no warranty, my only option was to buy another, or use the smartphone app exclusively to scan documents.  It wasn’t ideal, but I had already shelled out for the first year of service, so I went with it.

Then as life was a little bit harder, a little bit more irritating every time I needed to enter expenses, I started thinking about life before Neat.  That was the point at which the user interface in the software (and on the web) started to become incredibly irritating–laggy response times and the constant need to re-sign in when I only had to sign in once on mobile.  And, the mobile app provided a very inconsistent (and equally irritating) experience, where the camera’s viewfinder wouldn’t really show you the area in which a document had to be captured, or it took entirely too long to process those captured documents.  I also decided around that time that since I didn’t have access to a scanner anymore that 30 credits per month of Neat’s workers cataloging my receipts wasn’t enough, because I was already spending too much time messing around with the software–and I didn’t feel that I should be paying more (although you can buy more credits as add ons) to get them. Needless to say, things were going down hill for Neat.

Then I happened upon a new printer/scanner/copier all in one at a pretty steep discount, so decided I’d give that a try…my hope was renewed once again.  But of course, it didn’t integrate with Neat’s software unless USB connected, which isn’t something I wanted to do with a networked device, so that was right out.

I was ready to seek out a new solution for my filing dilemma. It was nice that I hadn’t invested much time in scanning anything other than receipts (although I did scan a handful of documents), and I still had the physical receipts, so not much was lost aside from the $200 I spent getting into the Neat experience.  What I needed was a more flexible, more customizable document management solution.  If I was going to be spending that kind of time processing documents, why not make it a more robust solution?

After some research I discovered the Office 365 Business Essentials license which gives you access to Sharepoint Online.  And, while this isn’t a review of Sharepoint Online, I decided it would be the last nail in Neat’s coffin–and officially retired Neat for my personal finance and document management.  As I unsubscribed from the service, I provided the following feedback of my experience:

“I understand the market has changed from the days of desktop scanners, but for the price being charged here I’d expect the [Neat] software to work better.  I started using Neat because I wanted to have a scanned record of receipts and not save them in a shoebox, but the service made it more work [in the upkeep of] something that worked just fine before. [There is] too much effort to use Neat to file documents/receipts and Quicken to enter expenses, all the extra work [is] just not worth the one or two nice things about having an electronic archive of receipts and documents.

“There aren’t enough monthly credits for premium subscribers, I think 30 is far too few and it’s not worth paying more each month when I’ve already invested as much as I have.  I’ve also seen duplicates in what was processed (even though I only scanned something once), or errors with the data entry that I had to correct, so it doesn’t make sense to have those credits wasted when I have to check someone else’s work anyway.”

I’ll admit that my decision to cancel Neat was an accumulation of frustrations over time, and maybe the 8 months of using it wasn’t enough time to really get the hang of it.  But I stand by my review of it and my decision to cancel, and I’ve already built with Sharepoint Online and my new all-in-one at home much of the functionality that Neat had, minus the AI or the ability to have someone review my work. But, for $5/month, that’s not such a bad deal…especially because of the extreme amount of customization that Sharepoint Online offers.

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