I began using FileMaker around 2001. I developed a handful of databases for clients but in recent years I’ve just been using it for my invoicing system and for personal projects. This past fall it occurred to me that it might be time to move on. I was thinking in terms of future updates, cost, simplicity and easier access to data from multiple devices. So I started looking around at possible small database apps as well as the possibility of using Apple’s Numbers app.
I’ve been a long-time user of Apple’s iWork apps and honestly, I love them. Pages is the one I’ve used the most but I’ve also spent a good bit of time in Numbers and have really enjoyed using it. Could Numbers replace FileMaker for my invoicing? It’s not something I’d ever considered as FileMaker is ideally suited to this purpose and my FileMaker invoicing is a database I’ve been using and evolving for over a 15 years. It’s perfect for me and works well on my iPad with FileMaker Go. Why in the world would I ever switch to Numbers? It’s not really the best app for this kind of task.
FileMaker, while a fantastic app, is really more than I need. It’s expensive (for what I do with it) and new versions of the desktop development versions as well as mobile versions are released fairly often. But I don’t actively work on FileMaker projects for clients these days and my only use in-house use is invoicing. And while my slightly out-of-date versions of the mobile and Mac apps get the job done I don’t know when they won’t be supported on my devices in the future. Even now, I’ve recently switched to the M1 Mac Mini and I’m not sure the version I have will run natively. I haven’t even installed it on the new Mac. I have not opened it on the 2012 Mac Mini in a year or so. On the iPad, where I use it the most, I’m at least one version behind. Various reviews of the most recent version of FileMaker Go for iPad indicate that it’s buggy so I’m not interested in updating.
Not only is there the cost factor, there’s also the simple fact that I don’t need the growing power and complexity of FileMaker. My invoicing needs are fairly minimal and in recent years it’s largely remained the same with the exception of a few visual design changes I made a couple of years ago. With FileMaker, a database, especially a multi-table database, can begin to feel like an app in and of itself. Thanks to the power and flexibility of FileMaker, it really is an app to develop systems that begin to resemble applications themselves with a multitude of layouts and interfaces.
I briefly considered a few database options such as Airtable and Tap Forms but decided to try Numbers first. My reasoning was that Numbers likely has a stable development future and comes free with every Apple device. It’s an app I’m familiar with and, though a spreadsheet application rather than a database app, I expected it would be enough for my needs.
Simplicity in use is another aspect of what I was considering in this move. With a switch to Numbers I am getting seamless sync between devices. With FileMaker I was using FileMaker Go on the iPad most of the time and just copying that over to the Mac as a back-up or to make changes to the design of the database where the Mac is a requirement. iCloud makes copying unnecessary and all changes can be done on the iPad, Mac or iPhone for that matter.
So, with the intent of exploring Numbers as an alternative to FMP for invoicing I began to tinker. My first effort resulted in a sort of dashboard file with two tables. One table was to record line items date, client, description and time worked. The second sheet would be an overview of invoices with totals and paid status. Then, each client would then get their own, separate Numbers file, each new invoice would just be a new sheet with the date for that invoice. So, I’d have an Invoices folder with Invoice Dashboard.numbers and then ClientName.numbers for each clients invoices. When it was time to send an invoice I’d do a quick filter for client name to get all of the unpaid time slips for that client, copy the rows then paste into a duplicated invoice sheet for that client. One benefit to this would be that if, at any point, I wanted to have a quick view of a particular client’s invoices they would all be accessible in that one file, organized by date in individual sheets.
I think the above method would have worked fine but before I could really test it I came across a macmost.com tutorial on creating a single file numbers invoice and that seemed a better way to go. I downloaded the sample file and began making a few customizations. I concluded this method would be a better solution. It consists of three sheets, each with it’s own table. The first sheet is for adding clients and their contact info. The second is for line items/consultations, I just add the client ID then the date, description, rate time. The third sheet is the invoice. After watching the video a couple times I think I have a pretty good idea about how some of the more complex features work and I see the logic of setting it up this way. With this method the “Invoice” sheet is an invoice template that uses the Lookup function and present the data for the client ID number provided. All of the associated/related line items for that client that are not marked with a paid date will appear in the invoice. Then I just export the invoice as a pdf to email. Once an invoice is paid the date is added to the paid cell for each of the line items in that sheet.
After four months of use I think this will work well as a long-term replacement for FileMaker.
As a follow-up, part two of this story, a couple of months after I transitioned to this new system, one of my website/design clients asked me for advice on setting up a system for tracking/creating invoices and various other bits of data for his retreat which provides courses, lodging, etc. I’d just assumed he had a proper system in place as he’s been running his business for 20ish years. No, not so much. He’s gotten by with a patchwork reservation/invoicing system but concluded that it was more work than it needed to be. We went over the various options and I explained my recent transition from FileMaker to Numbers.
Within a day or two I further modified my invoice system with new features and sheets to cover his more complicated needs. What I’ve learned is that Numbers is far more capable than I ever realized. Over several years of casual use I’d gotten a lot out of it but I knew I was just scratching the surface of what could be done with this app and now I’ve gotten yet another glimpse of what’s possible.
Obviously, Numbers is not FileMaker Pro, it’s not a relational database and there are limits. But I find it is very enjoyable to use, fairly easy to learn as I go