Bookkeeping and Accounting Basics

Bookkeeping and accounting share two basic goals:

  • to keep track of your income and expenses, thereby improving your chances of making a profit
  • to collect the necessary financial information about your business to file your various tax returns and local tax registration papers

Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? And it can be, especially if you remind yourself of these two goals whenever you feel overwhelmed by the details of keeping your financial records. Hopefully you will also be reassured to know that there is no requirement that your records be kept in any particular way. (There is a requirement, however, that some businesses use a certain method of crediting their accounts.) In other words, there's no official "right" way to organize your books. As long as your records accurately reflect your business's income and expenses, the IRS will find them acceptable.

The actual process of keeping your books is easy to understand when broken down into three steps.

  1. Keep receipts or other acceptable records of every payment to and every expenditure from your business.
  2. Summarize your income and expenditure records on some periodic basis (generally daily, weekly, or monthly).
  3. Use your summaries to create financial reports that will tell you specific information about your business, such as how much monthly profit you're making or how much your business is worth at a specific point in time.

Whether you do your accounting by hand on ledger sheets or use accounting software, these principles are exactly the same.

Step 1: Keeping Your Receipts
Comprehensive summaries of your business's income and expenses are the heart of the accounting process. But they can't legally be created in a vacuum. Each of your business's sales and purchases must be backed by some type of record containing the amount, the date, and other relevant information about that sale. This is true whether your accounting is done by computer or on hand-posted ledgers.

From a legal point of view, your method of keeping receipts can range from slips kept in a cigar box to a sophisticated cash register hooked into a computer system. Practically, you'll want to choose a system that fits your business needs. For example, a small service business that handles only relatively few jobs may get by with a bare-bones approach. But the more sales and expenditures your business makes, the better your receipt filing system needs to be. The bottom line is to choose or adapt one to suit your needs.

Step 2: Setting Up and Posting Ledgers
A completed ledger is really nothing more than a summary of revenues, expenditures, and whatever else you're keeping track of (entered from your receipts according to category and date). Later, you'll use these summaries to answer specific financial questions about your business such as whether you're making a profit, and if so, how much.

You'll start with a blank ledger page (a sheet with lines) or, more often these days, a computer file of empty rows and columns. On some regular basis like every day, once a week, or at least once a month, you should transfer the amounts from your receipts for sales and purchases into your ledger. Called "posting," how often you do this depends on how many sales and expenditures your business makes and how detailed you want your books to be.

Generally speaking, the more sales you do, the more often you should post to your ledger. A retail store, for instance, that does hundreds of sales amounting to thousands or tens of thousands of dollars every day should probably post daily. With that volume of sales, it's important to see what's happening every day and not to fall behind with the paperwork. To do this, the busy retailer should use a cash register that totals and posts the day's sales to a computerized bookkeeping system at the push of a button. A slower business, however, or one with just a few large transactions per month, such as a small Web site design shop, dog-sitting service, or swimming pool repair company, would probably be fine if it posted weekly or even monthly.

To get started on a hand-entry system, get ledger pads from any office supply store. Alternatively, you can purchase an accounting software program that will generate its own ledgers as you enter your information. All but the tiniest new businesses are well advised to use an accounting software package to help keep their books (and micro-businesses can get by with personal finance software such as Quicken). That's because once you've entered your daily, weekly, or monthly numbers, accounting software makes preparing monthly and yearly financial reports incredibly easy.

Step 3: Creating Basic Financial Reports
Financial reports are important because they bring together several key pieces of financial information about your business. Think of it this way -- while your income ledger may tell you that your business brought in a lot of money during the year, you may have no way of knowing whether you turned a profit without measuring your income against your total expenses. And even comparing your monthly totals of income and expenses won't tell you whether your credit customers are paying fast enough to keep adequate cash flowing through your business to pay your bills on time. That's why you need financial reports: to combine data from your ledgers and sculpt it into a shape that shows you the big picture of your business.