journal format

This doc is for version 1.2.


Journal - hledger's default file format, representing a General Journal


hledger's usual data source is a plain text file containing journal entries in hledger journal format. This file represents a standard accounting general journal. I use file names ending in .journal, but that's not required. The journal file contains a number of transaction entries, each describing a transfer of money (or any commodity) between two or more named accounts, in a simple format readable by both hledger and humans.

hledger's journal format is a compatible subset, mostly, of ledger's journal format, so hledger can work with compatible ledger journal files as well. It's safe, and encouraged, to run both hledger and ledger on the same journal file, eg to validate the results you're getting.

You can use hledger without learning any more about this file; just use the add or web commands to create and update it. Many users, though, also edit the journal file directly with a text editor, perhaps assisted by the helper modes for emacs or vim.

Here's an example:

; A sample journal file. This is a comment.

2008/01/01 income               ; <- transaction's first line starts in column 0, contains date and description
    assets:bank:checking  $1    ; <- posting lines start with whitespace, each contains an account name
    income:salary        $-1    ;    followed by at least two spaces and an amount

2008/06/01 gift
    assets:bank:checking  $1    ; <- at least two postings in a transaction
    income:gifts         $-1    ; <- their amounts must balance to 0

2008/06/02 save
    assets:bank:saving    $1
    assets:bank:checking        ; <- one amount may be omitted; here $-1 is inferred

2008/06/03 eat & shop           ; <- description can be anything
    expenses:food         $1
    expenses:supplies     $1    ; <- this transaction debits two expense accounts
    assets:cash                 ; <- $-2 inferred

2008/12/31 * pay off            ; <- an optional * or ! after the date means "cleared" (or anything you want)
    liabilities:debts     $1



Transactions are represented by journal entries. Each begins with a simple date in column 0, followed by three optional fields with spaces between them:

  • a status flag, which can be empty or ! or * (meaning "uncleared", "pending" and "cleared", or whatever you want)
  • a transaction code (eg a check number),
  • and/or a description

then some number of postings, of some amount to some account. Each posting is on its own line, consisting of:

  • indentation of one or more spaces (or tabs)
  • optionally, a ! or * status flag followed by a space
  • an account name, optionally containing single spaces
  • optionally, two or more spaces or tabs followed by an amount

Usually there are two or more postings, though one or none is also possible. The posting amounts within a transaction must always balance, ie add up to 0. Optionally one amount can be left blank, in which case it will be inferred.


Simple dates

Within a journal file, transaction dates use Y/M/D (or Y-M-D or Y.M.D) Leading zeros are optional. The year may be omitted, in which case it will be inferred from the context - the current transaction, the default year set with a default year directive, or the current date when the command is run. Some examples: 2010/01/31, 1/31, 2010-01-31, 2010.1.31.

Secondary dates

Real-life transactions sometimes involve more than one date - eg the date you write a cheque, and the date it clears in your bank. When you want to model this, eg for more accurate balances, you can specify individual posting dates, which I recommend. Or, you can use the secondary dates (aka auxiliary/effective dates) feature, supported for compatibility with Ledger.

A secondary date can be written after the primary date, separated by an equals sign. The primary date, on the left, is used by default; the secondary date, on the right, is used when the --date2 flag is specified (--aux-date or --effective also work).

The meaning of secondary dates is up to you, but it's best to follow a consistent rule. Eg write the bank's clearing date as primary, and when needed, the date the transaction was initiated as secondary.

Here's an example. Note that a secondary date will use the year of the primary date if unspecified.

2010/2/23=2/19 movie ticket
  expenses:cinema                   $10
$ hledger register checking
2010/02/23 movie ticket         assets:checking                $-10         $-10
$ hledger register checking --date2
2010/02/19 movie ticket         assets:checking                $-10         $-10

Secondary dates require some effort; you must use them consistently in your journal entries and remember whether to use or not use the --date2 flag for your reports. They are included in hledger for Ledger compatibility, but posting dates are a more powerful and less confusing alternative.

Posting dates

You can give individual postings a different date from their parent transaction, by adding a posting comment containing a tag (see below) like date:DATE. This is probably the best way to control posting dates precisely. Eg in this example the expense should appear in May reports, and the deduction from checking should be reported on 6/1 for easy bank reconciliation:

    expenses:food     $10   ; food purchased on saturday 5/30
    assets:checking         ; bank cleared it on monday, date:6/1
$ hledger -f t.j register food
2015/05/30                      expenses:food                  $10           $10
$ hledger -f t.j register checking
2015/06/01                      assets:checking               $-10          $-10

DATE should be a simple date; if the year is not specified it will use the year of the transaction's date. You can set the secondary date similarly, with date2:DATE2. The date: or date2: tags must have a valid simple date value if they are present, eg a date: tag with no value is not allowed.

Ledger's earlier, more compact bracketed date syntax is also supported: [DATE], [DATE=DATE2] or [=DATE2]. hledger will attempt to parse any square-bracketed sequence of the 0123456789/-.= characters in this way. With this syntax, DATE infers its year from the transaction and DATE2 infers its year from DATE.

Account names

Account names typically have several parts separated by a full colon, from which hledger derives a hierarchical chart of accounts. They can be anything you like, but in finance there are traditionally five top-level accounts: assets, liabilities, income, expenses, and equity.

Account names may contain single spaces, eg: assets:accounts receivable. Because of this, they must always be followed by two or more spaces (or newline).

Account names can be aliased.


After the account name, there is usually an amount. Important: between account name and amount, there must be two or more spaces.

Amounts consist of a number and (usually) a currency symbol or commodity name. Some examples:

4000 AAPL
3 "green apples"
INR 9,99,99,999.00
EUR -2.000.000,00

As you can see, the amount format is somewhat flexible:

  • amounts are a number (the "quantity") and optionally a currency symbol/commodity name (the "commodity").
  • the commodity is a symbol, word, or phrase, on the left or right, with or without a separating space. If the commodity contains numbers, spaces or non-word punctuation it must be enclosed in double quotes.
  • negative amounts with a commodity on the left can have the minus sign before or after it
  • digit groups (thousands, or any other grouping) can be separated by commas (in which case period is used for decimal point) or periods (in which case comma is used for decimal point)

You can use any of these variations when recording data, but when hledger displays amounts, it will choose a consistent format for each commodity. (Except for price amounts, which are always formatted as written). The display format is chosen as follows:

  • if there is a commodity directive specifying the format, that is used
  • otherwise the format is inferred from the first posting amount in that commodity in the journal, and the precision (number of decimal places) will be the maximum from all posting amounts in that commmodity
  • or if there are no such amounts in the journal, a default format is used (like $1000.00).

Price amounts and amounts in D directives usually don't affect amount format inference, but in some situations they can do so indirectly. (Eg when D's default commodity is applied to a commodity-less amount, or when an amountless posting is balanced using a price's commodity, or when -V is used.) If you find this causing problems, set the desired format with a commodity directive.

Virtual Postings

When you parenthesise the account name in a posting, we call that a virtual posting, which means:

  • it is ignored when checking that the transaction is balanced
  • it is excluded from reports when the --real/-R flag is used, or the real:1 query.

You could use this, eg, to set an account's opening balance without needing to use the equity:opening balances account:

1/1 special unbalanced posting to set initial balance
  (assets:checking)   $1000

When the account name is bracketed, we call it a balanced virtual posting. This is like an ordinary virtual posting except the balanced virtual postings in a transaction must balance to 0, like the real postings (but separately from them). Balanced virtual postings are also excluded by --real/-R or real:1.

1/1 buy food with cash, and update some budget-tracking subaccounts elsewhere
  expenses:food                   $10
  assets:cash                    $-10
  [assets:checking:available]     $10
  [assets:checking:budget:food]  $-10

Virtual postings have some legitimate uses, but those are few. You can usually find an equivalent journal entry using real postings, which is more correct and provides better error checking.

Balance Assertions

hledger supports Ledger-style balance assertions in journal files. These look like =EXPECTEDBALANCE following a posting's amount. Eg in this example we assert the expected dollar balance in accounts a and b after each posting:

  a   $1  =$1
  b       =$-1

  a   $1  =$2
  b  $-1  =$-2

After reading a journal file, hledger will check all balance assertions and report an error if any of them fail. Balance assertions can protect you from, eg, inadvertently disrupting reconciled balances while cleaning up old entries. You can disable them temporarily with the --ignore-assertions flag, which can be useful for troubleshooting or for reading Ledger files.

Assertions and ordering

hledger sorts an account's postings and assertions first by date and then (for postings on the same day) by parse order. Note this is different from Ledger, which sorts assertions only by parse order. (Also, Ledger assertions do not see the accumulated effect of repeated postings to the same account within a transaction.)

So, hledger balance assertions keep working if you reorder differently-dated transactions within the journal. But if you reorder same-dated transactions or postings, assertions might break and require updating. This order dependence does bring an advantage: precise control over the order of postings and assertions within a day, so you can assert intra-day balances.

Assertions and included files

With included files, things are a little more complicated. Including preserves the ordering of postings and assertions. If you have multiple postings to an account on the same day, split across different files, and you also want to assert the account's balance on the same day, you'll have to put the assertion in the right file.

Assertions and multiple -f options

Balance assertions don't work well across files specified with multiple -f options. Use include or concatenate the files instead.

Assertions and commodities

The asserted balance must be a simple single-commodity amount, and in fact the assertion checks only this commodity's balance within the (possibly multi-commodity) account balance. We could call this a partial balance assertion. This is compatible with Ledger, and makes it possible to make assertions about accounts containing multiple commodities.

To assert each commodity's balance in such a multi-commodity account, you can add multiple postings (with amount 0 if necessary). But note that no matter how many assertions you add, you can't be sure the account does not contain some unexpected commodity. (We'll add support for this kind of total balance assertion if there's demand.)

Assertions and subaccounts

Balance assertions do not count the balance from subaccounts; they check the posted account's exclusive balance. For example:

  checking:fund   1 = 1  ; post to this subaccount, its balance is now 1
  checking        1 = 1  ; post to the parent account, its exclusive balance is now 1

The balance report's flat mode shows these exclusive balances more clearly:

$ hledger bal checking --flat
                   1  checking
                   1  checking:fund

Assertions and virtual postings

Balance assertions are checked against all postings, both real and virtual. They are not affected by the --real/-R flag or real: query.

Balance Assignments

Ledger-style balance assignments are also supported. These are like balance assertions, but with no posting amount on the left side of the equals sign; instead it is calculated automatically so as to satisfy the assertion. This can be a convenience during data entry, eg when setting opening balances:

; starting a new journal, set asset account balances 
2016/1/1 opening balances
  assets:checking            = $409.32
  assets:savings             = $735.24
  assets:cash                 = $42
  equity:opening balances

or when adjusting a balance to reality:

; no cash left; update balance, record any untracked spending as a generic expense
  assets:cash    = $0

The calculated amount depends on the account's balance in the commodity at that point (which depends on the previously-dated postings of the commodity to that account since the last balance assertion or assignment). Note that using balance assignments makes your journal a little less explicit; to know the exact amount posted, you have to run hledger or do the calculations yourself, instead of just reading it.


Transaction prices

Within a transaction posting, you can record an amount's price in another commodity. This can be used to document the cost (for a purchase), or selling price (for a sale), or the exchange rate that was used, for this transaction. These transaction prices are fixed, and do not change over time.

Amounts with transaction prices can be displayed in the transaction price's commodity, by using the --cost/-B flag supported by most hledger commands (mnemonic: "cost Basis").

There are several ways to record a transaction price:

  1. Write the unit price (aka exchange rate), as @ UNITPRICE after the amount:

      assets:foreign currency   €100 @ $1.35  ; one hundred euros at $1.35 each
  2. Or write the total price, as @@ TOTALPRICE after the amount:

      assets:foreign currency   €100 @@ $135  ; one hundred euros at $135 for the lot
  3. Or let hledger infer the price so as to balance the transaction. To permit this, you must fully specify all posting amounts, and their sum must have a non-zero amount in exactly two commodities:

      assets:foreign currency   €100          ; one hundred euros
      assets:cash              $-135          ; exchanged for $135

With any of the above examples we get:

$ hledger print -B
    assets:foreign currency       $135.00
    assets:cash                  $-135.00

Example use for transaction prices: recording the effective conversion rate of purchases made in a foreign currency.

Market prices

Market prices are not tied to a particular transaction; they represent historical exchange rates between two commodities. (Ledger calls them historical prices.) For example, the prices published by a stock exchange or the foreign exchange market. Some commands (balance, currently) can use this information to show the market value of things at a given date.

To record market prices, use P directives in the main journal or in an included file. Their format is:


DATE is a simple date as usual. COMMODITYBEINGPRICED is the symbol of the commodity being priced. UNITPRICE is an ordinary amount (symbol and quantity) in a second commodity, specifying the unit price or conversion rate for the first commodity in terms of the second, on the given date.

For example, the following directives say that one euro was worth 1.35 US dollars during 2009, and $1.40 from 2010 onward:

P 2009/1/1 € $1.35
P 2010/1/1 € $1.40


Lines in the journal beginning with a semicolon (;) or hash (#) or asterisk (*) are comments, and will be ignored. (Asterisk comments make it easy to treat your journal like an org-mode outline in emacs.)

Also, anything between comment and end comment directives is a (multi-line) comment. If there is no end comment, the comment extends to the end of the file.

You can attach comments to a transaction by writing them after the description and/or indented on the following lines (before the postings). Similarly, you can attach comments to an individual posting by writing them after the amount and/or indented on the following lines.

Some examples:

# a journal comment

; also a journal comment

This is a multiline comment,
which continues until a line
where the "end comment" string
appears on its own.
end comment

2012/5/14 something  ; a transaction comment
    ; the transaction comment, continued
    posting1  1  ; a comment for posting 1
    ; a comment for posting 2
    ; another comment line for posting 2
; a journal comment (because not indented)


Tags are a way to add extra labels or labelled data to postings and transactions, which you can then search or pivot on.

A simple tag is a word (which may contain hyphens) followed by a full colon, written inside a transaction or posting comment line:

2017/1/16 bought groceries    ; sometag:

Tags can have a value, which is the text after the colon, up to the next comma or end of line, with leading/trailing whitespace removed:

    expenses:food    $10   ; a-posting-tag: the tag value

Note this means hledger's tag values can not contain commas or newlines. Ending at commas means you can write multiple short tags on one line, comma separated:

    assets:checking       ; a comment containing tag1:, tag2: some value ...


  • "a comment containing" is just comment text, not a tag
  • "tag1" is a tag with no value
  • "tag2" is another tag, whose value is "some value ..."

Tags in a transaction comment affect the transaction and all of its postings, while tags in a posting comment affect only that posting. For example, the following transaction has three tags (A, TAG2, third-tag) and the posting has four (those plus posting-tag):

1/1 a transaction  ; A:, TAG2:
    ; third-tag: a third transaction tag, <- with a value
    (a)  $1  ; posting-tag:

Tags are like Ledger's metadata feature, except hledger's tag values are simple strings.

Implicit tags

Some predefined "implicit" tags are also provided:

  • code - the transaction's code field
  • description - the transaction's description
  • payee - the part of description before |, or all of it
  • note - the part of description after |, or all of it

payee and note support descriptions written in a special PAYEE | NOTE format, accessing the parts before and after the pipe character respectively. For descriptions not containing a pipe character they are the same as description.


Account aliases

You can define aliases which rewrite your account names (after reading the journal, before generating reports). hledger's account aliases can be useful for:

  • expanding shorthand account names to their full form, allowing easier data entry and a less verbose journal
  • adapting old journals to your current chart of accounts
  • experimenting with new account organisations, like a new hierarchy or combining two accounts into one
  • customising reports

See also Cookbook: rewrite account names.

Basic aliases

To set an account alias, use the alias directive in your journal file. This affects all subsequent journal entries in the current file or its included files. The spaces around the = are optional:

alias OLD = NEW

Or, you can use the --alias 'OLD=NEW' option on the command line. This affects all entries. It's useful for trying out aliases interactively.

OLD and NEW are full account names. hledger will replace any occurrence of the old account name with the new one. Subaccounts are also affected. Eg:

alias checking = assets:bank:wells fargo:checking
# rewrites "checking" to "assets:bank:wells fargo:checking", or "checking:a" to "assets:bank:wells fargo:checking:a"
Regex aliases

There is also a more powerful variant that uses a regular expression, indicated by the forward slashes. (This was the default behaviour in hledger 0.24-0.25):


or --alias '/REGEX/=REPLACEMENT'.

REGEX is a case-insensitive regular expression. Anywhere it matches inside an account name, the matched part will be replaced by REPLACEMENT. If REGEX contains parenthesised match groups, these can be referenced by the usual numeric backreferences in REPLACEMENT. Note, currently regular expression aliases may cause noticeable slow-downs. (And if you use Ledger on your hledger file, they will be ignored.) Eg:

alias /^(.+):bank:([^:]+)(.*)/ = \1:\2 \3
# rewrites "assets:bank:wells fargo:checking" to  "assets:wells fargo checking"
Multiple aliases

You can define as many aliases as you like using directives or command-line options. Aliases are recursive - each alias sees the result of applying previous ones. (This is different from Ledger, where aliases are non-recursive by default). Aliases are applied in the following order:

  1. alias directives, most recently seen first (recent directives take precedence over earlier ones; directives not yet seen are ignored)
  2. alias options, in the order they appear on the command line
end aliases

You can clear (forget) all currently defined aliases with the end aliases directive:

end aliases

account directive

The account directive predefines account names, as in Ledger and Beancount. This may be useful for your own documentation; hledger doesn't make use of it yet.

; account ACCT

account assets:bank:checking
 a comment

account expenses:food

; etc.

apply account directive

You can specify a parent account which will be prepended to all accounts within a section of the journal. Use the apply account and end apply account directives like so:

apply account home

    food    $10

end apply account

which is equivalent to:

    home:food           $10
    home:cash          $-10

If end apply account is omitted, the effect lasts to the end of the file. Included files are also affected, eg:

apply account business
include biz.journal
end apply account
apply account personal
include personal.journal

Prior to hledger 1.0, legacy account and end spellings were also supported.

Multi-line comments

A line containing just comment starts a multi-line comment, and a line containing just end comment ends it. See comments.

commodity directive

The commodity directive predefines commodities (currently this is just informational), and also it may define the display format for amounts in this commodity (overriding the automatically inferred format).

It may be written on a single line, like this:


; display AAAA amounts with the symbol on the right, space-separated,
; using period as decimal point, with four decimal places, and
; separating thousands with comma.
commodity 1,000.0000 AAAA

or on multiple lines, using the "format" subdirective. In this case the commodity symbol appears twice and should be the same in both places:

; commodity SYMBOL

; display indian rupees with currency name on the left,
; thousands, lakhs and crores comma-separated,
; period as decimal point, and two decimal places.
commodity INR
  format INR 9,99,99,999.00

Default commodity

The D directive sets a default commodity (and display format), to be used for amounts without a commodity symbol (ie, plain numbers). (Note this differs from Ledger's default commodity directive.) The commodity and display format will be applied to all subsequent commodity-less amounts, or until the next D directive.

# commodity-less amounts should be treated as dollars
# (and displayed with symbol on the left, thousands separators and two decimal places)
D $1,000.00

  a     5    # <- commodity-less amount, becomes $1

Default year

You can set a default year to be used for subsequent dates which don't specify a year. This is a line beginning with Y followed by the year. Eg:

Y2009      ; set default year to 2009

12/15      ; equivalent to 2009/12/15
  expenses  1

Y2010      ; change default year to 2010

2009/1/30  ; specifies the year, not affected
  expenses  1

1/31       ; equivalent to 2010/1/31
  expenses  1

Including other files

You can pull in the content of additional journal files by writing an include directive, like this:

include path/to/file.journal

If the path does not begin with a slash, it is relative to the current file. Glob patterns (*) are not currently supported.

The include directive can only be used in journal files. It can include journal, timeclock or timedot files, but not CSV files.


Add-on modes exist for various text editors, to make working with journal files easier. They add colour, navigation aids and helpful commands. For hledger users who edit the journal file directly (the majority), using one of these modes is quite recommended.

These were written with Ledger in mind, but also work with hledger files:

Emacs Vim Sublime Text Textmate Text Wrangler