Tutorial: Accounting basics and further study

Here we'll give a quick hledger-oriented intro to some useful accounting concepts, using the journal file created in Tutorial: hledger add. Also we'll discuss account hierarchy in hledger. At the end, there's a collection of useful links to learn more.

Debits and Credits

Double-entry bookkeeping traditionally names movements of money as "debits" or "credits". As an error-checking mechanism, the debits must exactly balance the credits, both within each individual transaction and over all transactions.

Signed numbers

hledger and most other plain text accounting tools use positive and negative sign instead of the debit and credit labels. This is essentially the same system, but most people find it easier to learn than the debit/credit terminology. Positive numbers are debits, negative numbers are credits, and within each transaction (and over all transactions) the sum of amounts must be zero.

As a consequence in hledger and similar PTA tools, it's common for reports to show equity, liability, and revenue (income) balances as negative numbers. (Some hledger reports/options can show them as positive for readability.)

Here is Ledger's discussion of this.

Assets, Liabilities and Equity

Accounting describes the status of a business, person or other entity at any point in time in terms of three amounts:

  • Assets - Things owned
  • Liabilities - Things owed
  • Equity - The amount invested by owners/shareholders

The foundation of double-entry accounting is the accounting equation, which says Equity is always equal to Assets minus Liabilities (or, Net Assets).

This is also written as: Assets = Liabilities + Equity. Another way to say it: what the entity owns is funded either by debt or by the capital provided by its owners.

These three are called the Balance Sheet accounts. Their balances summarise the overall financial status at some point in time.

Revenue and Expenses

Two more amounts are used to describe changes in the above during a given period:

  • Revenue - Money flowing in
  • Expenses - Money flowing out

You may be accustomed to using the word Income instead Revenue. That's fine, just remember that Income is sometimes used to mean Net Income, which is Revenue - Expenses.

These two are called the Income Statement accounts. The balances they accumulate during some period of time indicate the inflows and outflows during that period (which will affect the Assets and Liabilities balances).

Chart of Accounts

Five numbers do not give a lot of detail. If you want to know what portion of expenses went to buy food, you could add up just the transactions with (say) "supermarket" in their description. You know how to do this with hledger:

$ hledger register desc:supermarket expenses
2015/05/25 trip to the super..  expenses                       $10           $10

But descriptions are irregular, and as you can see we missed the $5 purchase on the following day.

Instead, the major "top-level" accounts above are subdivided into subaccounts which can be used in transactions, thereby categorising them in a more structured way. If needed, these subaccounts can be subdivided further. This tree of accounts is called the Chart of Accounts. Here's a simple example where assets, revenue and expenses each have a few subaccounts:

  business income
  gifts received

In some organisations and accounting systems (eg, QuickBooks), the tree structure is de-emphasised, so the above is represented more like:

 Account name      Account type
 checking          ASSET
 cash              ASSET
 business income   REVENUE
 gifts received    REVENUE
 food              EXPENSE
 rent              EXPENSE
 supplies          EXPENSE

In others, the tree structure is encoded as decimal account numbers, something like this:

1000 assets
1100   checking
1200   cash
2000 liabilities
3000 equity
4000 revenue
4100   business income
4200   gifts received
5000 expenses
5100   food
5200   rent
5300   supplies

A digression: subaccounts in hledger

With hledger, tree structure is implied by writing account names like ACCOUNT:SUBACCOUNT. Try it: edit your journal file and change the account names like so:

$ cat ~/.hledger.journal

2015/05/25 trip to the supermarket
    expenses:supplies           $10
    assets:checking            $-10

2015/05/26 forgot the bread
    expenses:food            $5

hledger will infer the chart of accounts from these names. The accounts command will list all accounts posted to:

$ hledger accounts

and accounts --tree will show the tree structure, indenting subaccounts below their parents (and eliding the common part of their names):


Conversely, the balance command shows the tree structure by default:

$ hledger balance
                $-15  assets
                 $-5    cash
                $-10    checking
                 $15  expenses
                  $5    food
                 $10    supplies

As you can see, the balance reported for parent accounts includes the balances of any subaccounts (it would also include any postings to the parent account itself.)

To see full account names in a flat list, use --flat:

$ hledger balance --flat
                 $-5  assets:cash
                $-10  assets:checking
                  $5  expenses:food
                 $10  expenses:supplies

hledger accepts whatever account names you choose, so you can use as much or as little account hierarchy as you need. Most users have at least two levels of accounts. You can limit the amount of detail in a balance report by hiding accounts below a certain depth:

$ hledger balance --depth 1
                $-15  assets
                 $15  expenses