Gnucash 2.4 Small Business Accounting: Beginner's Guide — Save 50%
Manage your accounts with this desktop financial manager application
GnuCash is a personal and small business bookkeeping and accounting software. Designed to be easy to use, yet powerful and flexible, GnuCash allows you to track bank accounts, income, and expenses. As quick and intuitive to use as a checkbook register, it is based on professional accounting principles to ensure balanced books and accurate reports.
In this article by Ashok Ramachandran, author of Gnucash 2.4 Small Business Accounting: Beginner's Guide, we will:
- Walk through the steps to install GnuCash on a Windows PC
- Quickly create the "Table of contents" for the accounts of a typical small business
- Learn how to tweak this "Table of contents" further to suit the needs of your specific business
- Enter account opening balances
- Output this "Table of contents" to send to your accountant for review
- Review the strengths and limitations of GnuCash
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How do I pronounce GnuCash?
Some people use the proper "Guh-noo-cash" and others prefer the easier "NewCash". Go by whatever works for you.
Installing GnuCash on Windows
Before you can use GnuCash, you have to install it. We will walk you through the steps needed to get it installed successfully on your Windows PC, whether you have Windows 7, Vista, or XP.
Time for action – installing GnuCash on Windows
Let us go through the steps for downloading and installing GnuCash:
- GnuCash is an open source software developed by volunteers, often for their own use, and shared with the community. It can be downloaded for free. Download the latest stable release of the installer for Microsoft Windows XP/Vista/7 from the www.gnucash.org website. The file should have a name like gnucash-2.4.1- setup.exe. The size of the file should be about 90MB. Save the file to a convenient location on your PC, such as the Temp folder in your C drive.
The GnuCash website will also have other development versions of the software. These are unstable and are for testing purposes only. These are not suitable for business use. Make sure you download the stable release.
- Launch the GnuCash setup program by double-clicking this file in Windows Explorer.
Windows security might pop a message like The publisher could not be verified. Are you sure you want to run this software? or Do you want to allow the following program from an unknown publisher to make changes to this computer?. Click on Run or Yes to continue.
- The language selection dialog will appear with English already selected. Click on OK to continue.
- The Welcome screen of the GnuCash setup wizard will appear. Close any other application that may be running and click on Next.
- The License Agreement will appear. Select I accept the agreement and click on Next.
- The location dialog will show that GnuCash will be installed in C:\Program Files \ gnucash. It will also tell you how much free space is required on your hard disk for installing the program (about 350 MB). Make sure you have the required free space and click on Next.
On Windows 7, the default location will be C:\Program Files (x86)\gnucash.
- The next screen will show that a Full Installation will be done. Click on Next to continue.
- The next screen will show that a GnuCash folder will be created for the menu items. Click on Next to continue.
- The next screen will show that a desktop icon and a start menu link will be created. Click on Next to continue.
- The next screen is simply a recap of all the selections made by you so far. Click on Install to start the installation. This may take several minutes, giving you time for a coffee break.
- When the installation is completed successfully, you should see a window with the title Information. Click on Next to continue.
- Next, the Completing the GnuCash Setup Wizard window will appear. The Run GnuCash now box will be checked. Click on Finish to complete the installation. The GnuCash Tip of the Day will pop up. You can close this.
- You should see the Welcome to GnuCash window with Create a new set of accounts checked. We are going to do that soon. But for now, click on Cancel.
- Say No to the Display Welcome Dialog Again? question. You should see the Unsaved book – GnuCash window:
What just happened?
Congratulations! You have just installed GnuCash successfully and you are ready to start learning, hands-on, how to use it.
Other operating systems
In addition to Windows, GnuCash runs on Mac OS X (on the newer Intel as well as the older Power PC) and several flavors of Linux. If you have one of those operating systems, you can download the install package and get installation instructions for those operating systems from the GnuCash.org website.
Other download locations
In addition to the GnuCash.org website, you can also download GnuCash from popular open source repositories such as SourceForge. Wherever you download from, be careful that you are downloading from a genuine site and that the download is free of viruses and malware.
But first, a tip to make your life easier with auto-save
Before we start the main show, here is a quick tip to make your life easier. GnuCash has a friendly feature to auto-save changes every few minutes. Some people find this very useful while entering transactions. However, at the time of going through the tutorial, you don't want this auto-save to kick in. Why? You want to have some breathing time to recover from any errors and correct any mistakes and then save it at your convenience. It is even possible, heaven forbid, that you might want to abandon the changes instead of trying to rectify them. To do this, you might want to exit GnuCash without saving the changes. So, let us politely tell GnuCash, "STOP HELPING ME"!
Launch the GnuCash Preferences dialog from Edit | Preferences. Select the General tab. As shown in the following image, set the Auto-save time interval to 0 minutes. By setting this to 0, the auto-save feature is turned off. Also, uncheck the Show auto-save confirmation question, if it is checked. As we said, users have found that this ability to auto-save is a big life saver. So, don't forget to turn this back on when you are done with the tutorials and start keeping your business books.
Taking the drudgery out of setting up accounts
Even the smallest of businesses may need as many as a hundred accounts. If your business is somewhat larger, you may need to create a lot more than a hundred accounts. Am I going to make you create that many accounts one by one?
No, I am going to show you how you can create the entire set of accounts needed for a typical small business in under a dozen clicks.
Time for action – creating the default business accounts
We are going to create the account hierarchy for our sample business, Mid Atlantic Computer Services (MACS). This will give you the hands-on feel to create accounts for your business, when you are ready to do that.
- Select from the menu File | New | New File. This will launch the New Account Hierarchy Setup assistant.
GnuCash uses the term assistant to describe what you may have seen in other Windows applications called a wizard. Assistants help you perform tasks that are complex or not frequently performed. Assistants present you with a sequence of dialog boxes that lead you through a series of well-defined steps.
- Click on Forward to go to the Choose Currency screen.
- You will find that US Dollar is selected by default. You can leave it as it is and click Forward to go to the Choose accounts to create screen.
- You will find that Common Accounts is checked by default. This option is for users who want to set up personal accounts. We want to set up a business account. So, uncheck this and check Business Accounts, as shown in the next screenshot and then click on Forward:
- In the Setup selected accounts screen, click on the Checking Account line and it will become highlighted. Click under the Opening Balance column in this line, a text box will appear allowing you to enter data. Enter an opening balance of 2000, as shown in the next screenshot, tab out, and click on Forward.
- In the Finish Account Setup screen, click on Apply.
- With the previous step, the New Account Hierarchy Setup assistant has completed its job. You should now be back in the GnuCash main window showing the freshly minted set of accounts with the title Unsaved Book - Accounts.
- The Save As dialog should open. If it doesn't, select File | Save As… change the Save in folder to your desired folder, put in the filename MACS without any extension, and click on Save As. If your screen looks like the following screenshot, you have now successfully created the default business account hierarchy for MACS:
Most Windows applications require you to save files with a 3 or 4 letter extension. Microsoft Word, for example, requires a .docx or .doc file extension. However, GnuCash uses the longer .gnucash extension. If you fill in the file name, GnuCash will automatically add the .gnucash extension.
What just happened?
There you are. With a small amount of effort, you have not only created a complete set of accounts that would be needed for a typical small business, but you have also learned how to enter opening balances as well. Now that we have that under our belt, let us discuss the key aspects of setting up accounts.
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As you can see in the previous figure, the account named Assets contains two sub-accounts, Currents Assets, and Accounts Receivable. The sub-account Currents Assets in turn contains three sub-accounts, Checking Account, Savings Account, and Petty Cash. Arranging our accounts in this sort of a tree structure is why it is known as the Account Hierarchy.
A GnuCash account can contain transactions as well as other sub-accounts. To extend the example of a book that we used earlier, this is similar to how a chapter in a book can contain some introductory text, several sections, and some summary text.
This Account Hierarchy window is the GnuCash main window. We will also refer to this as the Account Tree window or the Accounts tab.
Minimal set of accounts
"What is the minimal set of accounts that I need, if I want to keep my business accounts simple?" If you want to start small or if you want to practice with a set of starter accounts, here is a minimal set of accounts:
- Assets: All that your business owns will go under this account
- Checking Account
- Liabilities: All that your business owes will go under this account
- Credit Card
- Income: All your business income, including sales and any other income, will go under this account
- Expenses: All your business expenses will be recorded under this account
- Office expenses
- Equity: The money brought in to the business by the owner or partners as equity as well as money taken out of the business by owners or partners as salary, bonus, dividends, and owners' draw will all go under this
- Opening balances
Under Expenses, feel free to change the accounts to suit the kind of expenses your business has.
Here is one way to visualize your accounting system. Think of transactions as business documents. Accounts are like manila folders. Parent accounts are like hanging folders. The top level accounts are like the drawers. And your accounting system is like a five-drawer filing cabinet. Visualize the five drawers labeled Assets, Liabilities, Income, Expenses, and Equity. Once you have arranged and labeled your hanging folders and manila folders inside the drawers, your task is to then put each document that comes in into the appropriate folder in the filing cabinet.
Depending on the size of your business and your need for granular control, you will have to decide how detailed you want your set of accounts to be. You may also want to run it by your accountant and tax consultant to make sure they are comfortable with it. Setting up too few accounts will make it difficult for you to analyze the numbers and take corrective actions. For example, let us say you have travel, entertainment, and office supplies lumped together under a Miscellaneous account. You find that your Miscellaneous expenses for this month are 50 percent higher than last month. What next? You have to spend a lot of time analyzing what caused this unexpected increase in expenditure. On the other hand, setting up too many accounts may overwhelm you, especially if you are a new user.
Can I add and delete accounts as I need them?
Yes, GnuCash lets you do that as and when you want. However, it is not a good idea to keep adding and deleting accounts often. An important aspect of maintaining accounts is to be able to compare expenses, revenue, and so on from month-to-month and from quarter-to-quarter. If the basis has changed, such comparisons with past periods will not be valid.
Getting your business accounts done just right
Isn't it great that you got a lot done with so little effort? Yes, I know what you are thinking. You did get a whole set of business accounts set up with opening balances as well. But when you scrutinize the list, you find that there are some accounts you don't want and others that you must have but which are not in the default set provided by GnuCash. What now?
We will look at how you can tweak it further, by making selective additions, deletions, and changes.
Time for action – fine tuning business accounts
We will now go through the specific steps needed to create a new account, make changes to an existing account, and delete unwanted accounts.
- Creating a new account: For example, you find that you are spending a lot on auto insurance. However, currently there is no separate account for that. So, we are going to go ahead and create a new account for auto insurance. Select File | New | New Account…. The New Account dialog will open. Make sure Expense is selected as the Account Type and Auto is selected as the Parent Account. Enter Auto Insurance in the Account name as well as Description, as shown in the next screenshot, and click on OK.
- Renaming an account: You don't care much for the name Petty Cash for the cash account. You feel people should take cash more seriously than that. You want to change it to Cash. Right-click on the Petty Cash account. From the pop-up menu, select Edit Account. The Edit Account dialog will open. Change the Account name and Description to Cash and click on OK.
- Deleting an account: You have determined that you don't need an account for Outside Services. So, we are going to go ahead and delete that. Scroll down to the Outside Services account, right-click on it, and select Delete Account… from the pop-up menu, as shown in the following screenshot. You will get a warning message that "The account Expenses:Outside Services will be deleted". Go ahead and click on the Delete button to confirm that it is OK to delete it.
What just happened?
This combination of using a template to create a whole bunch of accounts in one go and then making further tweaks through selective additions, deletions, and changes lets you have the best of both worlds. Without wasting too much time, you now have a set of accounts that are just right for your business and named according to your preference as well.
GnuCash has the following 11 account types and we have listed examples of each account type. Of these, Stock and Mutual Fund account types are mainly used for personal accounts. For a business, when creating new accounts, you will typically select from one of the remaining 9 types:
- Bank: Checking Account, Savings Account
- Cash: Petty Cash or Cash
- Asset: Car, Computer, Office Furniture, Equipment & Machinery, Building
- Credit Card: Credit Card (any type)
- Liability: Loan Principal, Sales Tax (collected and to be paid)
- A/Receivable: Accounts Receivable (on credit sales)
- A/Payable: Accounts Payable (on credit purchases)
- Income: Sales, Interest Income, Reimbursed Expenses
- Expense: Rent, Office Supplies, Car Expenses, Travel, Entertainment, Meals, Loan Interest
When you create a new account, you must pick one of these types. This helps GnuCash to treat the accounts appropriately. For example, while entering transactions, an account of type Bank will display 'Deposit' and 'Withdrawal' columns. An account of type Cash will display 'Receive' and 'Spend' columns.
Parent accounts and top level accounts
The different business accounts that you might want to create for your business can be typically placed into one of these five groups:
- Assets: Things that you own. This can include accounts of type Bank, Cash, A/Receivable, and Asset.
- Equity: The net worth of your business. This can include only accounts of type Equity.
- Expenses: Costs incurred in running your business. This can include only accounts of type Expense.
- Income: Revenue you receive for goods supplied and services rendered by your business. This can include only accounts of type Income.
- Liabilities: Things that you owe to others. This can include accounts of type Credit Card, A/Payable, and Liability.
If you study the account hierarchy that you created from the template, you will find that all accounts are grouped under these five accounts. These five accounts are not only parent accounts, they have no parents themselves, thus making them top level accounts.
On the other hand, take a look at the account Auto under Expenses. Auto is a parent account with four child accounts:
- Repairs and maintenance.
But Auto itself has a parent account, namely, Expenses. Thus it is a parent account but not a top level account.
New account creation tips
As you just saw, when you create a new account, you need to select an account type and a parent account. If you highlight the parent account and then open the New Account dialog, the appropriate Account Type and Parent Account will be selected by default.
In addition to selecting File | New | New Account…, there are two other ways of accessing the New Account dialog. You can right-click the parent account and choose New Account from the pop-up menu. Also, when the Account tab is open, you will see a 'New' button on the toolbar. This will also open the same dialog.
Sometimes you may want to create a new top level account for things that do not belong in the default five top level accounts created by the template. For example, you may want to create a new top level account for non-operating revenue to keep it separate from operating revenue. Take a look at the New Account dialog again. You will see that it has an option to select New top level account as the Parent Account.
A GnuCash placeholder account is a special type of parent account that can contain only sub-accounts but no transactions. It is convenient for grouping similar accounts under a common account, but it cannot have any transactions itself. For example, you can have a placeholder account Professional Fees with two sub-accounts under that, namely, Accounting Fees and Legal Fees.
If you are just starting your business, life is simple. Well, that didn't come out right. Abandoning the safety and comfort of a regular pay check can feel like leaving on a one-way trip to Mars. But, from the very narrow point of view of figuring opening balances, you are starting with a clean slate. All opening balances are zero. Nothing has happened yet, business-wise.
But if you are switching from another accounting software, a spreadsheet or even a shoebox, you need to decide on a start date. For example, if you are planning to start using GnuCash as of January 1, 2011, your previous system end date is December 31, 2010. For your bank account, for example, enter the ending balance as on December 31, 2010. You will find this on your bank statement.
Take a look at the create New Account dialog once again; you will see a tab marked Opening Balance. We didn't need an opening balance for the Auto Insurance account that we created. However, if you find that you need to enter an opening balance for the account that you want to create, you can enter that here at the time of creating a new account.
How to impress your accountant
Even though we are trying to keep accounting jargon to a minimum, it is a good idea to be on talking terms with your accountant! And, in order to talk to the accountants, you need to speak their lingo, right? Oh no, not all of it, just enough to get across what you want to get done. So, it is good to know that whatever GnuCash calls the 'account hierarchy', the Accountants call the 'Chart of Accounts'.
If your accountant has GnuCash, you can send a copy of the MACS file that we created earlier. They can open this in their GnuCash application and review.
What if your accountant doesn't have GnuCash?
You can still send it in one of the popular spreadsheet formats such as Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice.org Calc. How will you do that? Go to the Reports menu and select Account Summary. You should now see the complete hierarchy of accounts that we created in a tabular report format. You can copy and paste this into Microsoft Excel and save it as an Excel file. Alternatively, you can paste this into OpenOffice.org Calc and save it as a Calc ODS file. Accountants are typically very heavy users of spreadsheets and, chances are, your accountant should be able to handle one of these.
Here comes the MOST IMPORTANT part. In the e-mail, just say casually, "Here is the draft chart of accounts that I created. When you have a minute, take a quick peek and let me know what you think". That ought to do it.
Strengths and limitations of GnuCash
By now, you know that GnuCash can do business accounting, however, you would like to know how far it can go. For example, you would like to know what type of accounting GnuCash is most suitable for and what kind of accounting it cannot handle.
Business as well as personal accounting
You can use GnuCash for your personal as well as business accounting in the following different ways:
- Work on only your business accounts.
- Work on only your personal accounts.
- Combine your personal accounts and business accounts into one single account. For example, if you have a simple rental type of business, you can keep your rental income and expenses in separate accounts within your personal accounts.
- Maintain your personal accounts as well as your business accounts in separate files. This is because GnuCash saves one account with all of the related transactions in one file. You can open your personal accounts file, enter transactions, and save it. Then you can open your business accounts file, enter transactions...and so on.
This is a description of the capabilities of the software. You should check with your accountant and tax consultant regarding the best course of action for your specific financial and tax situation.
GnuCash is a single user software. Oh, you and your business partner both need access? Your associate will be entering transactions and you must be able to view the reports? You want to know whether there is a way for more than one person to access GnuCash? Yes, there is. As long as you are willing to live with the limitation that only one person can use it at a time.
Sharing a GnuCash accounts file
Here is how two people can share a single GnuCash accounts file. Look for a common folder that both users have access to. This can be a folder on one of the users' PC for which the other user is provided shared access. Or, as shown in the diagram below, it can be a folder on a network file server that both users have access to.
When User A accesses the file, GnuCash will lock that file. If User B tries to open this same file, GnuCash will pop a warning as shown in the following screenshot:
On seeing this message, User B should quit. If User B goes ahead and chooses to Open Anyway, then there is risk of data corruption and data loss. However, this message can also appear if the last time you used GnuCash it closed abnormally. This abnormal closing can occur due to a number of reasons including power failure, application, operating system crash, or other such problems. If that is the case, you must select Open Anyway. In short, when you see this message:
- If you are the only person using it, select Open Anyway.
- If you are sharing it with others, check whether anyone else is using it first.
Accounting features not supported by GnuCash
GnuCash is suitable for small business accounting. Some small businesses need Payroll, Inventory, or Point of Sale (POS) features. However, GnuCash doesn't have integrated payroll, inventory, or POS modules.
Even though GnuCash doesn't have an integrated payroll module, you can create necessary accounts in GnuCash and enter payroll expenses, as needed. In order to work around this limitation, you may choose to use a payroll service provider or a spreadsheet for calculating your payroll.
Business functions other than accounting
Quotations, purchase orders, and other business functions do not result in an accounting transaction. GnuCash is solely devoted to accounting. It doesn't support these other business functions.
We learned a lot in this article about how to set up the accounts needed for a small business.
Specifically, we covered:
- Installing GnuCash on a Windows PC: We walked through the steps involved in downloading and installing GnuCash on a PC running Windows 7, Vista, or XP.
- Creating a set of accounts: We learned how to use the built-in template in GnuCash to quickly create a complete set of accounts needed for a typical small business.
- Tweaking the set of accounts: While the preceding step helped us to make quick progress on setting up accounts, that was not enough. No two businesses are going to be exactly the same. There is always a need to tweak it further. We then looked at how to make account additions, changes, and deletions so that we can get it just right for your special business.
- Entering an opening balance: We also learned how to enter an opening balance to the accounts, whether created from the template or separately, from scratch. We also reviewed different account types, parent accounts, top level accounts, and placeholder accounts.
- Outputting the set of accounts to a spreadsheet: We also figured out how to ship the draft 'Chart of Accounts' to your accountants
- Strengths and limitations of GnuCash: We quickly reviewed the strengths and limitations of GnuCash as well.
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About the Author :
Ashok Ramachandran is a graduate in Mechanical Engineering and has a Masters in Business Management from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. He started with an engineering career, including the running of two small businesses, and then made a mid-career switch to Information Technology (IT). Currently, he is a senior IT executive in the Washington DC area. His penchant for explaining technology to non-technical users and interest in writing culminated in this book. For other open source software suitable for small medium businesses, you can refer to his website http://smb-soft.com.