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Setting Up Your Chart of Accounts

While installing your new accounting software you have most likely been asked whether you would like to use one of the default charts of accounts included with the program or develop your own. Unless you are very familiar with setting up a set of financial books you will want to choose from one of the selections offered. And even if you have the experience choosing one of the defaults will save you a great deal of time. But you may ask what if I don't need all these accounts and how do I know which accounts I should keep. And should I use a numbering system or not? Let me help you by explaining just what a Chart of Accounts is and how to adjust the default list to your needs.

First of all a Chart of Accounts in its simplest definition is a list of accounts used to track all financial transactions that flow through a business. This list is typically broken in to eight segments: Assets, Liabilities, Equity, Income, Cost of Goods Sold, General and Administrative Expenses, Other Income and Other Expenses. You might see Equity referred to as Capital, Cost of Goods Sold referred to as Direct Costs, and General and Administrative Expenses referred to as Expenses. Companies that wish to track Sales Expenses such as commissions, salaries and related expenses of sales personnel and other costs related directly to sales activity might also add a Sales Expense segment.

The first three segments represent the accounts you will find on a Balance Sheet and they will be broken down into sub-segments. Under Assets you will find sub-segments for Current Assets, Fixed Assets and sometimes Other Assets. Current Assets accounts are used for assets that can be readily liquidated into cash, such as cash, investments, accounts and notes receivables, and deposits. You may choose when setting up more than one cash account or receivable account to create a further segment. This will allow you to summarize all your cash accounts, for example, on your balance sheet while keeping a separate recording account for each bank account. Fixed Assets accounts are used to record the cost of items purchased that have a useful life that extends beyond one year. The Fixed Assets segment also includes contra-accounts (reduction of the value of an asset) that are used to record the depreciation of your fixed assets. These contra-accounts are typically named "Allowance for Depreciation - (name of type of fixed asset)". You should have a fixed asset account and corresponding depreciation account for each type of fixed asset you purchase. Some examples are vehicles, office equipment and furniture, building or leasehold improvements. The Other Assets segment is used for all other types of assets.

Likewise the Liabilities segment is broken into Current Liabilities and Long-Term Liabilities. Current liabilities represent the company's liabilities that are to be paid in less than one year. Examples are Accounts Payable, Payroll Tax Liabilities, and Note Payables. Long Term Liabilities represent liabilities that are to be paid over a longer term than one year such as mortgages, vehicles loans and other long term debt.

The third segment of the balance sheet is the Equity, or Capital, segment. This segment consists of accounts that record the owner's, partners or shareholders investments, draws of profits taken from the company by the investors and the net earnings of the company. For each owner or partner within a business entity there should be an individual investment account and draw account. When a company is incorporated than the capital investment by the shareholders is recorded into capital stock accounts. These accounts may be broken down further if different types of stock are issued. The Retained Earnings account is used to record the profit, or loss, the company has earned from the beginning of its existence. Usually you will not be posting to this account, as this is the account your software program will use to close out your end of year income statement accounts.

Moving on to the Income Statement segments, you will want to have in the Income segment accounts to record each type of income you earn in the course of your business. You may want to break out your sales income into more than one account if you have more than one type of service or product. For example if you are a general contractor you may want to track how sales compare between remodeling and new homes.

Cost of Goods Sold or Direct Costs are those expenses that relate directly to the sale of a product or service. Again if you are a contractor these typically would include payroll and payroll expenses of your workers, materials, subcontractors, permits, general liability and workman's compensation insurance, equipment rentals, etc. They would not include rent or office supplies.

General and Administrative Expenses are business expenses incurred that are not dependent on the sale of a product or service. They include rent, phone, office payroll and payroll expenses, employee benefits, office supplies, utilities, etc.

Other Income typically includes non-sales income such as interest income. Federal and State Income Taxes and any related interest and penalty expenses are what you will find in the Other Expense segment.

Now that you have an idea of how a Chart of Accounts if typically set up, how do you pick and choose what accounts to keep and which to delete? Print out the default list and go through it choosing the accounts you think you will need. You will need at least one cash account, an account receivable and accounts payable account. If you do not have employees and don't ever expect to have any than by all means delete all accounts with payroll in the name.