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Ledger, a powerful CLI accounting tool (ledger-cli.org)
124 points by mercurial 1111 days ago | hide | past | web | 53 comments | favorite



I'm President of the Software Freedom Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity that provides a home for Open Source and Free Software projects.

We've used Ledger-CLI since around mid-2008. We currently have 137,677 lines of ASCII Ledger-CLI data. We're thus likely the largest Ledger data set in real-world operations on the planet.

We switched to Ledger-CLI simply because it was the only Free Software accounting tool that had the flexibility to handle the complex area of non-profit accounting called "fiscal sponsorship", which is the primary purpose of our organization.

However, the fact is, I keep the books myself because Ledger-CLI gives you an excellent set of books that only a hacker could love. That said, our accountants after a few annual audits that were painful, this year absolutely love our reporting and find our audit a breeze (see the contrib/ area of Ledger-CLI's repository for the scripts we use for reporting).

Our biggest challenge now is that we are growing and need a programmer who can use Emacs, the command line, and revision control systems to keep our books isn't scalable. We need a better UI for both data entry and reporting to make this work.

As such, Conservancy last year started raising funds to build a better accounting system for non-profit organizations on top of ledger: https://sfconservancy.org/campaign/

It's slow going, but I recently announced that I'll be spending 50% of my time on the project, and we hope we'll get more donations as time goes on. We're focused on what non-profit orgs need first, but long term, we'd like to build an accounting application that will "last". We did a survey of all the known Open Source and Free Software accounting applications, and frankly we found them all lacking for various reasons: either they try to do too much and fail to get the accounting done right, or they are just poorly designed: http://npoacct.sfconservancy.org/ExistingProjects/


I'll be keen to see the nature of UI and reporting tools that emerge from this exercise.

I currently use TurboCash, which is a Windows-based accounting solution that works well for me, but I am keen to move away from Windows entirely and on that front Ledger is currently top on my list.


Ledger inspired hledger, written in Haskell: http://hledger.org/


Also noting hledger has a cooler web interface, whereas others built projects with a ledger backend. Ledger is CLI only.

http://hledger.org/manual#web


Well, the more the merrier. Apart from the web interface, it doesn't seem to be quite as full-featured (eg, no typed metadata), but I may try out one of these days.

I'd like to note that ledger's manual is second to none. More documentation like this, please.


hledger author here. It is a bit less featureful than Ledger, partly by necessity (it's younger, I'm slower) and partly by design. My priorities are slightly different from John's.

That said, hledger does have features Ledger doesn't (aside from being a haskell project, which I see as a significant long-term feature). Some of hledger's experiments have found their way back into Ledger, also.

Also by design, hledger is very compatible with a subset of Ledger, so that you can keep journal files that work with both.


As I said above, I welcome more software like this, it's a very nice trend (I noticed Python and Perl implementations as well).


https://github.com/jimktrains/freebooks is something I started working on a while ago. It stores everything inside git commits and signs each transaction. My goal was/is to make it distributed such that my wife and I can enter transactions separately and then merge them at some later point.


blockchain? :)


No reason you couldn't use a block chain. freebooks is designed for a handful of trusted users, so I thought git was a better choice.


The reasons why I tried and failed with ledger:

- I never quite understood how to 'start' the ledger balance. Should I start on the first of the year when my account was at $56 or today when it's at $76 ... where does this $ come from?

but probably more this:

- I found it super laborious to enter transactions. I guess I grew up post-checkbook but when I'm not near my computer for a few days and have a pocketful (or not) of transactions to enter, I would get behind and then just give up. Even with logging into my bank account to cheat.

- Investments man. How does one track dividends, buy/selling in a text file. I probably need to take a finance class... :)


> I never quite understood how to 'start' the ledger balance. Should I start on the first of the year when my account was at $56 or today when it's at $76 ... where does this $ come from?

Whenever, it doesn't matter. Its just an opening balance. [1]

> I found it super laborious to enter transactions. I guess I grew up post-checkbook but when I'm not near my computer for a few days and have a pocketful (or not) of transactions to enter, I would get behind and then just give up. Even with logging into my bank account to cheat.

Yeah, the hard part of tracking finances, regardless of system, is the discipline of actually keeping up with it.

> Investments man. How does one track dividends, buy/selling in a text file. I probably need to take a finance class... :)

The ledger manual actually covers tracking investments in some detail.

[1] http://ledger-cli.org/3.0/doc/ledger3.html#Starting-up


> - I found it super laborious to enter transactions. I guess I grew up post-checkbook but when I'm not near my computer for a few days and have a pocketful (or not) of transactions to enter, I would get behind and then just give up. Even with logging into my bank account to cheat.

I had the exact same gripes with ledger. Although there are means to pull csv-data from most banks, one still would have to categorize the entries on each import into ledger.

There is https://github.com/cantino/reckon which claims to solve this by automatically sorting entries into the correct accounts by means of Bayesian learning. Sadly the machine learning worked unreliably with my data - I would still have to manually sort many of the recurring and previously "tagged" entries into the proper account each time they came up in the csv-file.


This is perceived as a big problem by many people. Here are some current options:

CSV:

You download CSV data from your bank (manually, probably). Then you convert it to ledger journal format using one of a number of tools: CSV2Ledger, reckon, Ledger, hledger (both have CSV support built in by now), or something you write yourself. This data is "single-entry" and doesn't know about your chart of accounts, so you augment and translate it into more useful general journal entries. There are several approaches being explored:

- rule-based - you set up rules, matching patterns in the description, which assign accounts and balancing postings. Eg: CSV2Ledger, hledger (currently; eg http://hledger.org/manual#csv-files).

- history-based - the CSV description is matched against transactions already in the journal, and the most similar one is used as a template to flesh out the new transaction. Eg: Ledger (http://ledger-cli.org/3.0/doc/ledger3.html#The-_003csamp_003...).

- artificial intelligence - I seem to remember reckon does something else more clever ?

OFX:

- manual download - as above, but you download an OFX file. OFX records provide more structure than CSV but still need to be fleshed out. ledger-autosync does this, using history matching. It also skips transactions you've already saved to the journal, avoiding duplicates.

- automatic download - ledger-autosync can also handle the download, if your bank provides OFX Direct Connect. This is the most automated option at the moment, recommended. I pull transactions daily from Wells Fargo this way (though I'm going to quit one of these days since they charge too much for it).

GNUCash:

- In the distant past, ledger could read GNUCash files directly, so you could enter with GNUCash and report with ledger. This feature is long gone, but you might be able to get it working with an old Ledger version, and `print` into a journal file you can then use with modern *ledger.

Converting from other finance apps, eg mobile ones:

- As above, you might find adhoc ways to import from apps with nicer data entry. Eg use the iXpensit Pro app on iphone, export the CSV, convert that, add crazy automation duct tape until it's "smooth".

hledger web:

- hledger-web has an add form. It's not very good, but it's in your browser, and if you're really keen you could set it up to be accessible from your smartphone.

hledger add:

- hledger's built-in add command does assisted (history-based, tab completion etc.) interactive data entry on the console. Some folks may find that preferable to editing a text file.

Editor modes:

- for people used to text editors: ledger-mode provides some data entry conveniences for Emacs users, and there's vim-ledger, a ledger bundle for TextMate, etc.

HOWEVER...

If like me you're working on building discipline and insight into your finances, you may find nothing beats manual data entry for a while. You don't get the same awareness when everything is automated.


> - I never quite understood how to 'start' the ledger balance. Should I start on the first of the year when my account was at $56 or today when it's at $76 ... where does this $ come from?

That's not ledger-related, that's double-bookkeeping related. What you want to do is something like:

    2014-07-05 Opening balance
        Assets:Checking         $ 56.00
        Equity:OpeningBalance   $-56.00
Actually, there is, in the wonderful ledger manual, something about that. Of course, Equity:Opening balance will remain forever at -56.00, but that's not a problem.

Wrt to investments, I haven't really explored that part yet, but there is a description of how you're supposed to track your portfolio.


The problem isn't ledger is that you have been spoonfed by GUI applications which do all the work and thinking for you. If you bothered to read the documentation you see all this clearly laid out. Ledger requires you to do your own thinking and some people find that hard. The ledger itself is a set of text files, if you can't figure out how to automate data entry (say excel for bulk data entry, then processing a CSV file) then maybe you're right, ledger isn't for you.


This reply seems to me unnecessarily rude. Looking back at your comment history, there's a lot of this -- starting comments with "Do pay attention", saying "If ... then you don't understand enough to have an opinion on this topic", "This is complete rubbish", etc.

Allow me to remind you of the following paragraph from the official HN commenting guidelines:

When disagreeing, please reply to the argument instead of calling names. E.g. "That is an idiotic thing to say; 1 + 1 is 2, not 3" can be shortened to "1 + 1 is 2, not 3."

As it happens, I agree with you about the likely intellectual deficiencies of at least some of the people you're responding to in this way. But pointing them out in this way is unnecessary and counterproductive, and makes HN incrementally a less pleasant place to be for all of us. Please stop.


> As it happens, I agree with you about the likely intellectual deficiencies of at least some of the people you're responding to in this way. But pointing them out in this way is unnecessary and counterproductive, and makes HN incrementally a less pleasant place to be for all of us. Please stop.

On the other hand epo could just downvote the comment without furnishing a reply or explanation, which is practised by other HN readers. This is a cowardly tactic and is very 'anti-hacker'.


Interesting; I might poke around at Ledger. Recently I just wanted to see what I was spending money on in a few simple graphs graphs, and so hacked together some python and matplotlib: https://github.com/amboar/fpos. fpos doesn't do anything complicated, but allowed me to see where my money was going without me doing too much tedious work.


I'm a big fan of ledger. Very easy to use and very powerful.

One of my first ruby projects was creating a scraper for the Chase mobile website that outputed ledger-compatible text: https://github.com/rkowalick/autobank


Here are some scripts I made for importing transactions into ledger journals from various formats: https://github.com/clehner/ledger-scripts


I have been maintaining a ledger-inspired app in Scala: https://github.com/hrj/abandon

While I loved the main idea in ledger, of having a text-based database of transactions, I was not satisfied with the particulars of the implementation; hence the fork.

You can find a list of all ledger-inspired apps here: https://github.com/ledger/ledger/wiki/Ports


Tried it but I can't shift the spreadsheet mentality. Perhaps I'm getting old and inflexible but literally everything has a brick wall somewhere apart from spreadsheets.

Edit: I did my accounts on an HP48GX until about 2003, bought sage line 100 and hated it, moved to excel 2000 and now libreoffice calc.


While theoretically you can do double-entry bookkeeping in Excel, it's frustrating and error-prone.

Then again for somebody who doesn't see the value of double entry bookkeeping, it's unnecessary anyway, and Excel will do fine.


I do double entry. Accounts as columns, transactions as the first two columns (desc/id and amount) and one transaction per row. Transactions are added to the ledger with a macro and the ledger columns are locked so there is no possibility of human error. One sheet per financial year, balance carried over for all accounts between sheets.

So yes you can do it and no it's not frustrating if you do a little automation...

Compare this to Sage which requires piles of money, time, expertise, maintenance, installation, backup and restore.


Would you mind describing a bit more how this works? I've never seen a double-entry system in Excel that I found workable and sufficiently self-checking to ensure data integrity, but I don't really understand yet how you do it. Where do you keep per-account ledgers? Are that your columns in the sheet? What exactly is done with the macro?

I might have a hard time imagining because I need to translate the terminology from Dutch - am I understanding correctly that 'account' = something like 'Expenses - utilities' or 'Taxes to claim'? How do you make a profit and loss statement, and a balance sheet? Do you use some sort of annotation for your accounts?


Its pretty simple. It took me a while to work it all out. You have one sheet per financial year with the following columns:

Description - text description of transaction.

Date - transaction date.

Ref - invoice ID/cheque number etc.

Amount - transaction amount.

Then there are columns, one for each account which are locked I.e. you can't type in them.

To make a transaction, you enter the transaction details in a new row and add the amount and set the source and destination account on the row (Ctrl+click) each in the correct order. Then run the macro which replaces the source with a formula (-amount) and the destination with (amount) from the row. Note that it uses the formula rather than the value to maintain integrity and allow the value to be retrospectively corrected. You could in theory do VAT accounting with it but I haven't bothered to do that yet.

There are columns for bank, petty cash, expenses, corp tax, PAYE, dividends, invoices etc.

The profit/loss statement is the sum of various columns for the year with some maths. This is updated on the fly by sheet references.

There are row summaries at the top and the first two rows are frozen so you can see the total for each account at any time.

All data is available up front so its pretty easy to do analytics on.

I might write it up properly at some point but that should give you a reasonable overview.

I wouldn't use this on mega high amounts of transactions. I top about 200 a year if I'm busy.

The system is portable between excel, libre office, numbers and Google sheets in theory although I haven't tried the latter yet.


that's pretty awesome. I'm paying one of these accounting cloud services about EUR 600/year. They are ok but they only have a SOAP API to get the data in and I don't want to mess around with that. So I end up preparing all my accounting data in Excel which is mostly automated but it does make me wonder why I'm paying them EUR 600/year in the first place...


I was paying about that to Sage and it didn't work properly and cost me a crap load of time so I've been there as well :)


What is so hard in personal accounting that takes an enourmous quantity of apps, webapps, web services and CLI tools to solve? Is it really worth creating markdown files for each expense and passing them to a "powerful tool"?

I'm asking honestly, not trying to make fun of it somehow.


There are lots of large, flashy programs, but in my cases UX is exceptionally poor and the tools are extremely inflexible.

Take Mint, for example. It is impossible to have an overall budget. You can only set budgets per category. There does not appear to be a modern tool that will show me a progress bar of where I am on spending per month. Every option I've ever seen requires budgets to be set per category.

There are lots of different ways people want to see data, and many of these flashy/polished tools (like Mint, Simple, whatever) give a giant "fuck you" to anyone who doesn't think in exactly the way the program was designed.


YNAB should fit your needs well - I know it does for me. Using YNAB after trying(and failing, mainly because it doesn't support my currency/location)Mint.

https://www.youneedabudget.com/


> markdown files for each expense

Not sure where you got that. It's a single file with many transactions laid out in a straightforward double-entry accounting format.

I'm a developer, so the draw for me is that that I can write a few scripts to translate my various online accounts' downloadable formats into the simple text format while automatically adding in expense categories based on regex. I can't do that with any other apps I've seen.


Its not so much that it "so hard", its just a common need where one of the key issues is working with individuals preferred workflows, which are highly fsubjective -- so there are lots of tools that serve the needs of different people.


It isn't about it being hard, it's about a collection of well sorted data making it possible to answer more questions.


I spent 10-15 hours (mostly in Ledger) figuring out what my Bitcoin tax liability was. Not (mostly) Ledger's fault that it took so long. Now that I know what I'm doing, I should be able to do this year in just a few hours.


Ledger appears to be the "prescribed" way to do accounting natively in Bitcoin/other cryptocurrencies as well. I investigated this earlier this year. Quicken is out, no support and no way to add it in. And I found that GNUCash can't handle bitcoin's level of divisibility, and is tied to ISO currency codes. Ledger doesn't care about any of that.


What do you mean by 'divisibility'?


Probably the use of tiny fractions of a Bitcoin in transactions.


Thanks for posting this, it's new to me! I was just thinking about trying to find a new double-entry accounting system (no joke). The last time I did a proper budget it was with Apple Numbers, which was not very satisfying.


This project is very interesting to me. I work for a company that develops a SaaS accounting solution, and I've wanted to work on a CLI suite for posting and auditing tools.


Ledger has been on my TBD list for a while. Been meaning to implement a project with it. Now may be a good time.


John Wiegly is an amazing, prolific and intelligent programmer. Very inspiring.


Been using this for over a year, since the last time I saw it on HN...


Would love to hear how you like it, as well as what you previously were using (or would be using instead).


Can you please share your experience? How you use it, what works and what not?


Ledger is awesome, but hardly new...What's the news here?


Agree, but I think it's ok if cool stuff is posted again every so often. There are always people who didn't see it last time around.

It's funny, I found ledger to be WAY easier to learn and use than QuickBooks, which just completely baffled me. Yet QuickBooks is the leading system for small business.


I haven't used QuickBooks, but I think most people would stop at "open the terminal". Probably even my partner, and she is running Debian. That said, it turns out that a flexible custom text file format, combined with well thought-out concepts and powerful commands, blows out of the water most widget-heavy UIs in terms of ease of use. It's unfortunate that more people don't realize it.

Of course, the stellar documentation helps too.


> That said, it turns out that a flexible custom text file format, combined with well thought-out concepts and powerful commands, blows out of the water most widget-heavy UIs in terms of ease of use. It's unfortunate that more people don't realize it.

I think more people "don't realize it" because "ease of use" is subjective rather than objective, and for many people, a custom text file format, even combined with well-thought out concepts and powerful commands, doesn't blow widget-heavy UIs out of the water.


The problem is usually when you have to give your books to your accountant / tax preparer, and not using the standard is painful.


It's not new, but I wasn't aware of it until a few days ago, after rage-quitting gnucash in frustration, and I figured some HN folks would appreciate reading about it. It's the first accounting app which doesn't trigger homicidal tendencies when I use it.


> Ledger is awesome, but hardly new...What's the news here?

It isn't SAGE.




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