November 10, 2006

Ledger, the bran muffin of accounting tools

Author: Joe Barr

Ledger is a command-line accounting application for the hardcore financial professional. If you're an MBA who groks Emacs and regular expressions, or a kernel hacker who appreciates tax deferred accruals, you'll love this application.

The following description comes directly from Ledger's home page:

Ledger is an accounting tool with the moxie to exist. It provides no bells or whistles, and returns the user to the days before user interfaces were even a twinkling in their father's CRT. What it does offer is a double-entry accounting ledger with all the flexibility and muscle of its modern day cousins, without any of the fat. Think of it as the Bran Muffin of accounting tools.

Follow the link on the Ledger home page to grab the latest tarball. I needed to add the GMP and PCRE libraries in order to compile Ledger; your mileage may vary. Since I wanted to see how well it worked with GnuCash, I also had to specify --enable-xml and install the requisite XML libraries when configuring.

Ledger does not include a man page, but it does come with its own internal and external docs. For help, enter ledger -H, and prior to that, I recommend you spend some time perusing the manual, included in the tarball as ledger.pdf. For more help, subscribe to the mailing list or join the IRC #ledger channel at Freenode.

Ledger is simple. It's nothing more than a text-based ledger with lightning-fast query and reporting capabilities. All from the CLI, thank you very much. If you believe in Emacs, you'll celebrate the load library included in the download. Even if you're an infidel, using the vi editor, you're not forgotten -- there is a ledger.vim file included as well. Knock yourself out.

If you're not quite that hardcore, you can simply use whatever text editor you prefer: Gedit, for example. Or you can use no text editor at all, by keeping your books with GnuCash and using Ledger only to query and report.

The sample data included with the download gives you an idea of what the native Ledger source data looks like:

= /^Expenses:Books/
  (Liabilities:Taxes)             -0.10

~ Monthly
Assets:Bank:Checking $500.00

2004/05/01 * Checking balance
Assets:Bank:Checking $1,000.00
Equity:Opening Balances

2004/05/01 * Investment balance
Assets:Brokerage 50 AAPL @ $30.00
Equity:Opening Balances

2004/05/14 * Pay day
Assets:Bank:Checking $500.00

2004/05/27 Book Store
Expenses:Books $20.00

2004/05/27 (100) Credit card company
Liabilities:MasterCard $20.00

It looks easy enough, but I have to admit that after a very short while, I gave up on learning how to maintain the ledger in its native form. The call is yours, so long as you can endure the mocking tone of the documentation which describes the inanity of jointly using GnuCash and Ledger.

Enough of how to talk to Ledger -- let's see what Ledger can tell us.


Let's start with a couple of simple balance queries against the included sample data. If we enter ledger -f sample.dat bal, it recaps the ledger like this:

             50 AAPL  Assets
          $-2,500.00  Equity
              $20.00  Expenses
            $-500.00  Income
              $-2.00  Liabilities
             50 AAPL

If we're only interested in the balance of our checking account, we could enter ledger -f sample.dat balance Checking, and see this:

 $1,480.00  Assets:Bank:Checking

Need more detail? Try the register command instead of balance, like this one: ledger -f sample.dat register Checking:

2004/05/01 Checking balance     Assets:Bank:Checking      $1,000.00    $1,000.00
2004/05/14 Pay day              Assets:Bank:Checking        $500.00    $1,500.00
2004/05/27 Credit card company  Assets:Bank:Checking        $-20.00    $1,480.00

What if you only want to know the amount of a certain transaction? In that case, you can construct a query like this, which searches the ledger for entries on a specific date and a match for "Book" as payee:

ledger -f sample.dat 2004/05/27 Book
2004/05/27 Book Store
    Expenses:Books                            $20.00
    Liabilities:MasterCard                   $-20.00
    (Liabilities:Taxes)                       $-2.00

While I've covered only the simplest aspects of Ledger here, the fact remains that Ledger can and does do real accounting, including budgets, stocks, commodities, and extensive reporting including plots and graphs. Of course, all that is dependent upon you having a solid grasp of accounting, the CLI, and the Ledger application. For some, it's just right. One resident of the #ledger IRC channel on Freenode told me that he gave up Quicken for Ledger.


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