Here’s a business tip for you – when you spend less money, you keep more money. Well, usually.. Sometimes, you get what you pay for, so you’ll actually make meaningfully more cash by spending some. But as a small business, you need to keep an eye on expenses.
That’s why you use Excel for your accounting software needs. Excel came with your computer, so it’s free, right? You put the numbers in the columns, maybe you add in something from your bank, and then you add it all up.
The problem with Excel is that it’s not really free. Excel is free only if you don’t think your time is valuable. Otherwise, Excel is incredibly expensive. It’s one of the least efficient ways to manage your accounting. It’s prone to user input errors, and it has all the ease of use of a rusty table saw.
Excel’s pros and cons
I love Excel. I think the business world would be better off if more small business owners had a better understanding of Excel. Excel is an incredibly powerful tool, but its power is inversely related to its ease of use – the more you do, the harder it gets.
For accounting, Excel seems like an excellent solution. It’s got rows and columns, and you can match up your revenue and expense to reports your bank spits out. For a single person or a household, it’s not a bad solution.
The problem with Excel as a business product is twofold. First, it has no easy way to track the relationships between a lot of moving parts. As soon as you add in issues like invoicing and bill payment, you’re going to run into problems. Excel is designed to manage a flat file structure. You have numbers over here, and they tie to equations over there.
Second, Excel doesn’t give you any history or accountability to see how your books ended up the way they did. Who made the changes, what changes were made, and what accounts were affected – all lost to the ages. This is because Excel isn’t designed to be collaborative or to track the change in data over time.
What you need is something with more depth and more traceability.
Free accounting software
You’re already reading an article on Excel alternatives, so I’m not going to push a hard sell. Accounting software simply does what Excel doesn’t when it comes to money management. Accounting software is three dimensional, to start with.
Instead of Excel’s flat structure, accounting programs store data in a series of flat structures all piled on top of each other, making it easier to build relationship between them. It’s the basic premise behind database software.
Accounting software is also designed to help you understand how your accounts are changing. That means keeping a list of who changed what and giving users a straightforward way to roll back mistakes without losing a lot of work.
On top of that, you’ve got all the little things like not having to manage an increasingly complex set of formulas and being able to easily put your finances into the right bucket – travel, entertaining, payroll, and so on.
Free is the word of the day
While you may long for a better solution, you may balk at the cost of accounting software. We’ll dive into free in one second, but I want to take a minute to tell you that not all accounting software is fantastically expensive. There are plenty of options out there for small businesses that won’t break the bank while they help watch it. If you want a full list of options, check out our accounting directory.
Okay, on to the free accounting software.
Gen Accounts is a smaller player that offers small businesses a free version of its software. For $0, you get unlimited users, multi-currency, recurring transactions, mobile access, and a whole host of other basics.
The free version is basic, though, so you won’t get inventory management tools, purchase order functionality, or payroll features. This is a great option for a small, service-based business without many extra complications.
If you want access to the more robust features, you’ll have to jump up to the Gem Accounts One level, which runs $49 per month.
I had, somehow, never stumbled across Kiwili until this last week. The system is similar to Gem, in that you can get a free account geared toward small businesses. Kiwili’s comes with a single user and three clients, which is more limited than Gem. It does, however, give you time management tools and invoicing capabilities.
There are also a few little bells and whistles, like task management, that can help out a small shop that has a lot of repeat work with a small set of clients. To get more clients, you’ll have to upgrade to the – still incredibly cheap – $10 per month option.
If I ever write a free accounting piece and fail to mention Wave, you can assume something has gone very wrong. Wave gives you a fully functional accounting system alongside an invoicing platform, all for the price of looking at ads.
Wave is ad sponsored, just like Google and Facebook. Like Google and Facebook, you’ll get ads targeted based on the kind of person you are. Wave keeps your info on their side, and serves the ads up based on the metrics their partners request. It’s another way of saying that Wave isn’t selling your info, just access to you.
Wave also has pay options for payroll, payment processing, and professional accounting advice.
ZipBooks is betting that you’ll be annoyed by ads and will opt for an ad-free environment. Like Wave, ZipBooks is free and full of features. You’ll be able to manage all your books without paying a cent.
Instead of serving up ads, ZipBooks makes its money by acting as an in-between for payment processors. When ZipBooks helps you collect a payment from one of your clients, the payment processor kicks some money back to ZipBooks, funding the free software side of things.
Even if you don’t use the payment options, ZipBooks is free.
You don’t have to give up on Excel if you don’t want to, but I would. There are plenty of great, free options for your accounting out there. While Excel is fantastic for diving into the details of your business, there’s no reason to open yourself up to errors and failure just because it came with the computer.
Again, you can check out Capterra’s accounting software directory for a full listing of options and you can swing by our finance blog for more small business tips and tricks.
Looking for Accounting software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Accounting software solutions.