Chapter 1

Introduction to bookkeeping

What does bookkeeping involve? What’s the end product? And how does it compare to accounting? We take a look.

A bookkeeper and business owner having a meeting over coffee

Bookkeeping definition

Bookkeeping is the practice of recording and tracking the financial transactions of a business. Bookkeepers regularly summarize this activity into reports that show how the business is doing. They may also perform wider tasks such as invoicing, paying bills, preparing tax returns, monitoring key performance indicators, and providing strategic advice.

An ox tied to a sign labeled 'for barter'

History of bookkeeping

Evidence of financial record keeping has been found in Mesopotamia, Babylon, Sumer and Assyria as far back as 7000 BC. Archives have been discovered, showing the recording of accounts from farm produce in ancient Greece as well as from the Roman Empire.

But it’s in the 15th century that the roots of modern bookkeeping can be found. And fittingly, there are two entries in the history books for who documented the double-entry system. Some credit Benedetto Cotrugli and his 1458 book Of Commerce and the Perfect Merchant. But most regard Luca Pacioli as the father of bookkeeping, for his 1494 book Review of Arithmetic, Geometry, Ratio and Proportion.

An Italian mathematician and Francisan monk, Pacioli wrote the first popular description of the double-entry system and the use of various bookkeeping tools such as journals and ledgers. His book became the teaching tool for bookkeeping and accounting for the next several hundred years. Bookkeeping became a recognised profession in the UK and US in the 1800s.

An introduction to bookkeeping basics

Here are some basic bookkeeping concepts and definitions that you should know. They’re central to the methods and processes that a bookkeeper follows to create accurate accounts:

An infographic about the basics of bookkeeping
  • Ledger: The place where business transactions are recorded and categorized
  • Accounts: The categories under which all business transactions fall
  • Assets: Things the business has bought and owns (or part-owns), inventory, and money owed to the business as accounts receivable
  • Liabilities: Amounts the business owes in unpaid bills, taxes, wages, or loans
  • Equity: Money introduced and withdrawn by the owner or shareholders
  • Revenue: Money coming into the business through sales, interest or dividends
  • Expenses: Money paid out to keep the business running
  • Financial statements: Reports that shows the financial activities and performance of a business – two main ones are the balance sheet and profit and loss statement
  • Balance sheet: Lists the things your business owns and their value, plus the amounts your business owes
  • Income statement: Totals the revenue and expenses for a set period of time and demonstrates how the business is trading
  • Chart of accounts: A list of all the accounts you use to record financial transactions in your ledger. They’re also called general ledger codes.
  • Journal entry: The name given to any record made in the accounts

The difference between bookkeeping and accounting

An infographic showing the differences between bookkeeping and accounting

Bookkeeping traditionally refers to the day-to-day upkeep of a business’s financial records. Bookkeepers used to simply gather and quality-check the information from which accounts were prepared. But their role has expanded over time, and we’ll look at how in the next chapter.

Accounting refers to the analysis, reporting and summarizing of the data that bookkeepers gather. Accounting reports give a picture of the financial performance of a business, and determine how much tax is owed.

An accounting degree requires deep education and training in tax and other laws with which businesses need to comply, plus finance and business management. While some bookkeepers may have developed similar skills, that level of training isn’t required to be called a bookkeeper.

There are professional associations that can provide bookkeeping training and certification. Learn more about training to become a bookkeeper.

Disclaimer: Xero does not provide accounting, tax, business or legal advice. This guide has been provided for information purposes only. You should consult your own professional advisors for advice directly relating to your business or before taking action in relation to any of the provided content.

What is bookkeeping?

Whether you’re bookkeeping for a family business, or planning a career in it – this is a good place to start learning.

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