What is a General Ledger and How is it Used?

Accountants use a standardized record keeping system to monitor business transactions and economic events relevant to an organization. The general ledger can be kept in a spreadsheet, but it’s often a part of an accounting software package. Below are details regarding the mechanics of the general ledger and how it fits into the accounting cycle.

What Is the General Ledger?

In accounting, there are permanent accounts and temporary accounts that are used to track financial activity. All the accounts in the chart of accounts are listed in the general ledger. Typical account categories include assets, liabilities, equity, revenues and expenses. It is the summation of all the debits and credits recorded by accounting clerks, bookkeepers and accountants. The debits and credits in the ledger accounts should be equal when using the double-entry system of accounting.

In accounting software, the general ledger is a part of a database. When journal entries are posted to the ledger, the debits and credits can be queried from the database to create financial statements. The general ledger stores all the recorded financial activity for a business, and it is among the most important tools accountants have for tracking financial activity and making sure a business is profitable.

Why Is a General Ledger Used?

The general ledger is a mechanism to record relevant transactions and economic events related to a business. It is a source of data that can be used to form trial balances and ultimately a myriad of important financial reports. Without the general ledger, another system would be needed to house all the transactions that form the basis for financial reports. While the process of maintaining the general ledger, posting journal entries and reconciling accounts may be time-consuming and labor intensive, the investment of time and labor is well-worth it.

Accountants often use the general ledger as a data warehouse to create ad hoc reports. For example, if an analysis and schedule of owner distributions is needed, the general ledger can serve as a source of information to complete the analysis. Whether it’s an analysis of accounts receivable, accounts payable, revenue or expenses, the general ledger is a vital source of information. If accountants couldn’t query the general ledger, it would be difficult to verify the accuracy of financial statement account balances or understand why variances exist over time.

General Ledger Example

All the permanent accounts on the balance sheet and all of the temporary accounts on the income statement are reflected on the general ledger. For example, activity for assets such as cash, fixed assets, inventory and accounts receivable are recorded on the ledger. Similarly, activity for liabilities such as accounts payable and notes payable are also listed. All of the debits and credits that will form the financial statements are moved from journals and subsidiary ledgers to the general ledger.

There are a variety of accounting software packages that contain a general ledger. These systems include QuickBooks, Sage, Oracle and Peoplesoft among many others. The general ledger is in many ways indistinguishable from the other modules and reporting features in the software package. However, it is important to remember that the general ledger still exists and the function it plays in the generation of financial statements.

Posting Entries to the General Ledger

When posting entries to the general ledger, all journal entries must have equal debits and credits. This is an important first step in preparing entries for posting. In traditional accounting systems, journals are created and posted to subsidiary ledgers. The subsidiary ledgers are then posted to a general ledger. In accounting software packages, posting to the general ledger is simpler.

The system takes all journal entries and posts them to the general ledger in a seamless transaction. All debits and credits are posted to the ledger, and the system will typically let users query the system for transaction activity. The posting process shouldn’t be done unless journal entries have been reviewed and approved according to a company’s internal control structure. Otherwise, errors and omissions may occur that may ultimately materially misstate the financial statements.

Differences Between the General Journal and the General Ledger

The general journal serves as the initial recordation tool for all journal entries. It is a tool used in a traditional accounting system, and it helps bookkeepers remain organized. Journal entries are listed by journal number. While this collection of debits and credits is important, it is less relevant when using accounting software. The software takes journal entries and posts them to the general ledger in behind-the-scenes actions.

The general ledger is the summation of all journal entries listed by account. All debits and credits are illustrated for all permanent and temporary accounts. The general journal forms the basis for the general ledger, and the general ledger forms the basis for the financial statements. Given the reality of accounting systems, the general ledger is the most relevant tool for tracking account activity and querying the system, to monitor account activity and generate financial reports.

The general ledger is also one of the most important tools accountants use to track critical accounts, such as the operating cash account or COGS expense accounts. The ledger must be maintained on a regular basis by professionals that understand the accounting cycle and how to post a journal entry. Without the general ledger, it would be extremely difficult to create a trial balance, financial statements or to understand a company’s financial position.