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David A. Townsend, CPA, CFP Professional Corporation

"Choosing Small Business Accounting Software"
an article by David A. Townsend

Clients sometimes ask me to recommend accounting software for their small businesses. Unfortunately, that is a little like asking me to recommend a good book. I can tell you what I like, but in many cases, it is a matter of personal taste.

Googling "small business accounting software" reveals an overwhelming list of possibilities. The good news is that the prices are reasonable ($300 range) and they all probably do a reliable job if properly set up and monitored. The bad news is that unless you are prepared to devote some time and resources, you are probably better off to stick with a manual system or contract out your bookkeeping.

I obviously have not used all the small business accounting packages available so I restrict my comments to the two best-known ones, Simply Accounting and Quickbooks. Other accountants may disagree.

Although they are marketed on the basis that they are simple and easy to use, these packages are not designed for non-accountants. In my view, using these programs properly requires some accounting skills. For someone with limited accounting knowledge, they are not particularly user-friendly — I have seen many gathering dust on a shelf. There must be a significant time investment to learn and understand the program. And it does not end there.

You cannot expect to buy a package and use it forever. Each one is constantly being "upgraded" — usually as often as every six months. The utility of these upgrades is questionable at times, but if you do not keep current, you will run some major risks. Restoring backup and doing payroll are common features that may become problematic with older versions of the software.

Quickbooks is arguably the most flexible and easily adaptable package. However, the flexibility can be a negative. Previously entered data can be deleted or changed (possibly inadvertently), which can result in major errors if not monitored closely. The main positive is that experienced users can utilize the power and flexibility of this package, and minimize the time spent on bookkeeping corrections.

I have been using Quickbooks successfully for many years and like the program. However, I am frustrated with the "upgrades" that unnecessarily add to the complexity of the program. In my view, it has gotten away from the user friendliness that made it attractive originally.

Simply Accounting has the best control over previously entered data. This protects against changes to already posted or audited information but the downside is that the program is not nearly as flexible. Once you make an entry, it cannot be deleted or changed - it must be reversed. This can result in a convoluted trail of adjustments, which can drive your accountant to distraction (and increase your fee). On the positive side, in the hands of an experienced user, Simply does a reliable job with a good level of assurance and provides the most complete and easy to follow audit trail.

After a bad experience upgrading a few years ago, I discontinued my use of Simply. However, I know other good accountants who swear by the program.

I am hopeful that cloud computing will provide some alternatives to Simply and QuickBooks. In my view, they both have benefited from a lack of competition over the last ten years or so.

To sum up, for those who have some accounting experience and want to upgrade from a manual bookkeeping system, these packages will help. After an initial learning curve, an accounting software package will undoubtedly save you time and headaches. However, be forewarned that they are a tool and not a substitute for a good bookkeeper.

Contributing Editor to Canadian Money Saver Magazine