These are partial and random notes. I've yet to establish a coherent summary of what the topic will be, despite several attempts.

So for now, here you are.

Some frequently encountered conventions in plain text accounting

Top level accounts

  • assets
  • liabilities
  • equity
  • income
  • expenses

Transactions must balance

A typical transaction in ledger might be,

2000-01-01 an example transaction
  expenses:gas    10 USD
  assets:cash    -10 USD

Ledger convention is for transactions to balance, for example in the previous, 10 + (-10) = 0, so the postings balance. In fact, this is enforced. If we try to write the following to our ledger file,

2000-01-01 an example transaction
  expenses:gas    10 USD
  assets:cash     -3 USD

Then ledger will emit the following error message,

​> 2000-01-01 an example transaction
​>   expenses:gas    10 USD
​>   assets:cash     -3 USD
Unbalanced remainder is:
               7 USD
Amount to balance against:
              10 USD
Error: Transaction does not balance

Corollary, an accounting equation

With the above top level accounts, and the fact that transactions must balance, this implies the following equation will hold.

Signed numbers versus debit/credit

The notation chosen for plain text accounting uses signed numbers, rather than requiring the notion of debits and credits.

I think we can borrow terminology from Ellerman, where they refer to the two systems as SSS and DSU. That is, single-sided accounts with signed numbers, versus double-sided accounts with unsigned numbers.

So if plain text accounting had used DSU, we might have written the above transaction instead as,

2000-01-01 an example transaction
                 debits   credits
  expenses:gas   10 USD
  assets:cash              10 USD

We hope you agree that the SSS version is preferable, and natural to use.

If you are trying to translate between an SSS amount or account, and debit/credit terminology, a mnemonic might be as simple as "debit is positive, credit is negative".

Note that we are implicitly flipping the sign on credit accounts, that is, liabilities, equity and income will typically have negative balances in plain text accounting.

Consider that GnuCash docs provide the DSU variant of our accounting equation above, reproduced here.

Equity and net income

There appears to be a discrepancy. Wikipedia writes the accounting equation as,

So why do our accounting equations above have two extra terms, income and expenses?

Wikipedia even writes the following equations,

This suggests that income and expenses should be subaccounts to equity. So why do we have them as top-level accounts, or siblings to the equity account?

Perhaps this quote from Wikpedia leads us to a possible viewpoint.

At the end of that period, the net income (or net loss) at that point is transferred from the Profit and Loss Account to the retained earnings account.

Rambaud et al. briefly share an example with this partition of accounts, for equity accounts, permanent accounts, and temporary accounts.

Then further subdividing temporary accounts into revenue and expenses,

They go on to suggest "that the temporary accounts are to be closed and their balances combined and added to the retained earnings account."

This notion that the top-level, current income and expense accounts are "temporary", is repeated in a few more of the links above.

The equity is what we expect, every time we close the books.

This seems to solve the apparent discrepancy. Wikipedia's version of accounting equation is true again, any time the top-level income and expense accounts are zeroed out.

Zeroing out net income

Let's see how we might do this in text accounting, with an example.

Suppose in January, you have the following transactions.

2000-01-01 paycheck
  assets:checking           10 USD
  income:employer          -10 USD

2000-01-01 rent
  expenses:rent              5 USD
  assets:checking           -5 USD

At the end of January, you might close the books by adding the following transaction, to move profits and losses to retained earnings.

2000-01-31 close 2000-01
  income:employer           10 USD
  expenses:rent             -5 USD
  equity:retained earnings  -5 USD

Now we can check our balances again.

> ledger balance
               5 USD  assets:checking
              -5 USD  equity:retained earnings

By closing the books, we have restored the usual accounting equation. That is, for our SSS system in plain text accounting, the following equation is true again.

Plain text accounting closing

It would be possible to generate the closing transaction above with hledger's close command,

> hledger close income expenses --closing | sed -e 's/closing balances/retained earnings/'
2000-01-31 retained earnings
  expenses:rent              -5 USD = 0 USD
  income:employer            10 USD = 0 USD
  equity:retained earnings   -5 USD

The examples I found do it a little differently, filtering on assets and liabilities, and using this to close assets and liabilities in the previous period's ledger file, and reopen just those accounts in the next period's file.

> hledger close assets liabilities
2000-01-31 closing balances
  assets:checking            -5 USD = 0 USD
  equity:closing balances     5 USD

2000-02-01 opening balances
  assets:checking             5 USD = 5 USD
  equity:opening balances    -5 USD

In some sense, this is implicitly closing net income and adding it to equity.

To illustrate what we mean, let's consider another example.

2000-01-01 opening balance
  assets:checking          5 USD
  equity:opening balance  -5 USD

2000-01-15 paycheck
  assets:checking          7 USD
  income:employer         -7 USD

Then note our equity is now -5 USD, and our net income is -7 USD.

With the hledger approach, we have,

> hledger close assets liabilities
2000-01-31 closing balances
    assets:checking                 -12 USD = 0 USD
    equity:closing balances          12 USD

2000-02-01 opening balances
    assets:checking                  12 USD = 12 USD
    equity:opening balances         -12 USD

So now we have the new equity equal to the old equity plus net income, that is, -5 + (-7) = -12.

A proof

Let's see if we can add notation, and state and prove a more precise claim, corresponding with the claim made in the previous section.

Our example will be that of two files, one with an ongoing record of transactions, and at end of period, we will add transactions to facilitate recording the next period to the new file.

We consider three moments in time, or locations in the text ledger files, really. The first is at the end of the previous period, but before the closing transaction. The second moment we consider is after the closing transaction for that period, but in that same file. The third and final moment we consider, is after the opening transaction for the next period, in the new file.

We denote the account balances for each moment with the following notation, that is, assets, liabilities, equity, income, and expenses, for each of the three moments, in order.

We can now state our claim more precisely.

We claim that with the above scenario, and notation, that,

In other words, considering the two moments, before closing, and after opening, we are in some sense, closing the net income and adding to equity.

We don't need it for our proof, but perhaps for clarity, we provide following to denote the closing transaction.

2000-01-31 closing
  A' = A - A = 0
  L' = L - L = 0
  E' = E + (A + L)
  I' = I
  X' = X

And the opening transaction we denote as,

2000-02-01 opening
  A'' = A
  L'' = L
  E'' = -(A + L)
  I'' = 0
  X'' = 0

We take as given that . Then since , it quickly follows that,

as was claimed.

In other words, for hledger's prevailing close examples, in some sense, net income was closed and added to equity.