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Table of contents

This post is from Ramp's contributor network—a group of professionals with deep experience in accounting, finance, strategy, startups, and more.
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Let’s explore the general ledger, a fundamental tool in accounting that’s key to understanding your business’s financial health. The general ledger (GL) is the foundation of your company's double-entry accounting system, providing a comprehensive record of all financial transactions in your business.


It's not just an "accounting tool"; it's the central repository that reflects your business's financial history.


Throughout this article, we will define what a general ledger is, examine its key components, differentiate it from a journal entry, and look into the roles and skills required of a GL Accountant.


Whether you're new to business finance or looking to deepen your understanding, our journey into the general ledger will equip you with the knowledge to navigate your company's financial landscape better.

Understanding the general ledger

General ledger defined

The general ledger represents the record-keeping system for your company’s financial data, including debit and credit account records that are validated and reconciled by a trial balance. Each financial transaction that your company partakes in is recorded here and used to prepare your financial statements.


Transaction data is aggregated into accounts for assets, liabilities, equity, revenues and expenses. 


Think of the general ledger as a detailed diary. For instance, when you make a sale, this transaction increases your assets (cash or accounts receivable) and your revenue. Similarly, when you purchase supplies, the ledger records a decrease in cash (asset) and an increase in expenses.


The real power of the general ledger lies in its role as the foundation for preparing accurate financial statements. These statements include the balance sheet, income statement and cash flow statement. Each of these financial statements are essential for stakeholders to assess your company’s financial health.


For example, investors might examine the balance sheet to understand asset value compared to liabilities. Managers might look at the income statement to gauge the operational efficiency of your business.

How it works

  1. Transactions get posted to individual sub-ledger accounts (as defined in the chart of accounts)
  2. The sub-ledgers are closed out and summarized into the general ledger
  3. The GL accountant will then generate a trial balance (TB) report
  4. The GL accountant will check for any errors and post any applicable adjusting entries (Note: at the end of the period, the TB must balance to $0)
  5. The modified TB report is then used to generate the financial statements

Double-entry accounting and the general ledger

Double-entry accounting is a fundamental principle that ensures every financial transaction affects two different accounts in equal and opposite ways, maintaining the balance for the basic accounting equation.


Assets = Liabilities + Equity


These transactions are recorded through "journal entries" each of which contains at least one debit and one credit line item. These entries must be crafted to make sure they balance; if they don’t, it signals a discrepancy that needs correction. Accuracy here is vital. An error in a journal entry, such as misclassifying an expense or overlooking a transaction, can skew the entire financial outlook of your company.


Journal entries are the building blocks of the general ledger. The general ledger is a collection of all these entries, aggregated and organized into a comprehensive record. While a journal entry records a single transaction (debits and credits), the general ledger accumulates all these transactions and provides a broader view of your company’s financial activities. It’s analogous to comparing a single piece of a puzzle (journal entry) to the completed puzzle picture (general ledger) that emerges once all pieces are assembled. 


This is being done to help accountants, management, analysts, and other stakeholders assess how your company is performing continuously. Although the financial data won't tell the entire story of a company's performance, it'll give insights into how capital is allocated and if errors need to be addressed.


Financial statements won't always tell the whole story. When your expenses spike in a given period or revenues appear unusually high given the number of transactions, it's imperative to review the general ledger and dig into the details of each recorded transaction to locate the issue. This may include spending hours reviewing journal entries during a close period to find the erroneous transaction(s). Getting the entries correct when entered and having strong controls around recurring entries and good communication around one-off transactions is crucial to accurate financial records.


journal entries → sub-ledger → general ledger → trial balance  → adjusting entries → adjusted trial balance → financial statements (balance sheet, income statement, statement of cash flow)


In the next section, we'll go over the components of a general ledger and the five primary account classifications.

General ledger components

A general ledger, the cornerstone of your company’s financial system, consists of four main components. Each of these components play a vital role to ensure the accuracy and completeness of your financial records. These components work together to create a comprehensive picture of your financial activities, allowing for effective tracking as well as analysis and reporting. By understanding each component and its function, you can better manage your financial operations and make informed decisions based on reliable data. 


These components are:

  1. Journal entries: Information about each journal entry posted to an account and the entry date.
  2. Description: A brief description of the transaction.
  3. Debit and credit columns: Each journal entry line item is posted as a debit or credit.
  4. Balance: Each account maintains an ongoing balance. At the end of the accounting period, the ending balance is calculated and added to the trial balance.

The 5 account categories in a general ledger system

The general ledger (GL) categorizes all financial transactions into five main account types. These categories form the backbone of your company’s financial record-keeping, making sure that every transaction is accurately recorded and organized. Understanding these categories is key to comprehending how your business tracks its financial activities and maintains its books. 


1. Assets: This category includes all resources owned by the company that have economic value. Assets can be tangible, like buildings and machinery, or intangible, such as patents or trademarks. They're crucial for generating revenue and are essential in assessing your company’s financial strength.


Examples of asset accounts include:

  • Cash and cash equivalents
  • Accounts receivable
  • Fixed assets
  • Inventory
  • Investments
  • Intangible assets (patents/trademarks)


2. Liabilities: Liabilities represent the debts or obligations your company owes to others. This can include short-term liabilities (obligations to be paid within the year) and long-term liabilities (obligations to be paid 1-year or more in the future). They are critical in understanding your company’s solvency and financial commitments.


Liability account examples include:


3. Equity: Equity accounts track the owner’s stake in your company. This includes any initial investments, retained earnings and stock issued or outstanding. Equity is a key indicator of the financial health and value of the business to its owners. It also gives insights into the overall ownership structure of your business.


Equity account examples include:


4. Revenue: This category records all income generated by the business, typically from sales of goods or services. It is a primary measure of a business’s financial performance and ability to generate profit. Revenue can represent an increase in a company's assets or a decrease in its liabilities.


Revenue account examples include:

  • Interest income
  • Royalties
  • Sales


5. Expenses: Expenses are all costs incurred in the process of generating revenue. This includes both direct costs (cost of sales) and indirect costs (operating expenses). Tracking expenses is vital for managing the profitability and efficiency of your business.


Examples of expense accounts include:

  • Cost of sales
  • Advertising
  • Salaries
  • Rent and utilities

Within these main account types, businesses will often use sub-ledgers for more detailed tracking of activity. For example, under assets, there might be separate sub-ledgers for cash, accounts receivables, or inventory. This provides a more granular view of specific areas of the business and rolls up into the general ledger which offers a consolidated overview of the financial status.


The categorization of transactions into these five main account types in the general ledger isn't just a matter of compliance with accounting standards, but a strategic approach to financial management. It's essential for effective decision-making and long-term financial planning.

Journal entry examples

1. To record the purchase of inventory (on credit) for $10,000.


Account(s)
Debit
Credit
Inventory
$10,000
Accounts Payable
$10,000


2. To record the payment to the supplier for the inventory purchased.

 

Account(s)
Debit
Credit
Accounts Payable
$10,000
Cash
$10,000


These transactions would be included as a line item in the general ledger for the applicable accounts and period.


Next, we'll examine the role of a GL Accountant, their responsibilities, and the critical skills needed to succeed. We'll also look at the average salary of a GL Accountant.

The GL Accountant—What do they do?

The role of a GL Accountant is central to the financial integrity and clarity of a business. These professionals are typically the gatekeepers of financial accuracy. Their job is to ensure that every number reported is not just correct, but meaningful in telling the financial story of your company.


Their responsibilities begin with the meticulous recording and reviewing of all journal entries. This step is fundamental, as these entries form the basis of financial data in your general ledger. Each debit and credit should be scrutinized for accuracy to ensure the transaction is recorded in the correct account(s). The GL Accountant ensures these transactions correctly reflect your company’s financial activities and adhere to the applicable accounting principles.


The GL Accountant is also responsible for managing the general ledger. This involves overseeing the entire ledger, ensuring it is up-to-date and accurate. This is a continuous process, requiring a comprehensive understanding of your business’s financial operations.


Performing reconciliations is also a significant part of their job. This involves verifying the accuracy of the information in the general ledger against other independent records such as bank statements or other financial documents. Reconciliation helps to identify and rectify discrepancies, ensuring the reliability of your financial reports.


Finally, GL Accountants play a crucial role in the preparation of your financial statements (balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement). These statements provide insights into the financial health and performance of your business.


They're responsible for working with the controller or CFO to make sure these statements accurately represent your company’s financial status based on the data recorded in the general ledger.

Overview of responsibilities

  • Recording transactions: General ledger accountants accurately record financial transactions in the general ledger, making sure each entry is accurate and appropriately classified.
  • Reconciliation: They reconcile ledger accounts, making sure the balances match with related financial records, such as bank statements.
  • Financial reporting: They're critical in preparing financial statements, including the balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement. This process makes sure that the data in these statements accurately reflects the ledger entries.
  • Audit support: GL Accountants help in audit processes by providing accurate ledger data and supporting documentation, guaranteeing compliance with accounting standards and regulations.
  • Budgeting and forecasting: They often contribute to budget preparation and financial forecasting, using ledger data to analyze trends and project future financial performance.

General ledger skills

The skill set of a GL Accountant is a blend of technical expertise and strong soft skills:

  • Attention to detail: Precision is vital in ledger management. A small error can have a ripple effect on financial reports.
  • Analytical skills: They must be adept at analyzing financial data to identify trends, inconsistencies, and areas of concern.
  • Knowledge of accounting principles: It's crucial to have a thorough understanding of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), or any additional reporting framework.
  • Proficiency in accounting software: Modern GL accounting relies heavily on software tools. Proficiency in programs like QuickBooks, SAP, or NetSuite is often vital to success.
  • Communication skills: GL accountants must effectively communicate financial information to other departments, managers, and external stakeholders.

GL Accountants are more than just number crunchers; they are the custodians of financial information and storytellers. Their expertise and diligence are key in enabling stakeholders, from management to investors, to make informed decisions based on accurate financial information.

Salary expectations

According to Indeed.com, the average salary for a general ledger accountant in the United States is $66,688 (Indeed).


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To qualify for a GL accountant job, one must typically have a bachelor's degree in accounting or a related field and 2–5 years of related experience.


Working in this role can give an individual the crucial experience and skills to grow into an organization's accounting manager or controller position.

Beyond the balance: The crucial role of a general ledger

General ledger accounting is much more than just keeping financial records; it tells your business's fiscal narrative. It is the backbone of your company's financial infrastructure, providing invaluable insights into its economic health and guiding vital strategic decisions.


Every entry in the general ledger contributes to a broader understanding of your company's economic condition. IT is like a financial compass, guiding business leaders and stakeholders through the complexities of your performance and strategy. This comprehensive record-keeping system provides invaluable insights into cash flow trends, revenue generation, expense management and overall profitability.


This offers a clear and quantifiable snapshot of your company’s financial standing at any given moment, influencing critical business decisions such as investments, budget allocations, and long-term strategic planning.


In today’s fast-paced business environment, the general ledger also adapts to reflect real-time financial data, enabling more dynamic and responsive decision-making. With advancements in accounting software, general ledger accounting has evolved from a mere bookkeeping exercise to a powerful analytical tool, offering deeper insights and forecasting capabilities. 

Why the general ledger matters:

  • The foundation of financial records: The general ledger is essential in a double-entry accounting system, meticulously documenting every journal entry and showing your business's financial history.
  • A story in numbers: It tells a comprehensive story through its detailed recording of assets, liabilities, equity, expenses, and revenue.
  • Vital for financial reporting: The general ledger is crucial in generating financial statements like the balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement.
  • The role of a GL Accountant: These professionals are vital in maintaining the accuracy and relevance of financial records. Their responsibilities span transaction recording and reconciliation to financial reporting and audit support.
  • Skills that count: Successful GL accountants blend technical expertise with strong analytical and communication skills, ensuring precision and compelling financial storytelling.
  • Career path and rewards: With an average salary of $66,688 in the U.S., a career as a GL accountant offers a rewarding path with opportunities for growth into managerial roles.

Keep a pristine general ledger with Ramp

With its comprehensive suite of features, Ramp offers a range of benefits to enhance your business's financial operations.

  • Automated categorization and syncing to accounting software: Ramp's accounting automation software provides a powerful answer for accounts payable automation, expense reconciliation, month-end closing responsibilities, and more. By accurately organizing expenses and linking them effortlessly with your accounting software, this does away with the need for laborious manual entry and guarantees that your financial documents are precise and up-to-date.
  • Efficient data management: Ramp simplifies data entry, storage, and retrieval, making sure your financial information is organized, accessible, and accurate. Say goodbye to manual data input and welcome an automated, error-reduced approach.
  • Automated reconciliations: Ramp's intelligent algorithms automate reconciliation tasks, swiftly identifying discrepancies and flagging potential issues. 
  • Tailored reporting: Generate tailored financial reports with ease, thanks to Ramp's customizable reporting capabilities. 
  • Enhanced collaboration: Ramp facilitates seamless collaboration among your finance and operational teams, ensuring a unified approach to month-end closures.
  • Streamlined compliance: Ensure adherence to financial regulations and compliance standards effortlessly with Ramp's built-in compliance features. 

Experience increased efficiency, accuracy, and collaboration, all powered by advanced accounting automation software. Explore how Ramp's platform can help you.

Try Ramp for free
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Founder, Walnut St CFO
Kevin helps business owners improve cash management, optimize time, and turn their business into a sellable, high-value asset
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