As mentioned previously, two of the primary reasons I use Ledger are the intimate awareness it provides of how money is moving, and its timely representation of current balances. The third primary reason I use the tool is for the activity history it provides.
Recording almost every transaction I make (excepting only some small petty cash) allows me to look at years past and build an accurate picture of what I was doing. Most activities leave some sort of financial record, even if the transaction is only tangential to the activity itself. This is the sort of information that I would be extremely uncomfortable providing to a third-party, but is quite useful to have myself.
Storing receipts provides an additional layer of detail to the history created in the Ledger journal. As an intermediate between the full receipt and the basic journal entry, I find it is extremely valuable to use comments and tags within the journal. Almost every transaction in my Ledger journal that is not for food has a comment describing what goods or service was purchased.
In Ledger, comments begin with a semicolon. I store them below the first line of the transaction. When placed here, Ledger refers to these comments as notes. When purchasing goods, I add one comment – or note – for each unique item on the transaction. For instance, I might buy socks:
2018-07-02=2018-07-01 * Socks Addict ; Darn Tough Light Cushion No Show Tab, Black/Grey, Large, 2x Expenses:Clothing:Footwear $33.40 Liabilities:Bank:Visa
The comment tells me exactly what was purchased. More importantly, it tells me the model name, the color, and the size of the item. If I want to purchase another pair of identical socks, I can do so easily. This seems like a minor thing, but when it is applied to everything I buy, it is hard to overstate how greatly this ability has improved my quality of life over the past decade.
In Ledger, comments are searchable. Say I want to list every transaction where I purchased a pair of Darn Tough socks. I buy them from different retailers, so I can’t filter by the payee. All the transactions are in the
Expenses:Clothing:Footwear category, but that category includes socks from other manufacturers and well as other things that go on my feet, so I can’t filter by that. But I can query all transactions with a note which includes the string “darn tough”.
$ ledger register note darn tough
A tag is a special kind of comment. Tags are useful if you have the foresight to realize that a particular transaction should be grouped with other transactions, but that transactions within the group will likely have different payees or accounts. Tags start and end with a
:. Multiple tags can be chained together.
I use tags for vacations. Expenses related to any vacation are tagged with two tags: a generic
:vacation: tag, and a tag specific to the vacation. This allows me to easily see what I spend on vacations in general, or any one vacation specifically. For example, in 2018 I took a 24-hour trip to Las Vegas to see Nine Inch Nails. That trip included numerous transactions in unrelated accounts: concert tickets, airline tickets, accommodations, ground transport, food, etc. All transactions were tagged with
:nin-vegas-2018:. As an example, here is the transaction for purchasing the concert tickets:
2018-03-30=2018-03-28 * AXS ; Nine Inch Nails at The Joint, Las Vegas ; :nin-vegas-2018:vacation: Expenses:Entertainment:Performance $95.50 Assets:Bank:Checking
Ledger makes it easy to see all the expenses associated with that trip, both in total and broken out into different expense accounts.
$ ledger balance expense and %nin-vegas-2018
I also use tags to indicate transactions that occur via the same merchant system but have different payees. Specifically, things I buy on Etsy are tagged
:esty: and things I buy on eBay are tagged
:ebay:. Without these tags I would have no way to list all the Etsy purchases I have made, since I send the money to individual sellers and not Etsy itself.
I also use tags to indicate transactions related to keeping my apartment. Rent goes to the
Expenses:Rent account. Electricity charges go to
Expenses:Utilities:Electric. Gas charges go to
Expenses:Utilities:Gas. My cell phone payment goes to
Expenses:Utilities:Phone. The first three charges I consider apartment expenses. My cell phone is not. By tagging the first three with
:apt: I can easily see the total monthly cost of keeping my apartment, without a bunch of complicated querying to exclude things like the cell phone bill.
My final use for tags is indicating transactions that I think should be deducted from my taxes. Some people do this with accounts, but I find that with the account structure that makes sense to me I often end up with a mix of deductible and non-deductible transactions within a single account. Tagging deductible transactions with
:deduct: makes it easy to dump a list of all transactions that should be considered when completing yearly taxes.