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Which cloud accounting application is best for your business? We’ve tested Australia's major providers to help you decide.

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[Update: See our guide to 7 standalone Single Touch Payroll (STP) solutions for micro businesses.]

A lot has changed since we last reviewed the major accounting software systems in 2013 – and, without doubt, the biggest change is that cloud accounting applications have become mainstream.

There are still some conventional desktop packages available, but we’ve focused on cloud systems here because they dominate the market now.

This market domination has come about for a variety of reasons. You can, for example, access them anywhere there’s internet available – and often via a mobile app (especially important for business travellers and tradies) – and you can give your accountant or bookkeeper live access to the accounts.

Cloud accounting systems are also increasingly connected, with features such as bank feeds to automate transactions, and support for payment gateways, SuperStream payments and tax office lodgements.

Cloud connections

In fact, connectivity is now one of the most powerful benefits of cloud accounting systems. They can be easily augmented by complementary cloud applications such as point-of-sale, ecommerce, business intelligence and debt chasing.

Because both systems are in the cloud, all you often need to do is link your accounts and the magic happens behind the scenes. This allows you to choose the best customer relationship management (CRM) system for your needs, for example. As long as it integrates with your accounting system, you can have the exactly the same contact details in both systems. In some cases, a third-party integration service such as OneSaas or Zapier provides the connection between the accounting system and the other cloud application.

The growing importance of add-ons means that cloud accounting providers usually offer a catalogue or marketplace of apps – although many require additional subscription payments to those third-party services.

The accounting providers encourage developers to become part of their app ecosystems by providing application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable third-party apps to access various types of accounting data, such as contacts, inventory items, account balances and invoices.

For a better idea of what they can do, see our Top 20 cloud accounting add-ons for the latest and most popular of these tools.

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Which cloud accounting system?

While the third-party app ecosystem has become increasingly important part of choosing accounting software, its core functions still have to suit your needs, as well as being quick, convenient and easy to use. So to help you with your decision, we’ve tested and reviewed six of Australia's major small business cloud applications:

  • Xero.

We reviewed them in 2017 but have updated them in 2018 with the latest features and prices. And over the following pages, we have a lot more advice and details, which we encourage you to read before making your decision, including:

  • Our post-testing conclusions and final advice.

Remember, these six accounting applications are not the only options. If you’re looking for more features, the likes of MYOB have higher-end versions. For businesses that have outgrown their small business accounting application, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system may be the next step. At the other end of the scale, we’ve looked at simple invoicing apps (some with useful extras) that might suit very small service businesses.

Next: six cloud accounting systems at a glance

Not having a good bookkeeping system in place – that would provide warning signs that the business could run out of cash – is one of the main reasons businesses fail.

You can choose to set up a bookkeeping system manually (using accounting books), electronically (spreadsheets) or use accounting software. Unless you want to get familiar with bookkeeping practices, accounting software is the most efficient choice.

What to consider

Every business will have different requirements from an accounting software. When choosing an accounting software consider the following questions:

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  • Does the system calculate all payroll requirements (PAYE, annual leave, long service leave etc.)?
  • Does the system track stock, work in progress, orders, jobs and other task management requirements?
  • Will the system be able to handle multiple bank accounts?
  • Does the system need to handle foreign currency?
  • Does the system track separate financial records for each business or department within the business?
  • Does the system allow for interface with other computer systems such as online payments?
  • Does the system keep detailed records on customers including what they buy, how often they buy and when they buy (often referred to as a Customer Relationship Manager system)?

Software options

There are many software packages on the market that allow business managers to successfully control records without an accounting degree. Some of them, such as Free Accounting Software, have no cost. Some commonly used accounting systems used by small businesses are:

Software to manage Single Touch Payroll requirements

From 1 July 2019, businesses with fewer than 19 employees are required to report tax and superannuation information directly to the ATO (larger employers with 20 or more employees began reporting requirements earlier). This is known as Single Touch Payroll (STP).

If you are already using accounting software, STP reporting should be built in. You can see a full list of STP solutions here.

If you are not already using accounting software, the ATO has compiled a list of low or no-cost STP solutions costing $10 or less per month.

Getting advice

If you're unsure which software to choose, talk to your accountant or business adviser. It's worth checking to make sure the package has Standard Business Reporting forms needed to report to the ATO such as BAS statements.

It's also a good idea to ask other business owners what they use. If you don't know any, the Business Victoria Facebook group is always happy to answer your questions.

Setting up a bookkeeping system

When you set up your financial records, you need to make sure they meet any compliance requirements such as GST or other tax compliance.

This is done through setting up classifications, also known as a chart of accounts. A chart of accounts is a listing of all the accounts needed to cover the financial transactions of the business. Classifications are used to separate profit and loss calculations to show where a business is making or losing money. It's also used to determine the overall financial position of a business in a balance sheet.

How to set up a chart of accounts

The chart of accounts is very important to the overall effectiveness and accuracy of your bookkeeping. If you don't feel you understand it enough, then you should discuss this in further detail with your bookkeeper or accountant before setting up your bookkeeping records.

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When setting up a chart of accounts, you'll need to:

  1. Define the various accounts to be used in the business, such as different classes of assets, liabilities, expenses and sales revenue.
  2. Make a list of these accounts under the financial classifications as noted above – each different type of account for assets, liabilities, sales revenue and expenses.
  3. Allocate a numbering system for each account within the chart of accounts, such as all asset accounts will have been classified under the 1000 number, and all liability accounts will be classified under the 2000 number.
  4. Allocate various sub-accounts under these main accounts.
  5. Determine if each sub-account needs sub-accounts – this will depend on the level of information you need.

Accounting packages have predefined chart of accounts which you can allocate to your own financial transactions.

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Use our example chart of accounts below as a reference, and if you're not feeling confident, your bookkeeper or accountant can help set up a meaningful chart of accounts for you.