Whether you're a freelancer or a flautist, a graphic designer or a greengrocer, if you're running any kind of business you really need some kind of accounting software to stay on top of things – as we discovered, the age-old system of throwing everything into a drawer and panicking at tax return time isn't the best.
But that doesn't mean you need to invest huge sums or learn something hopelessly complicated. The best free accounting software is easy to use and enables you to see how well you're doing and who owes you money.
A simple approach to bookkeeping - the best free accounting software around
GnuCash is accounting software designed for individuals and small businesses, and was initially conceived as an open source alternative to apps such as Intuit's Quicken.
It's available for Linux, GNU, OpenBSD, FreeBSD, Android, OS X and Windows, and it's been kicking around since the late 1990s - but the most recent update was just last month.
It handles invoicing and credit notes, accounts payable and receivable, employee expenses and some payroll features too, and it's quite happy with multiple currencies, cards and accounts. Its sheer flexibility makes it our top choice when it comes to accounting software for kitchen table businesses.
Review and where to download: GnuCash
Straightforward enough for home use, as well as small businesses
Another superb open source tool, Money Manager Ex is well designed and packed with enough features to rival premium software. It's easy to understand, and you'll have your accounts and transactions set up in no time. Money Manager Ex's simplicity makes it a particularly good choice for sole traders or your own home finances.
This free accounting software is a portable app, so you can save and use it straight from a USB stick without installing it. There's even an Android app for updating your accounts on the move.
Review and where to download: Money Manager Ex
A heftier accounting tool that will suit owners of SMBs
TurboCASH is free accounting software that's been in continuous development since April 1985, and it's hugely popular in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia. It's available in 23 languages and boasts an online community of more than 100,000 users.
Designed for small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs), it's probably a bit much for freelancers or sole traders, but if you need something a bit more useful than a cash book TurboCASH can handle VAT, debtors and creditors, purchase orders, multiple companies and multiple users.
Download here: TurboCASH
Slick, cloud-based free accounting that works well for freelancers
With more than two million users, Wave is one of the most successful online accounting services - and it's completely free for accounting, invoicing and receipts, although if you want personal technical support you'll need to pay for it. Payroll isn't included in the free service either, and you do get the odd advert – just as you do with pretty much any free online service.
It's a very well designed and carefully thought out application, and while it's probably a little basic for medium sized businesses it's a good option for sole traders, freelancers and small firms.
Try it online: Wave
Generate forms, invoices, quotes and orders in moments
With versions for PC, Mac, iPad and Android, NCH Express Invoice caters for most kinds of businesses - and if you have fewer than five members of staff, you can have it for free without time limits or other restrictions.
It's designed to create invoices, quotes and orders easily, to automate recurring ones and to send them by email or fax, and there's a decent range of reports to pore over. The free accounting software is really just a front-end for a web-based service, but that's no bad thing unless your business struggles to get a decent internet connection.
Download here: NCH Express Invoice
6. VT Cash Book
Minimalist bookkeeping that uses Excel for the grunt work
It's not going to win any awards for aesthetics, but VT Cash Book isn't there to look good: its priority is to record day to day cash transactions with the least amount of fuss. It uses Autocomplete to speed up data entry, supports multiple bank accounts and bank reconciliation, can be used to prepare VAT returns and enables you to create profit and loss, balance sheets and ledgers.
The free accounting software installs alongside its companion program, the paid-for VT Transaction+, but you don't need to buy the latter to use the former.
Download here: VT Cash Book
A good option for anyone selling physical products
The free version of Invoice Expert is limited to 100 customers/products, but it retains the features of its US$69.95 (about £50, AU$90) sibling including inventory and customer management, invoicing and quoting, purchase orders and inventory management.
This free accounting software is a little bit intimidating at first glance, especially in the template-editing screens, but it's straightforward enough. It's an American program but it uses your Windows location to set the currency, so it should adjust itself accordingly.
Download here: Invoice Expert
A complete money-management toolkit for small business owners
These days genuine freeware - that is, software that's given away for free without adverts, bundled software or ulterior motives - is a rare thing, but it describes AdminSoft Accounts: more than 300,000 people have taken advantage of what is a surprisingly thorough free accounting system (and an unusually honest set of terms and conditions).
It can handle not just invoicing and statements but remittance advices, stock control, purchase orders, budgeting and some HR functions too. It's a UK program so the default is pounds sterling, but it works happily in other currencies too.
Download here: AdminSoft Accounts
Free small business accounting in the cloud – no desktop software needed
Designed specifically for non-accountants, QuickFile offers free tiers for small businesses while still delivering automatic invoicing, purchase receipt management, quotations and multi-currency support.
It’s cloud-based rather than a software download, and if you like the free version you can upgrade to an ad-free, more advanced version with bulk invoicing, revision history and a host of power user features for a modest fee.
Try it online: QuickFile
Make your own accounting sheets using the free office suite
You don't necessarily need a dedicated free accounting program, especially if your requirements are pretty straightforward. For many businesses and sole traders, all you really need is a simple spreadsheet - and with a price tag of zero, Apache OpenOffice fits the bill nicely.
It's well worth browsing the library of templates once you've downloaded the main app, as there are plenty of user-created templates that you can easily tweak to suit your own specific requirements - not just for accounting, but for other common business tasks too.
Review and where to download: Apache OpenOffice