MANAGING THE BOOKS is one of the necessary nuisances that all contractors need to deal with. For offices not large enough to warrant the overhead for a full-time bookkeeper, small-business accounting software can be an economical and convenient solution. But many accounting packages are difficult to set up and understand.
Enter QuickBooks Premier Contractor Edition 2006 (www.intuit.com, $399.95) a major upgrade and refinement of Intuit's popular small-business accounting program, which is configured specifically for contractors with up to 20 employees.
This latest edition offers many new features that make it easier to use almost right out of the box than earlier versions and aims to provide the information you or your accountant needs to keep the books in order daily and throughout the year. The program, which has been streamlined for easier navigating, uses graphical interfaces with flow chart diagrams following standard accounting practices so that users understand how key business tasks fit together and won't get lost anywhere along the way.
Setting up the program now leaves from the express track, requiring navigation of only about 25% of the step-by-step set-up screens that earlier versions of QuickBooks required. According to the developer, first-time users can enter their opening data in about 30 minutes.
While, for most of us, learning accounting practices is not intuitive, the learning curve is flattened when the basic tenets and ground rules are prop-erly explained. After the initial set-up, program users can rely on the Learning Center for tutorials that show and tell how to complete everyday business tasks. The tutorials explain how to do job costing, bill customers, pay bills, receive payments and generate reports.
The Home page displays a bookkeeping workflow diagram that puts access to all-important activities on one screen, using an uncluttered chart of clearly defined arrows, connecting lines and icons to show the work order for most bookkeeping functions. The chart eliminates the drilling down through multiple menus to find any particular activity or task. One click and you are there, where you need to or mean to be. The Home page also offers a quick look at current account balances, which are updated automatically as you work in the program. Though the Home page is initially customized during the set-up process, it is always possible to add new functions as the need arises.
Four QuickBooks Centers — Customer, Vendor, Employee and the subscription-based Payroll — provide all pertinent data relating to each business relationship, with contact data and notes and all relevant transactional information such as payments, outstanding bills and overdue invoices grouped together, eliminating navigating between multiple lists, forms and reports.
The Employee Center shows all employee information including personal, employment, compensation and workers' compensation accessible from one screen.
The Payroll Center helps contractors stay atop payroll and payroll compliance, showing at a glance how much they owe, to whom and when payment is due. Contractors can elect any of several subscription-based do-it-yourself Payroll options, including Standard Payroll and Enhanced Payroll, which let users run payroll, pay taxes and other liabilities and process payroll forms.
The Enhanced Payroll supports processing state and federal tax forms, tracks and creates reports for workers' compensation and creates net-to-gross calculations. Contractors may opt for Assisted Payroll, which enables processing payroll and printing paychecks directly from QuickBooks or use of optional Direct Deposit. With this service, Intuit files federal and state payroll taxes, makes payroll tax deposits and prints a user's W-2 forms.
Among enhancements that benefit contractors are an Audit Trail feature, which is always on, making it easier to spot errors and fraudulent transactions and track changes, and a Job Costing Center, which offers fast access to summaries of job costs and profits as well as expenses not assigned to a job. The program features Billing Rate Levels by Employee, which enable contractors to automatically charge different hourly rates for apprentices, journeymen or project managers and the ability to create invoices and purchase orders directly from estimates or estimates for change orders.
In addition to 120 generic reports, 18 contractor-specific reports are available, including six advanced job-costing reports that allow users to view and analyze costs by vendor, job, cost-to-complete and committed costs.
QuickBooks 2006, which is built on a fast new industry standard SQL database, maximizes use of data by integrating key features with Microsoft Word and Excel, making it easier to share data among programs. With a free add-on module, the program synchronizes with Microsoft Outlook for automatic one-click updating of customer, vendor or job information in QuickBooks if there are any changes in Outlook or the other way around.
For example, though contractors can fill out a time worksheet that can be used to create invoices and pay bills, QuickBooks Premier Contractor Edition can also be set up so that any employee can log his own hours and not have access to the rest of the program.
Bill and Patti Feldman are freelance writers for magazines, building product manufacturers and other companies on a broad range of topics. They can be reached at [email protected]