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Bookkeepers are accounting professionals who record financial transactions and maintain financial records. Unlike accountants, bookkeepers mainly keep track of financial data, rather than analyzing it to make decisions.
Historically, the bookkeeping career has been an opportunity for emerging accounting professionals to gain experience. Because of the rise in accounting software in recent years, however, this role's prominence has declined in recent years. Even so, businesses still employ bookkeepers in large numbers: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 1,620,000 bookkeepers were employed as of 2020.
College degrees and professional certifications can help make bookkeepers stand out. A 2019 survey by the American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers (AIPB) asked AIPB-credentialed bookkeepers if they would recommend certification to others. A resounding 90% responded yes.
This guide profiles the bookkeeping career path in detail. It covers duties, key skills, salaries, job outlook, and more. Use it to inform your career planning and education research.
Bookkeeping jobs focus heavily on recording financial transactions and maintaining records of those transactions. These transactions typically include sales revenue, business expenses and purchases, invoices, accounts payable, and accounts receivable.
The Corporate Finance Institute describes bookkeeping responsibilities through the eight-step accounting cycle. Within this framework, a bookkeeper's duties include:
Recording Transactions and Making Journal Entries: Bookkeepers record their employers' daily transactions, entering them into a journal. In accounting, a journal is a working document that itemizes all debits and credits. Posting: Posting is an accounting term used to describe the transfer of journal entries into a general ledger. During the posting process, only categorized balance totals make the transfer. The separate transactions that led to those totals remain in the journal. Performing Trial Balances: Before an accountant creates a final financial statement, the accounting team must make sure all balances add up correctly. Bookkeepers create a financial statement draft called the trial balance to test the accuracy of their records. Creating Worksheets: Once account balances have been verified, bookkeepers produce documents known as worksheets. These detailed documents allow for close analysis of companies' financial standing, enabling direct comparisons of accounting periods. Making Entry Adjustments: Sometimes, companies need to account for income or expense transactions that began but did not resolve within the same accounting period. Bookkeepers perform this task by completing what are known as adjusting entries.
To learn more about accounting terms, check out our guide for accounting terminology.
Key Hard Skills for Bookkeepers
Mathematics: The duties of a bookkeeper require working with numbers every day. Thus, these professionals need a strong grasp of mathematical concepts to ensure accurate recording of financial transactions. Computer Literacy: Most employers use accounting software to assist with their bookkeeping. As such, bookkeeping professionals familiar with multiple popular software platforms may have better job prospects. Software skills also help bookkeepers perform their work more efficiently and accurately. Data Entry: The administrative work involved with bookkeeping includes entering large quantities of data into computerized systems. Speed and accuracy with data entry tasks are essential to bookkeepers' success. Finance and Business Knowledge: A thorough working knowledge of basic and intermediate concepts of finance and business can be an asset to bookkeepers' job performance.
Key Soft Skills for Bookkeepers
Attention to Detail: Bookkeeping careers involve processing extensive financial and numerical data. Miscalculating or overlooking even small pieces of information can cause problems requiring significant correctional efforts. Communication Skills: In carrying out their duties, bookkeepers often run into errors. They must be able to communicate these issues with precision in order to find fast, effective solutions. Collaboration: Bookkeepers work alongside many other professionals, including colleagues within and outside of accounting. Strong interpersonal and collaboration skills tend to serve these workers well. Critical Thinking: In an accounting context, critical thinking includes the ability to look past standard methods to find alternative problem-solving solutions. Bookkeepers sometimes encounter complex issues with no obvious answers, the kinds of situations where well-developed critical thinking skills can help.
Bookkeeper Areas of Expertise
Bookkeeping careers cover general and specialized areas. Some professionals develop expertise in particular skills or industries. Common examples include:
A bookkeeping career focusing on payroll duties involves time tracking, benefits management, and wage distribution. Bookkeepers who specialize in this area also tie their work to the revenue or funding sources that finance outgoing payments.
Beyond these core duties, payroll bookkeeping may also involve:
- Ensuring payrolled employees comply with employer policies and regulations regarding sick leave, compassionate leave, vacation time, and paid time off
- Preparing wage and salary reports for management to review
- Working with insurance and benefits providers to resolve questions and issues regarding coverage and payouts
In small businesses, payroll bookkeeping is usually included in bookkeepers' general duties. Larger companies or public organizations may hire payroll bookkeepers as a separate role.
Common Job Titles
Payroll Bookkeeper Payroll Clerk
Accounts Payable/Accounts Receivable
Some businesses deal with large volumes of invoices — transactions that do not involve an upfront exchange of money. In these cases, the associated finances are categorized as accounts payable and accounts receivable. Accounts payable tracks money a business owes to another party, while accounts receivable tracks money other parties owe a business.
Businesses with a significant number of invoices in accounts payable or receivable may employ dedicated bookkeeping clerks for these transactions. Accounts payable bookkeepers help protect companies' credit standing by ensuring they meet financial obligations on time. Accounts receivable bookkeepers collect money owed to the business and report delinquent accounts.
Common Job Titles
Accounts Payable/Receivable Bookkeeper Accounts Payable/Receivable Clerk
In the United States, nonprofit organizations must follow specific state and federal laws about their accounting and bookkeeping. Bookkeepers at nonprofit organizations require a detailed understanding of these special principles to avoid legal penalties for these groups.
Nonprofit bookkeeping also maintains a core focus on accountability by tracking where money goes and how it is used. For-profit businesses, on the other hand, use bookkeeping and accounting techniques to help maximize profits within an accounting period.
Common Job Titles
Nonprofit Administrator Compliance Coordinator Accounting Specialist
Bookkeeping qualifications and requirements vary by employer. It was once common for a high school diploma to serve as the minimum education for an entry-level bookkeeping job. However, employers today may prefer candidates with a relevant degree or certificate.
Accounting programs offer the most direct training for a career in bookkeeping. However, students majoring in other business- or math-related subjects can also qualify for these positions. Detailed knowledge of accounting principles and best practices is essential.
An associate degree or bachelor's degree in accounting or a related field may help you land an entry-level bookkeeping job. Certifications such as the certified bookkeeper and certified public bookkeeper endorsements can also validate a professional's employability and skill set.
Bookkeeping Career Outlook and Salary
The BLS projects a 3% decline in the number of bookkeeping jobs between 2020 and 2030. This is mainly the result of technological advancement. Accounting software has become more sophisticated, automating tasks that bookkeepers used to perform.
Even so, the BLS still projects more than 170,000 annual openings for bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks from 2020 to 2030. The BLS reports these professionals earned a median annual salary $45,560 per year as of 2021, and September 2022 Payscale data shows an average salary of $45,160 per year, with some bookkeepers earning additional income through bonuses, commissions, and profit sharing.
Career Spotlight: Lauren Colson
Why did you become a bookkeeper? What initially interested you about the field?
I've always loved numbers — they just make sense to me. When I learned there was a profession where you could utilize numbers to tell a story and to make decisions in the business, I was sold!
What education did you need to pursue this career? How did it prepare you for bookkeeping?
You don't need an accounting degree to become a bookkeeper. My path led me to a degree in accounting and finance. I did learn some basic knowledge in my undergrad, but I gained the bulk of my experience on the job through doing. Nothing beats actually doing the work in the real world!
What was the job search like after graduating with your degrees?
I didn't go to what felt like the traditional route of going to a Big Four accounting firm. It just wasn't the right move for me. Searching for a job with zero experience was really difficult. There were a lot of companies that disqualified me based on that. I remember talking to the manager at my first job before they hired me. I was exhausted from the job search at this point. When asked the dreaded question of, "What is your experience?", I replied, "I don't have any. But how am I ever going to get any experience if no one gives me a chance?" After a grueling interview process, they gave me the opportunity to be a staff accountant at this company.
What was the career path that led you to own a bookkeeping firm? What do you think helped you most on your journey?
After my role as a staff accountant, I moved to a financial analyst position and then to a controller position, all at larger publicly traded companies. I gained a ton of experience and enjoyed the journey, but I knew something was missing. I needed a way to be innovative and wanted to build something, and that just wasn't possible in the roles I had. After much deliberation and a large salary cut, I moved to a startup and fell in love! I loved the culture and the entrepreneurial spirit everyone had. I even got to build the financial infrastructure of the company. I was in heaven! I was also surprised that what I came to build wasn't already built. It made me think, "Hmm, maybe there are other companies out there that need my help." This eventually led to the start of my business.
Creating and fostering relationships helped me the most on my journey. A lot of the success we had in the business early on came from my amazing network referring business our way.
What are some of the most rewarding aspects of working as a bookkeeper? Some of the most challenging aspects?
There is so much that is rewarding. Working with a client and being able to provide them with the information to make the best decisions for their business comes first. Owning a business is hard. When you have a partner [bookkeeper] that cares about your business, has your back, and is proactive… Well, there is nothing like seeing the joy that comes from our clients and the successes they have had with their businesses.
It's always challenging when you see a business that is not performing well. Sometimes, we have to be the ones to point something out: "Cash is dwindling." Or "Expenses are too high." Those are always hard conversations, but they are crucial. Sometimes business owners are too close to the business or in a bit of denial and really need us to spell it out for them.
What do you think is the most important skill bookkeepers need to succeed?
The most important skill for a bookkeeper is critical thinking. Taking a step back from the doing and taking a holistic look at your work is one of the best ways to catch errors. Ask good questions. Spot trends. And be proactive!
What advice would you give to students considering becoming a bookkeeper?
First off, bookkeeping is the best! OK, I may be biased, but being a bookkeeper is such an important role that every business requires!
My advice would be to have fun along the way. Bookkeepers and accountants have a reputation for being dull and dry. I'm here to tell you that there are plenty of us out there that have big brains and big personalities. My team, for example: We're number geeks with people skills!
Lauren Colson is a numbers geek with over 11 years of financial experience. From large publicly traded companies to high-growth startups, these industries cultivated her passion. She knew she had a talent for helping other business owners. Now the owner of Colson Strategies, Lauren's rockstar team provides accounting and finance services ranging from bookkeeping to CFO. They take the "scary" out of your finances so you can focus on what matters most. Her purpose is to empower entrepreneurs with the tools to make the best decisions for their business. Lauren is more than a business owner. She is a mother of two, a coffee lover, and a book-reading, beach-loving, mindset enthusiast.
Questions About Bookkeeping Careers
Can you make a career out of bookkeeping?
Yes. Some people take bookkeeping roles to gain practical training for a career in accounting or auditing. However, the role also offers long-term stability for those considering it as a dedicated career path.
How do I start a career in bookkeeping?
Credentials like an associate or bachelor's degree in accounting or a related field can develop the background knowledge needed for entry-level bookkeeping jobs. Candidates can also earn certified bookkeeper or certified public bookkeeper credentials to boost their employability.
Where does a bookkeeper work?
According to the BLS, most bookkeepers work for professional services firms; retail and wholesale businesses; and finance, insurance, and healthcare providers. The job has traditionally been performed in office settings. However, remote work opportunities have become increasingly available since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Are bookkeepers in high demand?
Overall, the labor market for bookkeepers is projected to decline as more complex accounting software platforms automate some of these professionals' duties. Even so, the BLS projects more than 170,000 bookkeeping job openings per year from 2020 to 2030.
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