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A Look at the Best Online Accounting Tools

Small-business accounting is moving online, where it's becoming cheaper, more powerful--and a lot more confusing

Online accounting packages sure make things seem easy. Linking directly to business accounts, doing sophisticated invoicing, even getting an insight into your taxes--a snap, right? But figuring out which tool works best for your business isn't quite so simple.

To keep you on the right side of the IRS, here are our picks for online accounting tools for companies of all sizes.

Best for accounting-savvy small-business owners

QuickBooks Online Simple Start ($13 per month)
Considering Intuit pretty much invented small-business accounting tools and has 90 percent of the market, it's no shocker the company offers a genuinely effective online product. Aimed at the single-user market--though your accountant can peek at what you're doing--Simple Start lays out company information in relatively easy-to-use, tab-based web pages. Most business functions, such as managing invoices and printing checks, run smoothly. And we're impressed with sophisticated options like customized charts of accounts and complex tax tracking. But making all this capability work takes a surprising amount of accounting knowledge. Be sure to sit down with your bean counter and set up QuickBooks properly so you don't make a royal fiscal mess.

Best for web-savvy, growing companies

FreshBooks ($20 and up per month)
FreshBooks attempts to be just that: a fresh way to keep your books. Where other programs are more interested in the minutiae of accounting, FreshBooks offers a simpler layout, more web-based collaboration features such as team management and a lower level of accounting speak. By and large, it succeeds. The system presents a relatively legible account dashboard and understandable screens. Based on our tests, customer support is good. Plus, there's direct integration with online work tools such as Basecamp. But FreshBooks is still accounting software, which means screwing up is oh so easy. The program can convert contractor invoices into expenses that make no accounting sense, expense categories are oddly prone to errors and, most important, audit trails are flimsy.

Best for accounting-phobes

Outright ($10 per month)
Outright is not for large or growing firms, or for anyone with sophisticated accounting needs. However, for very basic accounting for, say, sole proprietors, it's hard to beat. Everything--and we mean absolutely everything--in your ledgers is boiled down to four simple web pages: Money In, Money Out, Reports and Taxes. Apart from a basic Overview page, that's all there is. And that's the beauty of it. Just start entering what you're getting paid and what you're spending, plug in your bank and credit card info, and with a bit of diligence, a surprisingly accurate picture of your business finances emerges. You'll also be able to determine what you owe the feds in taxes, which will save you from a world of hurt come tax season. With tools like Outright around, there's no excuse for not having bombproof business ledgers.

Jonathan Blum is a freelance writer and the principal of Blumsday LLC, a Web-based content company specializing in technology news.

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This article was originally published in the August 2011 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Books Smart.

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