Consulting Tools

Are you an Excel/Office consultant or freelancer? If so, I’d like to know what tools you use. Specifically how you track your time, invoice your clients, and account for your business.

I track my time in Excel. Whenever I complete a task, I add a line to a spreadsheet with the client, project, hours, category, and description. I also I have an invoice number and invoice date column so I know if I’ve billed that time or not. I don’t have any major complaints with this method except with how it interacts with the billing and accounting. (Hint: It doesn’t.)

For billing, again I use Excel. I filter the above mentioned time tracker on client, project, and invoice number (to get the blanks), then produce an invoice in Excel manually. I print the invoice and the filtered time tracking list to a pdf and send it out. It would be nice if it was a little more automated.

For accounting I use Microsoft Office Small Business Accounting. I enter invoices, cash receipts, expenses and such. It sucks.

MOSBA is now defunct. Microsoft, I guess, was trying to make something to compete with Quickbooks and probably decided it had better things to do. MOSBA is what QB was about 10 years ago. That is, it’s only good for the most basic stuff. I don’t need more than the basics, but I’m sick and tired of these “accounting” packages that show me a picture of a check when I want to enter a check. Seriously, I’m not an idiot. I grok that the information is stored in a database, so just show me a form to enter the information. I can appreciate that some people like the pictures, and that’s fine for them. But I’d prefer something more sophisticated.

As it turns out, sophistication costs a lot of dough. There are a lot of decent accounting packages out there, but I don’t have $10,000 to spend on one. Now that MOSBA is done, I need to transition to something else. As long as I’m transitioning, I thought I’d look for an integrated solution. Rather than actually research it myself, I’m hoping you’ll do all the work for me.

I want to enter my time as I do the work. I’d like to generate invoices from those time entries. I need flexibility, though. Some clients want a big number that matches their PO. Others want it broken down in various ways. I’d like to be able to specify by client and project how the time entries are summarized on the invoice. I’d also like to have a detail sheet separate from the invoice so that AP can have the invoice, but my contact can see the details. Then I want that invoice to be entered in the accounting system. I don’t want web-based software. Sorry SAAS folks, I just don’t see the benefit. The cost is that I can’t bill if my internet is down.

Beyond the time and billing, I still need to enter expenses and credit card transactions. No, I don’t need to interface directly with my credit card company. I can enter them myself. I also don’t need to track my investments for goodness sake. I just want what I want and not much more.

Oh, and I want an ODBC compliant backend. I could keep my time and billing in Excel if I could push it into the accounting system. So that leaves Quickbooks, and its XML based interface, out.

So what do you use?

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28 thoughts on “Consulting Tools

  1. I Don’t use a small business accounting package but I’ll comment on this
    “The cost is that I can’t bill if my internet is down.”
    I think that I have more computer, printer or other “own” equipment downtime compared to internet downtime,
    just a view from Australia

  2. I don’t know how well it works, but I found this QuickBooks tool while looking around:

    Looks like it supports pulling from Excel, Access, and any ODBC data source, rather than pushing data into QuickBooks via ODBC. $199, not sure how that fits your budget.

    (Note: I have not used this product and am not affiliated with the company in any way.)

  3. I use OfficeTime, It’s cross platform Mac/Windows. They have a 120 day free trial. The program costs $47U.S. The best value I’ve ever purchased. It’s a great program, simple and easy to use. They are always updating it, so you know it’s not stagnant.

    Click the button and start tracking time. Enter some notes for what you were working on. Click the timer button when you’r done. The program can track multiple projects, different billing rates and more.

    It will create invoices for you if you prefer. The invoices can be customized. I haven’t taken the time to do that. I use a custom Excel template I developed for my invoices. I cut and paste my notes into Excel, add the time and I’m done. It works for me, so long as I do it Everyday. This program has saved me the grief and agony of billing my clients.

    I used QuickBooks 2010 for the Mac, way too much horsepower for my small business. I used to use Quicken. It worked great. Then my smart account said I should switch. I should have switched accounts, not programs. If you have a really small business like mine, Quicken will work just fine. Unfortunately, it’s too much work to go back.

    I’m not an Excel/Office consultant, but I use Excel in my consulting practice. Thank you for all your articles. I learn a lot.

  4. i can only suggest a SAAS option: basecamp. It’s a really simple project management tool and it dovetails with various other packages, including invoicing ones

    one benefit you might find enticing is that it has fairly comprehensive webservice support so you could keep your excel front-end and publish up to basecamp using the webservices. now that’d be a hell of a blog post!

  5. Use Excel for Everything, Track time, payments, generate Invoices, accounting etc, the coding is done is such a way that I can choose the Database to be either Excel or Access.
    At the moment I am not seeing volumes to fill up 1 Mill rows any time soon…. but who knows….
    I cant understand people using an “Accounting” pacakage when you have Excel installed.

  6. I’m in the process of making something in Access 2010. Both Access 2010 and 2007 have a very nice view called “split form” which lets you have a datasheet view with a more customizable header. So, I put all the time entry fields (client, project, start, end, etc.) in the datasheet view, except for the Notes field, which goes in the header. This solves that problem in Excel where long notes make the whole detail row really tall. I end up with a lot of detail rows, which I filter by client in a combobox, and the notes for the selected detail row on their own above.

    I’ll generate the billings into a Word template using Bookmarks and some fine VBA code from Professional Excel Development.

    Dick, there is a new free program from MS, called MS Accounting 2009 I believe. I tried to use it, but there was way more detail than I wanted. I figured by doing my own in Access, I could get something simple and have more experience with Access 2010.

  7. I also use a combination of tools to get the job done, so will be reading the posts with interest. I use Outlook Calendar view to enter my time and work descriptions even though eventually the data is moved into Excel for filtering – I think I like the calendar view so that I can see if I have missed any time. Also the note pad in Outlook is better than trying to use an Excel cell for notes (at least for me).

    I use QuickBooks for the accounting side – I used to use Quicken which worked fine, but up here in Canada we have the option of incorporating which has some benefits but which requires a year end financial perspective and QB does this adequately for me. But the real reason now that I recall was it handles mutli-currency more effectively than Quicken which is important to me.

    I do not have anything that ties my time sheets to my invoices, and becuase of that my invoices are late – hate doing them – but I also like to keep more detailed notes about my time than I would like to share with clients, so I end up summarizing my time sheets anyway – like you some clients need a lot of detail, and others are fine with less – so I think it would be hard to automate


  8. I like to keep things very simple:

    I use Excel for everything except Invoices, for which I use Word/Adobe, and bank accounts reconciliation for which I use Quicken.

    I create a new Excel workbook from a template each year. It contains:
    – one sheet for each months expenses
    – a Summary expenses sheet
    – an asset tracker sheet
    – an Invoice tracker sheet
    – a Dividend and salary tracker sheet
    – a FastExcel tracker sheet for tracking the online payment and expenses systems
    – Cashflow and P&L model sheet
    These worksheets track VAT so that its easy to prepare the quarterly VAT returns.

    Time tracking is manual in my diary … (most of my customer projects are billed by the day rather than by the hour).

  9. I use Excel for everything, even invoices (a homemade template). Nothing’s linked together, and I don’t really care. I use PDFCreator to generate PDFs of my invoices.

    I used Quickbooks for a few weeks, but I hated it. I couldn’t do anything the way I wanted.

  10. I used to work with MSFT Office Small Business Accounting, but because it’s not supported any more, and because it was overkill, I went back to simple. For every project I create a Log workbook, where I track every day how long I spent with a small description, and what invoice I billed it to. I have a “Ledger” workbook where I keep my accounting, one year one tab, and I use a simple word template for my invoices. Pretty rudimentary, but it’s amply sufficient for my needs.

  11. Interesting topic Dick.

    My consulting time is very little (about 20 hours a month during peak). So I dont use any fancy stuff. I use PayPal for invoicing and collections. I have made little excel template that I use for sending detailed invoices to clients. I use timer in my mobile when I need to track time. For accounting et al, I use paypal again to get the statement. There is a little challenge as the payments are in USD while taxes and other stuff in Indian Rupee. But it seems to work fine for the time being.

  12. I’ve used a few different time tracking systems over the years, and have evolved to using an Access database that I wrote to track my time. My complaint with most time tracking programs is they don’t let me track time the way that *I* want to, so I’m very happy with system. I use Peachtree Accounting ( Latest versions are ODBC compliant, but you can also use the free SDK (, registration required) to write your own solutions that import and export. Or, you can import transactions via CSV files. You’ll find that Peachtree isn’t oversimplified, which is my main bias against QuickBooks. I’m not affiliated with Peachtree, it’s just the program that I’ve used for about 15 years now.

  13. I use QuickBooks. I hate it. It’s bloated and constantly tries to sell me supplies and services. The QB Time applet is a joke. It looks like it was written in VB3. 8.3 folder names?

    For timekeeping, I use a smartphone app. Actually, I use two. One is called Time Tracker, and the other is called TimeCatcher. TimeCatcher is put out by Intuit Labs, but doesn’t yet sync to QuickBooks. Nice. They’re both Android apps, by the way, and they create CSV files.

    I keep hoping GnuCash will get friendlier and better looking, but it sure ain’t there yet.

  14. Great comments so far. I use the free basecamp, but I haven’t been able to get my clients to use it effectively. They still send me emails.

    I just saw Access’ split form last week. Very cool.

    I think it’s time I tried Peachtree. I’ve been meaning to give it a test drive for a while, but no time.

    I’ve looked at Quickbooks “ODBC” drivers, but they all use the XML based SDK. It’s simply too slow. I like that they make the interface easier, but it doesn’t speed it up, so it’s like putting lipstick on a pig. I heard QB was dumping the old SDK and going entirely to web based interfaces. Does everything I do have to be on a web server now? I’m not a Luddite. Many apps I use are web based and they work well. But I still don’t use spreadsheets on the web. And accounting software won’t be moving there for me any time soon either.

    Quickbooks is an advertisement with some accounting functions. If you think they overcharge you for checks and W-2 forms, have a look at their inventory management add-ons. All web based SAAS. You want how much per user per month? Child, please.

  15. Hi all,

    In Sweden we are not allowed to use Excel as an accounting tool. The major reason for it is that it can be changed very easily. I use a software that explicit targeting micro companies and it also includes invoicing.

    For documenting the time spent on consulting I use my own developed .NET solution where I can export data to Excel if wanted. For all other stuff I use Excel including to make written quotations.

    Kind regards,

  16. I used to use MYOB but then could not do so in Vista.
    I tried MS Office Accounting but could not localise it in euro properly (it was UK Pounds only)
    so gave up and used Excel.
    There are some OSS accounting packages on Sourceforge but I never found time to try them.

    “In Sweden we are not allowed to use Excel as an accounting tool.”
    Just to be sure, who does not allow whom to use Excel?
    Is this a rule by an accountancy body on its members, or by the state for submitting returns, or what?
    How can it be enforced?
    John Stokdyk of AccountingWeb might be interested to hear about that!


  17. Patrick,

    For about three years ago the rules for the declaration of the fiscal year was changed. As part of the change the accounting body BFN together with the Taxation Authority explicit stated in the guidelines that Excel should not be used. Of course, it’s difficult to check that the rule is actually been followed.

    In it’s most simpliest form it’s easy to change the accounting in Excel without trigger a new verification. So the lack of stronger protection in Excel prevent it to be an acceptable accounting software. It exist a quite large group of accounting tools in Sweden and the vendors are taken care of their interest while it does not exist any officially group for Excel.

    Who is John Stokdyk?

    Kind regards,

  18. I’m not a freelancer, but my time is split amongst many internal clients and projects and I used to have a real nightmare tracking my time spent on each in any kind of accurate way.

    I used to tremble when people asked me how long I’d spent on a project because I knew that my ‘best guess end-of-day’ figure of how many hours/minutes I’d spent on each project was going to be way, way out. Typically, I’d only get about 5-6 hours of a 10 hour day logged in any way accurately so I had to guess the rest. What I missed was things like the phonecalls that resulted in a 10 minute update to a report/system, I would never get them logged and that time just disappeared.

    I now use Grindstone, an excellent (if memory-greedy) little app for tracking time. It does have an XML export option, but as I’m not using it for billing I’ve never really investigated it. It prompts when you return after being away from your PC for a while, has a stopwatch visible on screen all the time and is generally very good at making sure you are logging time against the right job.

    Best of all it’s free and actively being developed by a team that seem to have the right idea (and a sense of humour – see

  19. i have used the sane version of quick books for 15 years – i updated it once 10 years ago.
    i use excel to manage all our staff time across multiple projects and generate billing information – and then manually create invoices in quickbooks
    i use the save as pdf in excel to generate billing information attached to an invoice

    peachtree, myob and quickbooks are all very similar. if you want an integrated solution you need to spend a lot more money

  20. Ever since I discovered my sage accounting bag of hammers was not year 2k compliant I just use Excel.
    I just have a big list, a few data validation drop downs, a bunch of description columns and I do all my reporting with pivot tables.
    I do my invoices in Word with an OLE link to a simple workbook with invoice details.
    I don’t have that many transactions so its quite manageable.

  21. I track my time using a Notepad .LOG file.
    The shortcut icon on my QuickLaunch bar is clicked at the start or end of a task. It gets clicked when the phone rings BEFORE I pick up the phone. It is tied into my reboot and backup *.BAT files so that I am automatically clocked-out before I start maintenance.
    I wrote a little Word .DOT to analyze the time and to provide summaries by client, date etc.
    If anyone want to try it out I’d be happy to distribute a copy through this blog (if that is permitted).
    Sample data from this month’s file:

    10:00 AM 05/14/2010 IFF phone call from DS
    10:15 AM 05/14/2010 iff install via phone with DS
    10:44 AM 05/14/2010 maint Under et al.
    11:37 AM 05/14/2010
    11:58 AM 05/14/2010 iff tutorial
    12:31 PM 05/14/2010
    2:29 PM 05/14/2010 email

  22. When working on a project I setup each client on their own USB drive. I load a bunch of small public apps like AbstractSpoon’s ToDo list, an editor and menu sytem, etc, on each drive. I use the USB to keep client files and their project notes, progress and billing reports. I find this very simple yet robust for any project I’m working on and keeps the client records separate from one another when out of the office. Since I work with accounting software I have copies of Quickbboks, Peachtree and others on my laptop. I use Peachtree out of habit for my stuff, but they are all similar as you know.

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