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In Gnucash, what is the best way to structure category accounts which will hold funds distributed across several bank accounts?

In Canada we have Tax Free Savings accounts which return more interest than regular savings accounts, but they have a quota on how much can be stored in them without a tax penalty.

So for example say I have $15,000 saved for house renovations, which is actually stored in 3 bank accounts: my TSFA, my spouse's, and a regular savings. How do I represent that in the gnucash account structure? When part of the money is spent, how should that be recorded? At any given time we should be able to look at the House Renos "account" and answer the question "can we afford to replace the roof yet?"

[update] The standard Assets top level parent can't be used because then the virtual category account of "New bike", "Vacation", etc. which also store funds in those same accounts would be included in the roll up as well.

So I need to get these virtual accounts:

-Savings........................... $20000.00
  -House Renovations............... $15000.00
  -New bikes....................... $ 2000.00
  -Vacation........................ $ 2000.00
  -Other........................... $ 1000.00

From these real accounts:

-Some Bank......................... $20000.00
  -Savings Account................. $10000.00
  -TFSA Account 1.................. $ 5000.00
  -TFSA Account 2.................. $ 5000.00
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Your question is a little ...unusual... in that you want GnuCash to show where you might, potentially, spend money at some unspecified time in the future. GnuCash's core intention is to show where your money currently is, or the account categories of your past actual income and expenditure. That's not to say that GnuCash can't do what you want it to - we just need to be a bit more creative.

You can start by creating some Asset accounts to show your real-world bank accounts and their notional sub-accounts, like this:

Account tree

Note that there is a HouseReno sub-account under 3 different real-world accounts, because that's how you want to spread your money. For simplicity, I've only put notional accounts for Vacation, Bikes, and Other under the Savings account - but you can create those sub-accounts under the TFSA accounts as well, if that would be useful.

Create transactions to show the actual money in each real-world account, distributed as desired across the notional sub-accounts.

Now, go to the GnuCash Reports menu and select Transaction Report. With the report window open, configure the Options for the report. In the Options/Accounts tab, you will cunningly select ONLY those accounts that include HouseReno in the account name. Exclude all other accounts from the report. In the Options/General tab, set the Start Date and End Date to be a wide range, so as to capture all past and future transactions in those accounts.

SAVE the report configuration with a meaningful name, like "HouseReno Balance".

Next week, or next year, with only 3 mouse clicks you will be able to get a report that looks like this (with updated balance, of course): Transaction Report output

Job done!

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  • Thanks very much Greg, this could scratch the itch. I quibble with the opening a tad tho'. Isn't "show where you might, potentially, spend money at some unspecified time in the future" the very definition of a 'savings account'? ;-) It's only because the institutions won't allow it that I don't have one account for each of the envelopes. Jun 15 at 19:06
  • OK, that's a fair point. Jun 16 at 11:47
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GnuCash allows hierarchical listing of accounts, with the parent also summarizing the children when in the accounts' list. So you can create "TFSA Accounts" account under "Assets", and create separate account for each of the TFSA's under that "TFSA Accounts" parent account. You can mark it as a placeholder for your convenience so that you won't assign transactions to the parent by mistake.

When you're looking at the "Accounts" page, you'll see something like this:

-Assets ................................. $115010.50
  -Savings Accounts ..................... $115000.00
     -Some Non-TFSA Savings Account ..... $100000.00
     -TFSA Accounts...................... $15000.00
        -TFSA Account 1 ................. $8000.00
        -TFSA Account 2 ................. $2000.00
        -TFSA Account 3 ................. $5000.00
  -Checking Account ..................... $10.50

When you collapse the "TFSA Accounts" it will look like this:

-Assets ................................ $115010.50
  -Savings Accounts .................... $115000.00
     -Some Non-TFSA Savings Account .... $100000.00
     +TFSA Accounts..................... $15000.00
  -Checking Account .................... $10.50

And you'll be able to see exactly how much you have in all of them, without trying to summarize them every day.

Transactions go as usual, for each of the accounts (you'll have to have a withdrawal transaction from each, when you pay the $15000 to the roofer, anyway).

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  • Thanks for the clear picture. Where in that structure would the "House Renos" account live? (which is a virtual account, a category, rather than an actual bank account, and has a summation of funds stored in several real bank accounts. The "Assets" parent can't be used because then the virtual category account of "New bike", "Vacation", etc. would be included as well.) Jan 4 '13 at 5:23
  • @matt, that would not be an account, that would be a budget. I haven't actually used the GnuCash budget support, but you can google it and see what you find. This article looks promising: suburbandollar.com/2009/04/08/budgeting-with-gnucash
    – littleadv
    Jan 4 '13 at 5:37
  • I read the gnucash docs for budgeting and it doesn't sound like what I'm after. I don't care about the time period, it'll be done when we "have enough", which might be one year or five. I don't need to track cash flow or expenses either (for these categories). After reading the linked article I now know I'm using the "envelope system", I didn't realise it had a name, however that can't be used (or I haven't figured out how) for money disbursed across accounts. Jan 4 '13 at 6:05
  • I added a chart similar to yours to help explicate what I'm after. Jan 4 '13 at 6:36
  • -1 because, although it's a good and well written answer, it misses the central principle of amalgamating across accounts. (To be fair, the initial question wording was not as clear about that as it could have been.) Jan 19 '13 at 5:46

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