What are Items in QuickBooks?

When I first started using QuickBooks back in about 2004, I had no idea what Items did. I’d been a self-employed bookkeeper for a number of years before that, and was very adept in it. But Items in QuickBooks threw me for a loop.

I knew for a very long time that I SHOULD understand them. I called QuickBooks support and talked to people there. I read about Items in books. I read about Items online. But I still didn’t understand what they did. All of the explanations were very complicated and made no sense to me.

I am a very visual learner. If I can understand the larger scheme of something, it is easier for me to understand how a detail fits within that scheme. I need the big picture, then I can fill in the details.

I DO understand the larger scheme of bookkeeping and accounting, and I have for a long time. I do understand how basic accounting theory works. It understand it so well that it is deeply intuitive. It “clicked” with me early in my career. So not being able to understand Items really bothered me. And on many of the accounting forums I used to visit, I saw that others were confused about Items as well. They didn’t get it either. So I knew I wasn’t alone. I wondered:

  • “Why can’t we post directly to the chart of accounts in the Invoice window?”
  • “Where is the money going when I use an Item?”
  • “ARGH! Intuit and their stupid Items!”

Then one day out of the blue, a light dawned. It clicked. I got it.

As you probably already know, on the three purchase windows in QuickBooks you have a choice of which to use to record the expense. You can use the Expenses tab, or you can use the Items tab.

The Expenses tab allows you to post directly to the chart of accounts. The Items tab does not. It dawned on me that, as far as the chart of accounts is concerned, both tabs did the same thing. This was my insight:

Items are simply a way of posting transactions to the chart of accounts. They are an intermediary step between us and the chart of accounts. They take the transaction, and post it to the chart of accounts based on how they were set up in the Items list.

This explanation is so easy that now it seems crazy to me that I didn’t immediately understand Items. But none of the explanations I encountered at that time were this simple, not by a long shot.


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