We introduced the General Journal in an earlier column, Paper Accounting. We said that all financial transactions could be recorded in a General Journal — and in fact in the early months of a company, probably should be. We said that the essential data to be recorded are the date, the transaction (acct / amt acct / amt ...), and comments (e.g., who you paid or who paid you).
The date is the date (mo/dy/yr), right? Not necessarily. If you're closing your books monthly, mo/dy/yr is ok — the mo-entry clearly identifies the month. But if you're closing them weekly, it can get a little awkward.
How do you identify what transactions belong to "this" week? Or "last" week? Or "this week" last year? You now need a "key" that relates each week in the year — Sunday through Saturday, or however you choose to define a "week" — to a beginning and ending mo/dy/yr. If you're doing paper accounting, that "key" is a calendar — perhaps with week-numbers, e.g., 1-53, written on it. If you're doing computer accounting, however, your software must recognize what constitutes a "week" — which may affect what you want in the date-field.
For example, I use a week-number for date — and did years ago when I was still paper accounting. My week-number format is <last-digit-of-year><week-number>, e.g., this year, 1998, my week-numbers run from 801—853. This method clearly identifies which transactions belong to which week. The only reason for last-digit-of-year is to avoid confusion with prior year transactions (which may have carried over as the result of year-end reversals, open receivables or payables, etc.) and next year transactions (so that I don't have to set up a next-year folder or computer file until I'm ready to close the current year).
But how do you distinguish 1988 transactions from 1998 transactions? By the label on the Manila folder, "General Journal - 1988" — or in the case of the computer, the directory name is "General Journal" and the file under it containing 1988 data is named "1988".
How do you know what day the transaction happened? For most businesses, that's a "don't care". It really doesn't make any difference whether incoming transactions (e.g., vendor invoices) were received on Tuesday... or Wednesday... or Thursday (after all the Post Office is not that dependable). It does make a difference what "week" they were received because payment is going to be due about 4 weeks later. And most businesses do their outgoing transactions (e.g., bill payment, payroll, etc.) only once a week. And if you really need to know the exact day something was received, you can always go back to the source document (assuming you do date-stamp incoming mail).
For businesses that do care about day (e,g., retail, where you'd like to compare this Monday's sales with the equivalent "Monday" of prior years), a day-of-week encoding (e.g., 1-7) can to be added to the journal. For example, in my retail businesses, I used day-number as the first digit of my sales-receipt numbers, which numbers ended up in the equivalent of the comments-field above.
The General Journal requires two Manila folders (whether you're doing paper or computer accounting). One is for the hard-copy Journal. Even if you're keeping the Journal on computer, you need a hard-copy for auditors and others — and to backup your backup. The other is for the source documents — the piece(s) of paper you recorded the transactions from.
One passing suggestion — my comments-field always starts off with a sequence-number (within the week). Then I annotate the upper-right-hand corner of each source document with <week-number><sequence-number>, e.g., 826-1, 826-2, etc. This makes it easier to go back and find a particular source document, especially if there are a lot of them.
The General Journal records all transactions not recorded elsewhere, i.e., in other journals. Since subsequent columns will be describing these other journals, we'll leave the details of the transactions to those columns.