Cash vs Accrual Accounting

The difference between cash and accrual accounting is important to understand, whether you plan to handle your own financial statements or hire an outside professional.  The difference lies in the timing of when sales and purchases are recorded in your accounts.  Read on to understand the implications of using each method.

Cash Based Accounting

The cash basis of accounting recognizes revenues when cash is received, and expenses when they are paid.  This method does not recognize accounts receivable or accounts payable.  Many small businesses opt to use the cash basis of accounting because it is simple to maintain.  It’s easy to determine when the transaction has occurred (the money is in the bank or out of the bank) and there is no need to track receivables or payables.  The cash method is also beneficial in terms of tracking how much cash the business actually has at any given time; you can look at your bank balance and understand the exact resources at your disposal.  Also, since transactions aren’t recorded until the cash is received or paid, the income isn’t taxed until it’s in the bank.

Accrual Based Accounting

Under the accrual basis, revenues and expenses are recorded when they are earned, regardless of when the money is actually received or paid.  This method is more commonly used than the cash method.  The upside is that the accrual basis gives a more realistic idea of income and expenses during a period of time, therefore providing a long-term picture of the business that cash accounting can’t provide.  The downside is that accrual accounting doesn’t provide any awareness of cash flow; a business can appear to be very profitable while in reality it has empty bank accounts.  Accrual based accounting without careful monitoring of cash flow can have potentially devastating consequences.

The Effects of Cash and Accrual Accounting

Understanding the difference between cash and accrual accounting is important, but it’s also necessary to put this into context by looking at the direct effects of each method.  Let’s look at an example of how cash and accrual accounting affect the bottom line differently. Consider the following transactions for a month of business:

Sent out an invoice for $5,000 for a web design project completed this month
Received a bill for $1,000 in developer fees for work done this month
Paid $75 in fees for a bill you received last month
Received $1,000 from a client for a project that was invoiced last month

The Effect on Cash Flow: Under the cash basis of accounting, the profit for this month would be $925 ($1,000 in income minus $75 in fees).  On the other hand, under the accrual method, the profit for this month would be $4,000 ($5,000 in income minus $1,000 in developer fees).  This example displays how the appearance of income stream and cash flow can be affected by the accounting process that is used.

The Effect on Taxes: Now imagine that the above example took place between November and December of 2015.  One of of the differences between cash and accrual accounting is that they affect which tax year income and expenses are recorded in.  Under the cash basis, income is recorded when you receive it, whereas with the accrual method, income is recorded when you earn it.  Following the above example, under the accrual basis, if you invoice a client for $5,000 in December of 2015, you would record that transaction as a part of your 2013 income (and thus pay taxes on it), regardless of if you actually receive the payment in January of 2016.

At the end of the day, both methods only give you part of the business picture, and deciding on the most beneficial method will likely be an ongoing process as your business continues to grow. Another important consideration is that some businesses are required to use the accrual method.

The Bottom Line

While neither method is perfect, you can make the most of the option you choose by understanding what the numbers produced mean, and using them to answer your business’s specific financial questions.  When it comes to significant accounting decisions like selecting the cash or accrual method, consulting a professional can help you feel confident that you’ve made the best choice for your business, as well as afford you valuable, strategic advice going forward.

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