Accrual Principle

Accrual principle can be defined as any business transaction that occurs should be recorded whether cash or credit basis.

The accrual principle concept states that any accounting transactions should be recorded in the accounting period in which they occur rather than the accounting period in which the related cash flows occur. 

Accrual Principle

This principle is a fundamental requirement of all accounting frameworks, such as International Financial Reporting (IFRS) and StandardsGenerally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). 

The accrual principle allows us to aggregate all revenue and expense information for an accounting period without the delays and distortions caused by the cash flows arising from that period.

How Accrual Accounting Principle Works 

The concept of accrual accounting is that transactions are recognized by matching revenues to expenses (the matching principle) when the transaction occurs instead of when that payment is made or received. 

Payment

This method gives a more accurate picture of a company's recent financial position by showing the current cash inflows or outflows combined with future expected cash inflows or outflows. 

The accrual accounting principle recognizes revenues, expenses, gains, losses, and the corresponding increase or decrease in assets and liabilities, during the transaction period. 

This principle relies on revenue recognition and matching principles which consider the timing of the recognition of business transactions and events.

Recognition formally records a business transaction or event in an entity's financial accounting records. Realization converts non-cash resources and rights into money through converting claims to cash or selling an asset for cash. 

Recognition is the process of recording a business transaction. It establishes the completion of the earning process and is synonymous with cash inflow or cash outflow.

The cash accounting basis considers the realization of - and the resulting cash flow from - a transition or event.

Accrual Accounting compared to Cash Accounting

The key difference between the accrual and cash accounting methods lies in the accounting period in which the revenues and expenses are recorded.

The accrual accounting method is based on matching revenues against expenses in the accounting period the transaction takes place instead of when the payment is received/processed.

The accrual method also requires businesses to factor in "allowance for doubtful accounts" since goods are delivered to customers before payments are received (payment on delivery), and some customers, due to some reasons (like goods no longer needed), may fail to pay for it.

Payment

Some customers may pay for the goods in advance (pre-booking the goods) even before the goods are delivered to the customer. 

In such an instance, initially, the payment is recorded as a liability for the seller (because the business is then liable to deliver the goods, having received the payment).

When the goods are delivered to its customer, the payment received for the goods is transferred to the revenue account from the liability account. 

Similarly, when a bill (expense) is received, it is recorded in the expense account, even before paying for the expense is made.

  • Cash accounting method

The cash accounting method records the revenue and expense transactions when the payments are paid out or physically received. 

This method is confined to small businesses that do not deal with significantly high volumes of transactions. 

The advantage of the cash accounting method over the accrual accounting method is that these businesses can account for all cash in hand.

However, if these small businesses trade goods on credit, then they would be unable to account for future payments since cash accounting does not have a means of recording future payments. 

Therefore, any business using the cash accounting method may not always present the most accurate view of its actual financial position.

GAAP and IFRS on the Accrual Principle

The accrual concept is generally considered standard accounting practice for large companies. It is considered by the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) and the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)

Building

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) prefer the accrual accounting method because it records sales when they occur, providing a clearer insight into a company's performance and actual sales trends than just when payment is received.

Companies can use the accrual accounting or cash method while preparing their financial statements. However, in the US, if a company is public, it must use the accrual accounting method specified by GAAP in the United States.

The US GAAP includes specific revenue recognition standards that businesses must follow to ensure that revenue is recognized when a sale has been made, regardless of when the customer pays for it. 

Revenue is recognized if goods are transferred to the customer or services are provided. If the customer has not paid, a corresponding accounts receivable is booked, which is eliminated once the company receives cash.

Apart from just using cash receipts, these accounting frameworks guide businesses worldwide in accounting for revenues and expenses. However, companies still have great flexibility to enact accounts receivable procedures with varying time frames.

Cards

GAAP is required for public company accounts filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Non-listed companies may follow GAAP if they need financing or if a third party scrutinizes their accounts; for example, they must be audited. 

In any case, it is commonplace to use accrual accounting. Smaller enterprises may use cash accounting as their accounts are not used externally or by third parties.

Big businesses consider the accrual accounting principle the most valid accounting system to determine their business operations' financial position and cash flows, with revenues and related expenses recorded within the same reporting period. 

Businesses earning over $5 million in revenues must use the accrual principle for tax purposes.

Accrual Basis Accounting

Accrual accounting is a mandate for any regulatory filing that requires US GAAP (For example, in the US), such as a company's annual reports 10-K filing to the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). 

Most investors and financial institutions require GAAP financial statements when evaluating a business, which is a significant reason why accrual accounting is a popular method.

However, a few exceptions do exist, mainly around income taxes. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows small businesses with less than $25 million in annual revenue to choose between accrual or cash-based accounting. Sole proprietors, partnerships, and S-Corps are entitled to use cash accounting. 

Examples of the usage of the accrual principle are:

  • Recording the revenue while billing the customer rather than when the customer pays.
  • Recording an expense when incurred rather than when paid for it.
  • Recording the estimated amount of bad debt while billing a customer rather than when it becomes apparent that the customer will not pay back.
  • Recording depreciation for a fixed asset over its useful life, rather than charging it as an expense in the period purchased.
  • Recording a commission when the salesperson earns it, rather than the period they have paid it.
  • Recording wages in the period earned rather than in the period paid.

Need for this Principle

Some uses for this principle are listed below: 

a) The complexity of business transactions

The accrual principle was used to respond to the increasing complexity of business transactions. Large companies that trade goods on credit may continue to receive revenue over a long period from goods sold earlier. 

Accounts

Recording these transactions when the payments occur would reflect an inaccurate picture of the company's financial position, as the financial markets require timely and accurate reporting of a company's finances.

With accrual accounting, large businesses can present the most accurate picture of the company's financial position.

b) Measuring the performance of a business during a particular period

When any business wants to examine its actual performance during a specific period, such as a quarter or fiscal year, the accrual method of accounting is a valuable tool. 

Performance

It is based on the matching principle, i.e., revenues are recorded in the accounting period when goods and services are delivered, and the expenses are recorded in the accounting period when goods and services are purchased.

Accrual accounting can provide a more accurate overview of a business's performance over a specific period because future revenues and expenses can be accounted for. 

The financial information recorded under the accrual accounting principle enables the business to calculate financial metrics such as net income, operating margin, and gross profit margin.

Benefits

Some of the benefits for this principle are numbered below: 

1. It is a holistic approach: 

Accrual accounting is a comprehensive system, unlike the cash accounting method. A business is not about cash only, as many aspects should be considered. Under the accrual accounting method, all the business's financial transactions (cash and others) can be recorded.

Financial statements like the balance sheet and income statement are created to get an even better picture of how a company is doing financial.

2. There are almost no discrepancies/errors: 

As the financial transactions are immediately recorded as they occur, there is virtually no place for errors, inaccuracies, or discrepancies. Moreover, since everything is always recorded, the information is readily available if one wants to do an audit.

3. Accuracy level is higher: 

Accrual accounting follows a double-entry system, i.e., one account is debited, and another is credited. 

It increases the accuracy level of accounting, and later on, during an audit, things get easier. 

Limitations

This principle also presents a few limitations: 

1. Quite complex: 

Cash accounting is easy to record and maintain; However, this is not the case with the accrual principle.

Accounts

Accrual accounting is complicated every time a financial transaction happens. There should be a record/entry in the books of accounts. Moreover, maintaining the whole accounting system is not an easy task as well.

2. Holistic but challenging to maintain: 

A business has different aspects. Moreover, hundreds and thousands of financial transactions need to be recorded in a single day under this accounting if a business is enormous. Maintaining all of these daily, day after day, is not an easy job for an accountant.

3. Example

The significant limitation of the accrual principle can be easily understood by looking at the example provided below: 

Suppose that BNM Company never makes a payment for the raw materials. Such a situation would present a substantial financial problem for company JKF, not just that it would also show the company an accounting problem.

The Accrual accounting principle may indicate that a business generated profits during a specific accounting period while the recorded cash flows are yet to be received. 

Potentially, it can portray the business as profitable even when it lacks sufficient cash flow to finance its operations. In extreme cash flow shortages, the company may even become bankrupt despite showing current profits per its financial statements.

Shutdown

Key Learnings

  • Accruals form the basis of accrual-based accounting, which is the only way of accounting under GAAP and is required by the SEC to be listed on the US exchanges.
  • They come in the form of accrued revenues/expenses, where they are recognized at the point of transaction without the receiving/payment of cash and cash equivalents.
  • Accrual-based accounting is preferred over cash accounting because it gives the company a more comprehensive picture of its financial health.
  • They are made through adjusting journal entries, which adjust the cash transactions accordingly to the periods the transactions are completed.
  • It will be reflected on the income statement as normal revenue/expenses and are credited/debited respectively on the balance sheet.
  • Accrued revenues and expenses are similar to accounts receivable/payable and will take the form of the latter after invoicing/being invoiced, respectively.

FAQs

Accounting Foundations Course

Everything You Need To Build Your Accounting Skills

To Help You Thrive in the Most Flexible Job in the World.

Learn More

Researched and authored by Rohan Kumar Singh | LinkedIn

Free Resources

To continue learning and advancing your career, check out these additional helpful WSO resources: