The accrual basis of accounting is the concept of recording revenues when earned and expenses as incurred. The use of this approach also impacts the balance sheet, where receivables or payables may be recorded even in the absence of an associated cash receipt or cash payment, respectively.
Accrual basis accounting is the standard approach to recording transactions for all larger businesses. This concept differs from the cash basis of accounting, under which revenues are recorded when cash is received, and expenses are recorded when cash is paid. For example, a company operating under the accrual basis of accounting will record a sale as soon as it issues an invoice to a customer, while a cash basis company would instead wait to be paid before it records the sale. Similarly, an accrual basis company will record an expense as incurred, while a cash basis company would instead wait to pay its supplier before recording the expense.
The accrual basis of accounting is advocated under both generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and international financial reporting standards (IFRS). Both of these accounting frameworks provide guidance regarding how to account for revenue and expense transactions in the absence of the cash receipts or payments that would trigger the recordation of a transaction under the cash basis of accounting.
The accrual basis of accounting tends to provide more even recognition of revenues and expenses over time, and so is considered by investors to be the most valid accounting system for ascertaining the results of operations, financial position, and cash flows of a business. In particular, it supports the matching principle, under which revenues and all related expenses are to be recorded within the same reporting period; by doing so, it should be possible to see the full extent of the profits and losses associated with specific business transactions within a single reporting period.
The accrual basis requires the use of estimates in certain areas. For example, a company should record an expense for estimated bad debts that have not yet been incurred. By doing so, all expenses related to a revenue transaction are recorded at the same time as the revenue, which results in an income statement that fully reflects the results of operations. Similarly, the estimated amounts of product returns, sales allowances, and obsolete inventory may be recorded. These estimates may not be entirely correct, and so can lead to materially inaccurate financial statements. Consequently, a considerable amount of care must be used when estimating accrued expenses.
A small business may elect to avoid using the accrual basis of accounting, since it requires a certain amount of accounting expertise. Also, a small business owner may choose to manipulate the timing of cash inflows and outflows to create a smaller amount of taxable income under the cash basis of accounting, which can result in the deferral of income tax payments.
A significant failing of the accrual basis of accounting is that it can indicate the presence of profits, even though the associated cash inflows have not yet occurred. The result can be a supposedly profitable entity that is starved for cash, and which may therefore go bankrupt despite its reported level of profitability. Consequently, you should pay attention to the statement of cash flows of a business, which indicates the flows of cash into and out of a business.