Many years ago when I first began to operate my own small business I learned the hard way what the difference between the two methods of accounting were. And I only learned the difference when I made the decision to hire an outside bookkeeper to handle my accounting functions. In fact I learned the difference because I had been using the accrual basis method and the accountant tried to switch me over to the cash basis method. Without bothering to tell me!
You see because my business at the time involved billing customers and then waiting to be paid I had automatically adopted the accrual method. If I hadn’t then I would have had difficulty tracking my monthly sales figures and expenses. This is because when you use accrual basis accounting you bill a customer and record the transaction immediately. Whether you have been paid or not. The same goes for your own bills. When you receive the bill you record it and later when you actually pay the bill you go back to it and mark it as paid. This allows for a more even tracking of sales and expenses on a monthly basis.
The other way is called the cash basis method. Quite simply you record the transaction when you are paid for your goods or services. This method is good for a number of businesses such as restaurants and convenience stores. In fact it is fine for any small business that does not have to invoice its customers. Paying your bills works the same way as well. You record the bill when you pay it.
The two methods are actually very simple to understand but for reporting purposes to the IRS as an example they are very different. The IRS generally prefers the accrual method but you don’t have to use it. But some businesses use the cash method even though they have to wait for payments. They do this to avoid paying some taxes for the year at least temporarily because the revenue didn’t get recorded when the job was completed. It was recorded when it was paid which allowed it to be carried over into the next year. That’s one reason some businesses prefer the cash method.
So what happened with the accountant? Well I thought at the time that handing over the accounting functions to an outside bookkeeper would be a prudent move. In my case it wasn’t. I had been using the accrual method and once I had handed over my books they basically started me off from scratch using the cash basis method. The first time we sat down to go over the books I realized the problem. I had no idea how well my sales were doing because I hadn’t been paid for many of the jobs I had completed. And I didn’t know my total expenses either because the bills hadn’t been paid yet.
Of course this wasn’t going to do at all. And to top it off I hadn’t been asked which method I preferred. Once I recognized the problem I thought it could be worked out. But the person that was doing my accounting work told me she only used the cash basis method and wouldn’t make any exceptions. So in the end I fired her and spent the next couple of weeks straightening my accounting books back out. So that I could get the information I needed. So knowing the difference between cash and accrual accounting is very important.
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