One startup decision that seems to cause entrepreneurs unnecessary consternation is selecting the right accounting method -- cash basis or accrual basis. The primary purpose of the accounting method you choose is to calculate your business's taxable income for federal (and state) income tax purposes. Of course, if you register as an LLC and elect not to be taxed as a corporation, your business does not pay federal taxes, but choosing the right accounting basis is still important. Financial management is a critical key to success in small business, and the accounting method you use is an important tool for keeping you on track.
What Are the Two Accounting Methods?
The difference between the two methods is simply a matter of timing -- when business transactions are posted to the accounting system. With the cash method, income and expenses are recorded when money changes hands. That is, no matter when you close a sale or place an order, it does not go on the books until you get paid or the bill is due. Cash basis accounting is basically managing your business finances like you do a checkbook -- money only exists once it is deposited, and expenses only exist once money is spent.
With the accrual method, the transactions are recorded when they occur, regardless of when you actually get paid or pay the bill. That's pretty much all there is to it -- when the transactions are posted on the books!
If You Sell Products, You Must Choose the Accrual Method
Deciding which accounting method is best for your business is not particularly difficult either. First, if you carry inventory that your business sells to customers, the IRS requires you to use the accrual method, for good reason. Because the accrual method accounts for all income and expenses when they occur (and not when money changes hands), your financial statements reflect a more accurate picture of how your business is doing. If you sell inventoried products of any kind, the expense of making or purchasing those products occurs in line with your ability to sell them (at least on the books). The accrual method keeps these income and expense accounts in line. Otherwise, if you buy inventory on credit but make cash sales, your books will look like you bring in a substantial income with no expenses during the grace period for payment. Then, when payments to your suppliers come due, the books will show enormous expenses all at once compared to income. By using the accrual method, a financial report for any given period will be a substantially more accurate reflection of the overall health of your venture.
If You Only Sell Services, You Have a Choice
For micro-businesses (consultants, self-employment, etc.) that sell only services, the cash method of accounting can be a good choice. Because income and expenses are recorded only when money is exchanged, the cash method gives a more accurate view of how much cash is available at any given time. Keeping the books for cash basis is like keeping a checkbook, money in and money out. The downside of using the cash method is that it can reflect a misleading picture of your business's overall profitability and health. For example, if you extend credit terms to your customers, your income at a given time will not necessarily reflect the actual sales volume during that time. Cash can still be moving in and out of the business during periods of no sales, as customers pay invoices and bills come due.
Plan for the Long Term Growth of Your Business
Think ahead when you are setting up your accounting system. Choose the cash method only if you plan to stay small and you only plan to sell services over the long term. Otherwise, use the accrual method and work on learning how to manage all aspects of your business's financial health. If your plans are to grow a company rather than own your job over the long term, the accrual method is a better tool to show the ebbs and flows of the business's transactions. Of course, you will still need to review and analyze cash flow to verify the health of your venture.
Your small business accounting software (Peachtree Accounting is a great choice!) allows you to select either cash or accrual basis for handling your books. However, once one is selected, you are stuck with it unless you start over with a new company file and migrate your data. The reason for this is that the federal government's rules are the same -- if you want to change your accounting basis, you have to file paperwork with the IRS.
Successful entrepreneurship means knowing how to read and analyze the entire financial picture, and neither accounting method ensures that on its own. Don't rely on a single financial report to tell you how your business is doing, but learn to use multiple financial management tools to keep an eye on the bottom line.