Financial statements are one of the most powerful and least utilized business tools. Small business owners need to master financial statements if they hope to work not just in their business, but on their business. And yet, I see all too often just how little time business owners spend exploring them. In my experience the bookkeeping burden doesn’t excite us into spending time on financials beyond tax preparation. In this discussion, basic features of cash and accrual financial accounting are presented with the goal of demystifying them and providing an opportunity for exploration.
One of the first decisions when starting a business is to determine the most appropriate accounting method for the business and for tax filings (the two most common are cash and accrual).
The cash method accounts for revenue when the money is received and for expenses when the money is paid out. It is useful for tracking monthly cash flow since it works just like a checkbook and the balance sheet appears like a checkbook register. Unfortunately, it can convey the wrong message regarding the long-term well-being of a company.
The accrual method of accounting provides a better picture of company profits during an accounting period by recording revenues when they are earned and expenses when incurred but it is not intuitive since the financials do not represent day-to-day accounts. Accrual accounting instead provides a view on long-term financial well-being.
So, what does the IRS require?
The IRS in 2001 relaxed prior requirements that forced many small businesses to use accrual accounting. To reduce the accounting burden on small businesses the current rules allow firms with under $5M in revenue to use cash basis accounting, unless they are an inventory based business.
For tax purposes, the accounting method is locked-in with the first business tax filing. After the initial year, a business uses the same accounting method unless it receives prior approval from the IRS.
It has been my experience that cash and accrual accounting are often misunderstood. It is important that small business owners address with their accountant, bookkeeper, and tax preparer how these two accounting methods will be implemented. The key is to be consistent in applying the rules.
What are some of the problems that may surprise you?
To cite an unusual example, a client sent you a check (on December 30, 2016) for interior decorating services you provided to her and you received the check on January 2, 2017. Small businesses using cash accounting might be surprised that the IRS expects you to apply this check as income received in 2016. Strictly speaking, the rules require you to observe ‘constructive receipt’. Meaning, the money is available to you and under your control, whether or not you have taken actual possession of it. The fact that you haven’t deposited the check is strictly speaking a moot point as far as the IRS is concerned. Adhering to this ideal is a burden on small businesses. It’s our observation that accountants for small businesses operating on a cash basis consequently define constructive receipt as earnings and expenses in the register by December 31.
Constructive receipt argues against some commonly employed practices, such as delaying the deposit of income or the acceleration of expenses for the sole purpose of avoiding taxes. On the other hand, delaying invoicing does seem to be a more acceptable practice. It is generally more common for cash basis businesses to delay invoicing rather than delay cashing a check received so as not to run “afoul” of the constructive receipt rule.
To be clear, there is a large difference between the unintended receipt of a delayed payment (typically due to a tardy customer payment or a receivable that is in the mail) and deliberate manipulation. Here’s an example of a practice that is clearly not allowed. A small business owner is entitled to receive $20,000 on a contract completed in 2016. The owner contacts the client requesting that the payment not be made until January 2017. That’s not acceptable per published IRS rules.
On the other hand, IRS rules can sometimes be too onerous for a small business. For example, if you pay $2,000 in 2016 for an insurance policy effective for one year beginning July 1, you should deduct $1,000 in 2016 and $1,000 in 2017. It is my experience that this is seldom the practice for small business owners who without intending to avoid payment of tax, will register payment in the year paid without an evaluation of when the benefit will be derived.
Though few use the accrual method of accounting, its purpose is to match income and expenses in the same year. It is therefore critical to choose the year well – when there is any doubt on which year to choose, the decision is made on when ‘economic benefit’ was attained. This can be burdensome to small business owners since the assessment of ‘economic benefit’ is sometimes quite difficult to ascertain.
Under an accrual method, you generally include an amount in your gross income for the tax year in which all events that fix your right to receive the income have occurred and you can determine the amount with reasonable accuracy. As an example, you sold a computer on December 28, 2016 and billed the customer the first week of January 2017, but did not receive payment until February 2017. Using the accrual method, you must include the amount received for the computer with your 2016 income because ‘economic benefit’ was obtained when the computer was sold. Obviously, tracking and attribution requires a lot more work on the part of the small business owner using the accrual accounting method.
As part of learning to work on your business, not just in your business, it is important that you first develop confidence that your financial statements (Profit & Loss, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow statements) accurately represent your financial activity. It can take time to develop a reliable and consistent system. Once you have confidence in your financial statements you should address deriving more from them than just how to handle business tax liability.
Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS