What Is Accounting Anyway? Anyone who's worked in an office at some point or another has had to go to accounting. They're the people who pay and send out the bills that keep the business running. They do a lot more than that, though. Sometimes referred to as "bean counters" they also keep their eye on profits, costs and losses. Unless you're running your own business and acting as your own accountant, you'd have no way of knowing just how profitable - or not - your business is without some form of accounting.
No matter what business you're in, even if all you do is balance a checkbook, that's still accounting. It's part of even a kid's life. Saving an allowance, spending it all at once - these are accounting principles.
What are some other businesses where accounting is critical? Well, farmers need to follow careful accounting procedures. Many of them run their farms year to year by taking loans to plant the crops. If it's a good year, a profitable one, then they can pay off their loan; if not, they might have to carry the loan over, and accrue more interest charges.
Every business and every individual needs to have some kind of accounting system in their lives. Otherwise, the finances can get away from them, they don't know what they've spent, or whether they can expect a profit or a loss from their business. Staying on top of accounting, whether it's for a multi-billion dollar business or for a personal checking account is a necessary activity on a daily basis if you're smart.
Not doing so can mean anything from a bounced check or posting a loss to a company's shareholders. Both scenarios can be equally devastating. Accounting is basically information, and this information is published periodically in business as a profit and loss statement, or an income statement.
Basic Accounting Principles Accounting has been defined as, by Professor of Accounting at the University of Michigan William A Paton as having one basic function: "facilitating the administration of economic activity. This function has two closely related phases: 1) measuring and arraying economic data; and 2) communicating the results of this process to interested parties." As an example, a company's accountants periodically measure the profit and loss for a month, a quarter or a fiscal year and publish these results in a statement of profit and loss that's called an income statement. These statements include elements such as accounts receivable (what's owed to the company) and accounts payable (what the company owes). It can also get pretty complicated with subjects like retained earnings and accelerated depreciation. This at the higher levels of accounting and in the organization. Much of accounting though, is also concerned with basic bookkeeping. This is the process that records every transaction; every bill paid, every dime owed, every dollar and cent spent and accumulated. But the owners of the company, which can be individual owners or millions of shareholders are most concerned with the summaries of these transactions, contained in the financial statement. The financial statement summarizes a company's assets. A value of an asset is what it cost when it was first acquired. The financial statement also records what the sources of the assets were. Some assets are in the form of loans that have to be paid back. Profits are also an asset of the business. In what's called double-entry bookkeeping, the liabilities are also summarized. Obviously, a company wants to show a higher amount of assets to offset the liabilities and show a profit. The management of these two elements is the essence of accounting. There is a system for doing this; not every company or individual can devise their own systems for accounting; the result would be chaos!
Accounting Principles If everyone involved in the process of accounting followed their own system, or no system at all, there's be no way to truly tell whether a company was profitable or not. Most companies follow what are called generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, and there are huge tomes in libraries and bookstores devoted to just this one topic. Unless a company states otherwise, anyone reading a financial statement can make the assumption that company has used GAAP. If GAAP are not the principles used for preparing financial statements, then a business needs to make clear which other form of accounting they're used and are bound to avoid using titles in its financial statements that could mislead the person examining it. GAAP are the gold standard for preparing financial statement. Not disclosing that it has used principles other than GAAP makes a company legally liable for any misleading or misunderstood data. These principles have been fine-tuned over decades and have effectively governed accounting methods and the financial reporting systems of businesses. Different principles have been established for different types of business entities, such for-profit and not-for-profit companies, governments and other enterprises. GAAP are not cut and dried, however. They're guidelines and as such are often open to interpretation. Estimates have to be made at times, and they require good faith efforts towards accuracy. You've surely heard the phrase "creative accounting" and this is when a company pushes the envelope a little (or a lot) to make their business look more profitable than it might actually be. This is also called massaging the numbers. This can get out of control and quickly turn into accounting fraud, which is also called cooking the books. The results of these practices can be devastating and ruin hundreds and thousands of lives, as in the cases of Enron, Rite Aid and others.
Bookkeeping So what goes on the accounting and bookkeeping departments? What do these people do on a daily basis? Well, one thing they do that's terribly important to everyone working there is Payroll. All the salaries and taxes earned and paid by every employee every pay period have to be recorded. The payroll department has to ensure that the appropriate federal, state and local taxes are being deducted. The pay stub attached to your paycheck records these taxes. They usually include income tax, social security taxes pous employment taxes that have to be paid to federal and state government. Other deductions include personal ones, such as for retirement, vacation, sick pay or medical benefits. It's a critical function. Some companies have their own payroll departments; others outsource it to specialists. The accounting department receives and records any payments or cash received from customers or clients of the business or service. The accounting department has to make sure that the money is sourced accurately and deposited in the appropriate accounts. They also manage where the money goes; how much of it is kept on-hand for areas such as payroll, or how much of it goes out to pay what the company owes its banks, vendors and other obligations. Some should also be invested. The other side of the receivables business is the payables area, or cash disbursements. A company writes a lot of checks during the course of year to pay for purchases, supplies, salaries, taxes, loans and services. The accounting department prepares all these checks and records to whom they were disbursed, how much and for what. Accounting departments also keep track of purchase orders placed for inventory, such as products that will be sold to customers or clients. They also keep track of assets such as a business's property and equipment. This can include the office building, furniture, computers, even the smallest items such as pencils and pens.
Careers There are many different careers in the field of accounting ranging from entry-level bookkeeping to the Chief Financial Officer of a company. To achieve positions with more responsibility and higher salaries, it's necessary to have a degree in accounting as well as achieve various professional designations. One of the primary milestones in any accountant's career is to become a Certified Public Accountant or CPA. To become a CPA you have to go to college with a major in accounting. You also have to pass a national CPA exam. There's also some employment experience required in a CPA firm. This is generally one to two years, although this varies from state to state. Once you satisfy all those requirements, you get a certificate that designates you as a CPA and you're allowed to offer your services to the public. Many CPAs consider this just one stepping stone to their careers. The chief accountant in many offices is called the controller. The controller is in charge of managing the entire accounting system in a business stays on top of accounting and tax laws to keep the company legal and is responsible for preparing the financial statements. The controller is also in charge of financial planning and budgeting. Some companies have only one accounting professional who's essentially the chief cook and bottle washer and does everything. As a business grows in size and complexity, then additional layers of personnel are required to handle the volume of work that comes from growth. Other areas in the company are also impacted by growth, and it's part of the controller's job to determine just how many more salaries the company can pay for additional people without negatively impacting growth and profits. The controller also is responsible for preparing tax returns for the business; a much more involved and complex task than completing personal income tax forms! In larger organizations, the controller can report to a vice president of finance who reports to the chief financial officer, who is responsible for the broad objectives for growth and profit and implementing the appropriate strategies to achieve the objectives.
Profit and Loss It might seem like a no-brainer to define just exactly what profit and loss are. But of course these have definitions like everything else. Profit can be called different things, for a start. It's sometimes called net income or net earnings. Businesses that sell products and services generate profit from the sales of those products or services and from controlling the attendant costs of running the business. Profit can also be referred to as Return on Investment, or ROI. While some definitions limit ROI to profit on investments in such securities as stocks or bonds, many companies use this term to refer to short-term and long-term business results. Profit is also sometimes called taxable income. It's the job of the accounting and finance professionals to assess the profits and losses of a company. They have to know what created both and what the results of both sides of the business equation are. They determine what the net worth of a company is. Net worth is the resulting dollar amount from deducting a company's liabilities from its assets. In a privately held company, this is also called owner's equity, since anything that's left over after all the bills are paid, to put it simply, belongs to the owners. In a publicly held company, this profit is returned to the shareholders in the form of dividends. In other words, all liabilities have the first claim on any money the company makes. Anything that's left over is profit. It's not derived from one element or another. Net worth is determined after all the liabilities are deducted from all the assets, including cash and property. Showing a profit, or a positive figure on the balance sheet, is of course the aim of every business. It's what our economy and society are built on. It doesn't always work out that way. Economic trends and consumer behaviors change and it's not always possible to predict these and what income they'll have on a company's performance.
Bookkeeping Basics Most people probably think of bookkeeping and accounting as the same thing, but bookkeeping is really one function of accounting, while accounting encompasses many functions involved in managing the financial affairs of a business. Accountants prepare reports based, in part, on the work of bookkeepers. Bookkeepers perform all manner of record-keeping tasks. Some of them include the following: -They prepare what are referred to as source documents for all the operations of a business - the buying, selling, transferring, paying and collecting. The documents include papers such as purchase orders, invoices, credit card slips, time cards, time sheets and expense reports. Bookkeepers also determine and enter in the source documents what are called the financial effects of the transactions and other business events. Those include paying the employees, making sales, borrowing money or buying products or raw materials for production. -Bookkeepers also make entries of the financial effects into journals and accounts. These are two different things. A journal is the record of transactions in chronological order. An accounts is a separate record, or page for each asset and each liability. One transaction can affect several accounts. -Bookkeepers prepare reports at the end of specific period of time, such as daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or annually. To do this, all the accounts need to be up to date. Inventory records must be updated and the reports checked and double-checked to ensure that they're as error-free as possible. -The bookkeepers also compile complete listings of all accounts. This is called the adjusted trial balance. While a small business may have a hundred or so accounts, very large businesses can have more than 10,000 accounts. -The final step is for the bookkeeper to close the books, which means bringing all the bookkeeping for a fiscal year to a close and summarized.
Personal Accounting If you have a checking account, of course you balance it periodically to account for any differences between what's in your statement and what you wrote down for checks and deposits. Many people do it once a month when their statement is mailed to them, but with the advent of online banking, you can do it daily if you're the sort whose banking tends to get away from them. You balance your checkbook to note any charges in your checking account that you haven't recorded in your checkbook. Some of these can include ATM fees, overdraft fees, special transaction fees or low balance fees, if you're required to keep a minimum balance in your account. You also balance your checkbook to record any credits that you haven't noted previously. They might include automatic deposits, or refunds or other electronic deposits. Your checking account might be an interest-bearing account and you want to record any interest that it's earned. You also need to discover if you've made any errors in your recordkeeping or if the bank has made any errors. Another form of accounting that we all dread is the filing of annual federal income tax returns. Many people use a CPA to do their returns; others do it themselves. Most forms include the following items: Income - any money you've earned from working or owning assets, unless there are specific exemptions from income tax. Personal exemptions - this is a certain amount of income that is excused from tax. Standard deduction - some personal expenditures or business expenses can be deducted from your income to reduce the taxable amount of income. These expenses include items such as interest paid on your home mortgage, charitable contributions and property taxes. Taxable income - This is the balance of income that's subject to taxes after personal exemptions and deductions are factored in.
Making a Profit Accountants are responsible for preparing three primary types of financial statements for a business. The income statement reports the profit-making activities of the business and the bottom-line profit or loss for a specified period. The balance sheets reports the financial position of the business at a specific point in time, ofteh the last day of the period. and the statement of cash flows reports how much cash was generated from profit what the business did with this money. Everyone knows profit is a good thing. It's what our economy is founded on. It doesn't sound like such a big deal. Make more money than you spend to sell or manufacture products. But of course nothing's ever really simple, is it? A profit report, or net income statement first identifies the business and the time period that is being summarized in the report. You read an income statement from the top line to the bottom line. Every step of the income statement reports the deduction of an expense. The income statement also reports changes in assets and liabilities as well, so that if there's a revenue increase, it's either because there's been an increase in assets or a decrease in a company's liabilities. If there's been an increase in the expense line, it's because there's been either a decrease in assets or an increase in liabilities. Net worth is also referred to as owners' equity in the business. They're not exactly interchangeable. Net worth expresses the total of assets less the liabilities. Owners' equity refers to who owns the assets after the liabilities are satisfied. These shifts in assets and liabilities are important to owners and executives of a business because it's their responsibility to manage and control such changes. Making a profit in a business involves several variable, not just increasing the amount of cash that flows through a company, but management of other assets as well.
Assets and Liabilities Making a profit in a business is derived from several different areas. It can get a little complicated because just as in our personal lives, business is run on credit as well. Many businesses sell their products to their customers on credit. Accountants use an asset account called accounts receivable to record the total amount owed to the business by its customers who haven't paid the balance in full yet. Much of the time, a business hasn't collected its receivables in full by the end of the fiscal year, especially for such credit sales that could be transacted near the end of the accounting period. The accountant records the sales revenue and the cost of goods sold for these sales in the year in which the sales were made and the products delivered to the customer. This is called accrual based accounting, which records revenue when sales are made and records expenses when they're incurred as well. When sales are made on credit, the accounts receivable asset account is increased. When cash is received from the customer, then the cash account is increased and the accounts receivable account is decreased. The cost of goods sold is one of the major expenses of businesses that sell goods, products or services. Even a service involves expenses. It means exactly what it says in that it's the cost that a business pays for the products it sells to customers. A business makes its profit by selling its products at prices high enough to cover the cost of producing them, the costs of running the business, the interest on any money they've borrowed and income taxes, with money left over for profit. When the business acquires products, the cost of them goes into what's called an inventory asset account. The cost is deducted from the cash account, or added to the accounts payable liability account, depending on whether the business has paid with cash or credit.
Gains and Losses It would probably be ideal if business and life were as simple as producing goods, selling them and recording the profits. But there are often circumstances that disrupt the cycle, and it's part of the accountants job to report these as well. Changes in the business climate, or cost of goods or any number of things can lead to exceptional or extraordinary gains and losses in a business. Some things that can alter the income statement can include downsizing or restructuring the business. This used to be a rare thing in the business environment, but is now fairly commonplace. Usually it's done to offset losses in other areas and to decrease the cost of employees' salaries and benefits. However, there are costs involved with this as well, such as severance pay, outplacement services, and retirement costs. In other circumstances, a business might decide to discontinue certain product lines. Western Union, for example, recently delivered its very last telegram. The nature of communication has changed so drastically, with email, cell phones and other forms, that telegrams have been rendered obsolete. When you no longer sell enough of a product at a high enough profit to make the costs of manufacturing it worthwhile, then it's time to change your product mix. Lawsuits and other legal actions can cause extraordinary losses or gains as well. If you win damages in a lawsuit against others, then you've incurred an extraordinary gain. Likewise if your own legal fees and damages or fines are excessive, then these can significantly impact the income statement. Occasionally a business will change accounting methods or need to correct any errors that had been made in previous financial reports. Generally Accepted Accounting Procedures (GAAP) require that businesses make any one-time losses or gains very visible in their income statement.
Balance sheet A balance sheet is a quick picture of the financial condition of a business at a specific period in time. The activities of a business fall into two separate groups that are reported by an accountant. They are profit-making activities, which includes sales and expenses. This can also be referred to as operating activities. There are also financing and investing activities that include securing money from debt and equity sources of capital, returning capital to these sources, making distributions from profit to the owners, making investments in assets and eventually disposing of the assets. Profit making activities are reported in the income statement; financing and investing activities are found in the statement of cash flows. In other words, two different financial statements are prepared for the two different types of transactions. The statement of cash flows also reports the cash increase or decrease from profit during the year as opposed to the amount of profit that is reported in the income statement. The balance sheet is different from the income and cash flow statements which report, as it says, income of cash and outgoing cash. The balance sheet represents the balances, or amounts, or a company's assets, liabilities and owners' equity at an instant in time. The word balance has different meanings at different times. As it's used in the term balance sheet, it refers to the balance of the two opposite sides of a business, total assets on one side and total liabilities on the other. However, the balance of an account, such as the asset, liability, revenue and expense accounts, refers to the amount in the account after recording increases and decreases in the account, just like the balance in your checking account. Accountants can prepare a balance sheet any time that a manager requests it. But they're generally prepared at the end of each month, quarter and year. It's always prepared at the close of business on the last day of the profit period.
Revenue and receivables In most businesses, what drives the balance sheet are sales and expenses. In other words, they cause the assets and liabilities in a business. One of the more complicated accounting items are the accounts receivable. As a hypothetical situation, imagine a business that offers all its customers a 30-day credit period, which is fairly common in transactions between businesses, (not transactions between a business and individual consumers). An accounts receivable asset shows how much money customers who bought products on credit still owe the business. It's a promise of case that the business will receive. Basically, accounts receivable is the amount of uncollected sales revenue at the end of the accounting period. Cash does not increase until the business actually collects this money from its business customers. However, the amount of money in accounts receivable is included in the total sales revenue for that same period. The business did make the sales, even if it hasn't acquired all the money from the sales yet. Sales revenue, then isn't equal to the amount of cash that the business accumulated. To get actual cash flow, the accountant must subtract the amount of credit sales not collected from the sales revenue in cash. Then add in the amount of cash that was collected for the credit sales that were made in the preceding reporting period. If the amount of credit sales a business made during the reporting period is greater than what was collected from customers, then the accounts receivable account increased over the period and the business has to subtract from net income that difference. If the amount they collected during the reporting period is greater than the credit sales made, then the accounts receivable decreased over the reporting period, and the accountant needs to add to net income that difference between the receivables at the beginning of the reporting period and the receivables at the end of the same period.
Inventory and expenses Inventory is usually the largest current asset of a business that sells products. If the inventory account is greater at the end of the period than at the start of the reporting period, the amount the business actually paid in cash for that inventory is more than what the business recorded as its cost of good sold expense. When that occurs, the accountant deducts the inventory increase from net income for determining cash flow from profit. the prepaid expenses asset account works in much the same way as the change in inventory and accounts receivable accounts. However, changes in prepaid expenses are usually much smaller than changes in those other two asset accounts. The beginning balance of prepaid expenses is charged to expense in the current year, but the cash was actually paid out last year. this period, the business pays cash for next period's prepaid expenses, which affects this period's cash flow, but doesn't affect net income until the next period. Simple, right? As a business grows, it needs to increase its prepaid expenses for such things as fire insurance premiums, which have to be paid in advance of the insurance coverage, and its stocks of office supplies. Increases in accounts receivable, inventory and prepaid expenses are the cash flow price a business has to pay for growth. Rarely do you find a business that can increase its sales revenue without increasing these assets. The lagging behind effect of cash flow is the price of business growth. Managers and investors need to understand that increasing sales without increasing accounts receivable isn't a realistic scenario for growth. In the real business world, you generally can't enjoy growth in revenue without incurring additional expenses.
Depreciation Depreciation is a term we hear about frequently, but don't really understand. It's an essential component of accounting however. Depreciation is an expense that's recorded at the same time and in the same period as other accounts. Long-term operating assets that are not held for sale in the course of business are called fixed assets. Fixed assets include buildings, machinery, office equipment, vehicles, computers and other equipment. It can also include items such as shelves and cabinets. Depreciation refers to spreading out the cost of a fixed asset over the years of its useful life to a business, instead of charging the entire cost to expense in the year the asset was purchased. That way, each year that the equipment or asset is used bears a share of the total cost. As an example, cars and trucks are typically depreciated over five years. The idea is to charge a fraction of the total cost to depreciation expense during each of the five years, rather than just the first year. Depreciation applies only to fixed assets that you actually buy, not those you rent or lease. Depreciation is a real expense, but not necessarily a cash outlay expense in the year it's recorded. The cash outlay does actually occur when the fixed asset is acquired, but is recorded over a period of time. Depreciation is different from other expenses. It is deducted from sales revenue to determine profit, but the depreciation expense recorded in a reporting period doesn't require any true cash outlay during that period. Depreciation expense is that portion of the total cost of a business's fixed assets that is allocated to the period to record the cost of using the assets during period. The higher the total cost of a business's fixed assets, then the higher its depreciation expense.