Accounting Methods for Small Businesses
The two primary accounting methods for small business owners are cash basis and accrual basis. In cash
basis accounting, income is recorded when received and expenses are recorded when paid. In accrual basis
accounting, income is recorded when earned and expenses are recorded when incurred. Any business is free
to use accrual accounting. Businesses with $25 million or less of gross revenue in the last three tax
years are free to use cash basis accounting.
Most small business owners don’t give the accounting method they use much thought. Your accountant might
have told you that your tax return is filed on cash basis, but you might not know what that means. Or, maybe
you noticed your client billings don’t show up on your financial statements, but you don’t understand why.
There’s a reason your paperwork looks the way it does—and it’s because, at some point, whoever runs your
books picked been the two main accounting methods for small businesses.
As the person who runs your company, you should know both the difference between the two main accounting
methods for small business, who is eligible to use each,and when each method is the best
choice. At minimum, it’ll clear up the confusion as to why your statements appear to catalog certain things
and not others.
Plus, you’ll be able to better understand your business’s finances—which, in turn, will help you make
better business decisions. Read on to understand the two main accounting methods, along with some lesser
known accounting methods.
Why Your Accounting Method Matters
Your accounting method matters both in terms of bookkeeping and tax filing. Accounting method affects the
way that income and expenses are recorded on your financial statements, and the tax year in which those
transactions are reflected.
For tax purposes, the IRS requires businesses to use a standardized and consistent accounting method each year that you file small business
taxes. If you choose an accounting method and later want to change it, you must get IRS approval. The
IRS allows companies to use cash basis, accrual basis, a specialized method for certain income and expense
categories, or a hybrid method. If you don’t choose and use an accounting method consistently, the IRS won’t
accept your return. You might end up underpaying taxes and be fined as a result.
Publicly traded companies must use accrual accounting under U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles
GAAP refers to a set of commonly accepted accounting
principles developed by the Financial Accounting Standards Board and Securities and Exchange Commission.
Small businesses have more room to decide about which accounting method to use.
The bottom line is that legal and tax rules require some form of consistent record-keeping, but it goes
beyond that. Using a specific accounting method can help you more accurately assess your company’s financial
situation and make better decisions. It’s possible, but complicated, to change your accounting method, so
it’s a good idea to choose carefully up front.
Cash Basis and Accrual: The Most Common Accounting Methods for Small Businesses
If you use business accounting software, chances are you’re already familiar with the two most
commonly used accounting methods for small businesses. When you set up your bookkeeping software,
you have the option to choose either cash basis or accrual basis.
Both accounting methods have their advantages (and disadvantages). Let’s take a closer look at each
Cash Basis Accounting Method
Cash basis is the most common accounting method used by small businesses. Most small businesses—with a few
exceptions, which we’ll discuss later—file their tax returns and maintain their books using the cash basis
In cash basis accounting:
- Income is recorded when it’s received. Let’s say you did work for a customer on July 25,
and you gave
them an invoice
with a due date of August 10. You’ll record the income for this work in when the customer pays you in
August instead of in July, when you actually did the work. In cash basis accounting, income is recorded
when you receive the payment, not when you bill your customer.
- Expenses are recorded when they’re paid. As with income, in cash basis accounting you
expense when it is paid, not when it’s billed. Let’s say you forgot to pay your rent in June.
When you receive your rent statement from the property management company at the beginning of July, you
notice the amount due was double your normal rent expense. After verifying you did, in fact, forget to
your rent in June, you write a check for both months’ rent by the July 10 due date. In cash basis
accounting, you record the full amount of the expense in July, meaning no rent payment will appear on
financial statements for June.
Benefits of Cash Basis Accounting
- Recordkeeping is easy. In cash basis accounting, you don’t have to worry about entering
invoices and bills into your accounting
software. That doesn’t mean you won’t use these features—they’re very helpful to make sure no income or
expenses fall through the cracks—but it’s not necessary to be up to date on these entries in order to
produce cash basis financial statements. The accounting software will automatically categorize income and
expenses as they are received or paid, with no manual adjustment to date required on your end.
- Cash basis accounting tracks cash flow. The cash basis of accounting mimics what will
appear on your
cash flow statement
. It gives a good indicator of a business’s cash
position and how it changes over time. Cash basis accounting registers bank transfers, check transactions,
and credit card payments.
Drawbacks of Cash Basis Accounting
- Cash basis accounting can give you a distorted picture of how your business is
look back at the work you invoiced your customer for in July, but which the customer paid for in August.
In fact, let’s say you did a whole lot of work in the second half of July, but your customers didn’t pay
you until August for that work due to the generous payment terms on your invoices.
When you look at your financial statements in a few months, you might draw the conclusion that August was
a very busy month for you and July was pretty slow. After all, there was a sizable income entry for August
in your financial statements. And, you might make business decisions based on this information, like
deciding to cut labor in the last half of July, or even taking a long vacation. This could be a costly
mistake, especially if your business typically does a lot of billable work in July (or any other given
- Cash basis accounting makes it harder to track profitability by month. Remember the rent
you forgot to make in June? If you are using cash basis accounting, you won’t have a rent payment on
your financial statements for June, which in turn will skew your net profit for the month. As was the case
for the work which you performed in July but weren’t paid for until August, cash basis accounting can in
this case lead you to make an unwise business decision if you are expecting to have excess profit in the
month of June.
- Need to track accounts receivable and accounts payable separately. Cash basis
accounting registers income when received and expenses when paid. This means that you can’t use cash basis
accounting to keep track of invoices that you send to your customers or that vendors send to you. You’ll
need to have a separate system for tracking those, so that they accurately appear on your
Accrual Basis Accounting Method
Accrual basis accounting is typically used by larger businesses, though small businesses can use it, too.
In accrual basis accounting:
Income is recorded when it’s earned. Going back to our earlier example, in accrual basis
accounting, the income for the work you performed would show up on July’s financial statements, not on
Expenses are recorded when they’re incurred. Even if you didn’t make your rent payment for June
until July, in accrual basis accounting your financial statements would still show a rent expense for
Benefits of Accrual Basis Accounting
- Better ability to track your business’s performance. Using accrual basis accounting, you
easily see which are your most and least profitable months. In fact, rather than cutting labor during the
last half of July, you might decide it would be wise to increase your workforce in order to accommodate
more customers during this peak month. In general, accrual basis accounting allows for better forecasting
- Better ability to track profitability by month. Using the accrual basis accounting
would be able to easily see your actual net profit for each month. This can help you avoid the costly—and
embarrassing—mistake of overcommitting on expenses you might not actually be able to afford.
- It’s what lenders and investors prefer. Lenders and investors have a clearer view into
your company’s profitability if you use accrual basis accounting. When fundraising or applying for a business loan, be
prepared to share financial information using the accrual method.
Drawbacks of Accrual Basis Accounting
- It can be harder to detect cash flow problems. When you use accrual basis accounting, a
financial statement becomes critical to your business decisions.Let’s take one last look at that
work you did in July and were paid for in August. Your net profit for the month of July on your accrual
profit and loss statement
is going to look really good. Your bank account, on the other hand, might be
hovering close to $0, because you haven’t actually received that money yet. So, if you use the accrual
method of accounting, you’ll want to view your P&L hand in hand with your cash flow statement.
- It’s more time intensive to administer. When you run your financial statements on an
basis, you must make sure all bills for expenses due and invoices for work done have been entered into
your accounting system before producing the reports. This can make the end of the month stressful for you,
especially if you don’t keep up with your bookkeeping throughout the month. However, it might be fine if
you have a professional accountant to help out.
Which Small Business Accounting Method Should You Choose?
Most small business owners choose cash basis accounting due to the simplicity. However, there are a few
situations which might impact your choice of accounting method:
1. Your small business has average gross revenue of more than $25 million over a three year
The IRS is pretty lenient about which accounting method you choose (though once you choose one method, you
have to stick with it unless you get permission from the IRS to make a change). But
once your business averages more than $25 million in gross receipts, you must file accrual basis tax
returns. Less than that, and you’re good to choose either accounting method. Many companies choose cash
basis for its simplicity.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) increased the cash basis threshold from $5 million to $25 million
and allows qualifying small business taxpayers
to file an automatic change request with the IRS if they previously requested a change to cash basis.
2. You have inventory.
Under previous law, businesses that sold inventory were required to use accrual basis accounting. Thanks to
the TCJA, if your business has $25 million or less of revenue (over the last three tax years), you can
either treat the inventory as non-incidental materials, or use the accounting method that’s reflected in
your financial statements or accounting records.
3. You must file sales tax (in some states).
Some states, such as New York, require sales tax returns to be filed on an accrual basis. If
you live in one of these states, it’s critical for you to have solid accounts receivable and collection
procedures in place. Otherwise, you might find yourself having to pay sales tax on an invoice you have not
yet collected payment for, which could have devastating effects on your cash flow. An accountant will help
you out here to figure out if this applies to you, or you can contact your state’s tax agency.
Summary of Accounting Methods for Small Businesses
Cash basis and accrual basis accounting are the two most popular accounting methods for small business, and
in general, you have to use one of these for tax filing purposes. Although it creates more work for you in
the long-run, it is possible to use different accounting methods for your books and for tax filing.
Here’s a summary of accounting methods for small business owners:
- Cash basis – Records income when received and expenses when paid.
- Accrual basis – Records income when earned and expenses when incurred.
- Percentage of completion – Revenues and expenses of projects are calculated as part of
the overall work during an accounting time period.
- Completed contract – Defers reporting of expenses and income until a projects is fully
- High-low – Calculates the change in total operating cost associated with changes in
levels of a business activity.
- Cost basis – Utilizes the original value of an asset, adjusted for stock, dividends and
capital distributions. This method can be used for calculating an item’s capital gain for tax purposes.
In some cases, you can use a variety of these methods to get different perspectives onto your business. For
example, you might use the cost basis method for high-value equipment and cash basis accounting for your
The Best Accounting Method for Your Small Business Might Be a Hybrid
What if you file your tax return on the cash basis accounting method, but for management purposes it makes
more sense to review your financial statements on an accrual basis?
Good news! You can have things both ways! It’s perfectly acceptable for you to manage your business
using accrual basis financial statements. In fact, we recommend using accrual basis financial statements for
management purposes if your business invoices customers for payment at a later date or if your business has
extended payment terms with any vendors. You might also be able to use other accounting methods where
Now that you know the difference between the two most commonly used accounting methods for small business
and the benefits and pitfalls of each, you can confidently decide which method works best for your