The cash basis or accrual basis relates to how income and expenses are accounted for; hence these are referenced as methods of accounting. This information is used for a variety of reasons, such as the preparation and reporting of income tax returns, to obtain financing and completion of credit applications, preparation of a business valuation and in family law matters to name a few; therefore, it is important to understand their differences and limitations.
Generally, the cash basis of accounting is utilized by individuals and small businesses. The accrual basis of accounting is most often utilized by larger businesses; however, small businesses may also utilize the accrual basis, if they so choose. The basis of reporting (cash or accrual) will determine when income and expenses are recognized to compute a business’ profit for the year.
With the cash basis of accounting, income is recorded when cash is received, and expenses are recognized when cash is paid. In contrast, the accrual basis of accounting records income when it has been “earned” and not when the cash is received. Expenses are recorded when they “occur” and not when cash is paid. The main difference between cash and accrual basis accounting lies in the timing of when income and expenses are recognized.
So why does this matter? Recognizing income and expenses under either basis will result in a different income and profit calculation. These differences, if significant, could have a significant financial impact on a business, individual, or both. Businesses are most often valued based upon their income and/or profits – therefore, it is extremely important to be aware of the accounting method relied upon. An individual’s income is most often computed based upon tax returns. Other sources of income may not be reported on an individual’s cash basis tax return.
Both methods of reporting have different purposes and result in different outcomes. To ensure that the relied upon basis of reporting is consistent with its intended purpose (i.e., valuation, marital litigation), it is prudent to consult with an experienced professional.