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April 13, 2022

Cash-Basis and Accrual Accounting Methods: A Quick Guide for Small Businesses

When they first start out, many small businesses use the cash-basis method of accounting. However, many eventually switch to accrual-basis reporting in order to conform with U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). 

This quick guide can help you decide which method is right for your business.

The cash-basis method of accounting

Businesses using the cash-basis method recognize revenue as their customers pay invoices and expenses as they pay their bills. Because of this, cash-basis entities often report fluctuations in profits from period to period, particularly when they’re engaged in long-term projects. These fluctuations can make it difficult to benchmark a company’s performance from year to year or against other businesses that use the accrual method.

The cash method of accounting can allow eligible businesses to fine-tune their annual taxable income by timing the year in which they recognize taxable income and claim deductions.

The most common strategy is to postpone revenue recognition and accelerate expense payments at the end of the year. Although this can allow businesses to temporarily defer their tax liability, it also causes the company to appear less profitable to investors and lenders.

Some businesses may also find it advantageous to take the opposite approach if tax rates are expected to increase substantially in the coming year. Accelerating revenue recognition and deferring expenses at year-end can maximize a company’s tax liability in the current year to take advantage of the lower tax rates.

The accrual-basis method of accounting

The accrual method is more complex and conforms to the matching principle under U.S. GAAP. Companies using the accrual method recognize revenue and expenses in the periods that revenue is earned and expenses are incurred. This method facilitates better financial benchmarking by reducing fluctuations in profits from period to period.

Accrual-basis entities also report several asset and liability accounts that aren’t usually included on a cash-basis entity’s balance sheet: prepaid expenses, work in progress, accrued expenses, accounts receivable, accounts payable, and deferred taxes are all common examples. 

Although small companies have several options, including the cash-basis method, public companies are required to use the accrual method.

Changes under the TCJA

With the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), more companies are now eligible to use the cash-basis method for federal tax purposes. This has caused many small companies to reconsider which method of accounting is right for them.

Under the TCJA, the small business definition was expanded to include businesses with no more than $25 million of average annual gross receipts, based on the last three tax years (previously, this gross-receipts threshold was only $5 million). This $25 million limit is adjusted annually for inflation, and the inflation-adjusted limit is $26 million for tax years beginning in 2021. For 2022, the limit is $27 million.

The TCJA also modifies Section 451 of the Internal Revenue Code. For tax years beginning after 2017, the Code has been changed so that businesses recognize revenue for tax purposes no later than they recognize revenue for financial reporting purposes. This means that you must use the accrual method for federal income tax purposes if you choose to use it for financial reporting purposes.

Have further questions? We can help

Switching to the accrual method of accounting can help small businesses reduce variability in financial reporting and more easily attract financing from investors and lenders who prefer GAAP financials. However, the cash method offers more simplicity and flexibility in tax planning. 

If you need help choosing the best method for your situation, contact us to discuss your options.

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