When it comes to my financial statements, what is “real”?

This question came from the Executive Director of a small organization – and she asked it repeatedly, with a great deal of very genuine concern! The issue, it seems – and this is a common concern for non-financial folks – was understanding the nature of accrual accounting.

“Real,” in her terms, meant that money had changed hands. Even in the days of electronic transfers, cash in the bank still feels indisputably legit and tangible! However, non-cash transactions can be just as “real” as those involving money. For example, they may record agreements or management estimates that provide the basis for measuring financial results.

Accounts receivable and grants receivable are amounts owed to you by clients/customers and funders. A state of obligation exists when you have delivered work, and the promised payment is due. This state of obligation felt real to the Executive Director, because she was well aware of the costs her organization had incurred, and the urgency of collecting the receivable amounts.

By the same token, accounts payable were not questioned: the state of obligation between the organization and its suppliers was evident, because the organization had received goods or services for which it hadn’t yet paid, and the invoices were sitting in the “bills to be paid” file.

Prepaid expenses and deferred revenues posed a challenge. In both of these cases, money actually has changed hands – but those transactions are not recorded on the income statement as expenses and revenues; rather, they are recorded on the balance sheet as assets and liabilities (respectively). Eventually, when the obligations are satisfied, these items will be recognized as expenses and revenues. Read on…

A prepaid expense item is an asset – something you own. It arises when you have paid for goods or services ahead of time. A classic example would be a rent deposit. Often, when a lease is signed, the lessee must pay “first and last.” Obviously, you receive the first month of your tenancy right away. However, you have paid up-front for the last month on your lease, and you won’t receive that service for a period of years. You own the right to receive it, because you have prepaid it… and the landlord is effectively in your debt for that month of occupancy.

When the last month rolls around, the landlord provides the month of occupancy. At that point, the organization no longer has an asset, because it has collected on the obligation. In the accounting records, the asset must be removed – and the rent expense can be officially recognized. Note that the last month’s rent eventually does appear as an expense, but not until it’s being used. In that last month, it’s a non-cash expense item; the cash changed hands back when the lease was signed.

A deferred revenue item is a liability – something you owe. It arises when someone else has prepaid you for goods or services that you have not yet delivered. A classic example from the performing arts is a subscription. Many organizations run intensive campaigns during the spring and summer to sell subscription packages for the next fall/winter series of shows. At the point when the subscriber pays, they have a promise from the organization, but they won’t enjoy the concerts or plays for months down the road. The organization owes the subscriber those shows.

When the organization delivers its performances, it discharges its liability. In the accounting records, the liability must be removed – and the ticket sales revenue can be officially recognized. Thus, eventually those subscription packages do turn into revenue, but as a non-cash revenue item; the cash changed hands back when the subscriber made the purchase.

The depreciation of capital assets can also cause confusion. A capital asset is an item of significant value that an organization will own for a period longer than a year, and use in carrying out its operations. Depreciation (or amortization) is the process by which the cost of that asset is spread over the years of ownership. Elsewhere in the FAQ section are questions and answers that present the process in detail.

For our purposes here, the important thing to understand is that the asset (usually) must be paid for when it is bought. Each year’s depreciation is a non-cash expense item, representing that year’s estimated share of the cost.

One of the purposes of accounting is to measure the expenses and revenues associated with each year of operations, regardless of when money changes hands. As you can see, items may be paid for either before delivery or afterwards. The exchange of cash does not create the revenue or expense: rather, the usage of the goods or services in the course of operations. Balance sheet accounts are used to “park” or accrue items so that they can be properly recognized in the correct operating year. Non-cash revenues and expenses can be just as real as those paid “cash on the barrel head.”