Accounting 101: Understanding Small Business Accounting
You’ve done it. You’ve come up with a business idea, you’ve drafted your business plan, and you’ve started estimating costs and seeking funding to get your small business off the ground.
Or maybe you’re further along in the process. You’ve launched your business, and you’re working hard to ensure it’s a success. Good for you!
But wait … are you sure you’ve thought about all the key components of running a profitable business? For example, have you thought about how you’re going to do the accounting for your new business? If your doors are already open, do you have an accounting system in place?
If your answer is no, this article is for you. While it’s important to create a business plan, shop around for vendors and suppliers, and deliver exceptional products or services to customers, few things are more important than accounting for your business. Without good accounting, you’re putting your business at risk of failure by not keeping a close watch on your financials.
As a new business owner, you already have a lot of expenses that can pile up quickly. Adding an accountant to the mix just isn’t feasible for most businesses in their beginning stages. Fortunately, there are options available that make accounting simple … and are easy on the wallet. In this post, we’re going to talk about small business accounting. We’ll start off with the basics, then take a step-by-step look at how to use accounting in your business. We’ll explore accounting software options, the financial statements your business needs, and the tax deductions that can save you money come tax time.
Whether you’re a new business owner or haven’t gotten off the ground yet, whether you know a little about accounting or you’re completely in the dark, you’re in the right place. Welcome to Accounting 101.
Table of Contents
What Is Accounting?
Merriam-Webster defines accounting as:
The system of recording and summarizing business and financial transactions and analyzing, verifying, and reporting the results.
In other words, accounting is a process used by business owners and entrepreneurs to keep track of the financial transactions of a business, from purchasing supplies and inventory to the revenue that the business makes. Accounting allows you to analyze the financial health of your business to determine where money is being spent, how money is being made, and how these numbers affect the business.
The Basics Of Accounting
Whether you’ve dabbled in accounting in the past or you’re brand new to it, every business owner should have an understanding of the basics of accounting. These concepts may be very new to you or seem confusing at first. However, take the time to learn them so that you can tackle your company’s finances head-on and reap the benefits of good accounting.
The Accounting Equation
We can’t discuss the fundamentals of accounting without first discussing the accounting equation. Knowing and understanding this principle is essential for double-entry accounting, which we’ll discuss a little later. For now, though, let’s familiarize ourselves with this basic equation.
The accounting equation states that:
Now, let’s break down each of these terms to ensure that you have a full understanding of the accounting equation.
- Assets: Assets are everything that your business owns. This includes the cash in your business bank accounts, commercial real estate, equipment, inventory, and accounts receivable.
- Liabilities: Liabilities include everything that your business owes. This includes accounts payable, loans, and other debts.
- Owner’s Equity: Owner’s Equity (also known as shareholder’s capital) includes all investments of capital by the owners of the business.
The accounting equation keeps everything in balance. Each side must be balanced. If each side isn’t balanced, there is an error that must be found and corrected.
The Importance Of Double-Entry Accounting
Many businesses use what is known as double-entry accounting. Double-entry accounting simply means that transactions are recorded to two or more accounts. This system of accounting provides more accuracy and helps keep your books balanced. The accounting equation we discussed earlier is the foundation of double-entry accounting.
Double-entry accounting gives you a better view of your business finances. Single-entry accounting only uses income and expenses, whereas liabilities and assets are recorded using double-entry accounting. Not only does double-entry accounting give you a better understanding of the net worth of your business, but it offers additional benefits. Double-entry accounting makes it easier to spot errors and also comes in handy when it’s time to run financial reports.
This is a very basic overview of double-entry accounting. To learn more about how it works and why your business should use double-entry accounting, check out our post, What Is Double-Entry Accounting (And Do You Need It)?
Debits & Credits
In double-entry accounting, transactions are recorded as debits or credits.
You’re probably already familiar with debits and credits if you use a debit card from your bank or a credit card. That said, you’ll need to forget everything you think you know when learning accounting, because these concepts are completely different.
If this sounds like a foreign language to you, don’t worry. Let’s break it down so it’s easier to understand.
- Debits: A debit increases assets and expenses and decreases liabilities.
- Credits: A credit decreases assets and expenses and increases liabilities.
Total debits must equal total credits or there is an error that needs to be found and corrected. Remember, it’s all about balance.
Let’s take a look at an example. Say your business has purchased a piece of equipment at a cost of $15,000. You borrowed the money to purchase the equipment. Because you gained an asset, this is recorded as a debit of $15,000. However, you have to pay back the money you borrowed, which creates a liability. Therefore, you will record a credit of $15,000 under accounts payable (liabilities).
|Totals Debits = $15,000 Total Credits = $15,000 ✔|
Both sides are equal and balanced.
Debits and credits are not used in single-entry accounting. While it may seem easier to simply skip this and forego double-entry accounting, remember the benefits that we discussed earlier. Using double-entry accounting gives your business a clearer, more complete view of your finances. And before you get too worried, most accounting software handles the double-entry accounting for you behind the scenes, so you won’t have to do everything manually.
Ultimately, understanding these concepts may be difficult, but you’ll find that the benefits of balanced books are well worth the effort.
An important piece of the accounting pie is the general journal. This is where all business transactions are recorded in order by date. Each journal entry should include four things. Those are:
- The date of the transaction
- The account(s) and amount(s) credited
- The account(s) and amount(s) debited
- A memo describing the transaction
When recording a journal entry, debits are recorded in the left column, while credits are recorded in the right column. Each side will be balanced, meaning that the total amount of debits on the left should equal the total credits on the right. Let’s look at a quick example.
You purchase $500 worth of inventory for your business. This inventory was purchased with cash. You have inventory (an asset) in your possession, so $500 is recorded in the left column of the journal since this is a debit. Because you paid with cash, your cash account is decreased by $500. Therefore, a credit in the amount of $500 is posted in the right column.
The Chart Of Accounts
Another key accounting concept to remember is the chart of accounts. A chart of accounts lets you see exactly where your company’s money is going. While it may seem confusing initially, understanding how a chart of accounts is organized helps the numbers make sense.
While we won’t dive too deeply into this concept, you should walk away from this article with a basic understanding of what a chart of accounts is. Typically, a chart of accounts is divided into five sections: assets, liabilities, equity, income, and expenses. These categories are further divided into accounts, such as utilities, advertising, accounts payable, cash, and materials and supplies.
Here’s an example of what a chart of accounts looks like:
Your chart of accounts is important for a number of reasons. In addition to breaking down your expenses, your chart of accounts helps you have a clear picture of where your money is going to and coming from. Your chart of accounts also helps you track inventory and can be extremely beneficial come tax time. If you remember our journal entry example from earlier we spent $500 cash on inventory, you’ll see this reflected in the chart of accounts above where the “cash on hands” account reads -$500.
To learn more about this accounting concept, check out our post, How To Set Up A Chart Of Accounts.
Now, let’s pause, take a breath, and let all of this information sink in. Understanding these concepts and key accounting terms certainly helps you dive into your company’s accounting with more confidence. Rest assured, however, that you don’t have to know everything about accounting to balance your own books. Gone are the old days of paper journals and ledgers and manually writing down every transaction. Today, there are lots of accounting software options available. While you do have to learn how to use your chosen software and may still have to do some tasks manually, accounting software does a lot of the heavy lifting for you, from automatically posting transactions from your business bank accounts to calculating depreciation on assets to sending out recurring invoices.
How To Do Small Business Accounting
With an understanding of basic accounting concepts under your belt, it’s time to put that knowledge into practice. From the first steps you need to take before launching your business to picking the right software for your business to hiring an accountant, we’ll cover it all in this section.
Set Up Your Business Entity
Before you start your business, you must set up your business entity. This determines your legal structure and influences how you file and pay taxes, your personal liability for the debts and liabilities of the business, how you can raise money for your business, and various requirements that your business must meet. Consider the needs of your business and future goals when selecting your legal structure. The main business entities include:
- Sole Proprietorships: A sole proprietorship is an unincorporated business that is owned and operated by one person. This is the easiest entity to set up and does not require formal registration. Business profits or losses are reported on the owner’s personal income tax return. A sole proprietor is held liable for the debts and obligations of the business.
- Partnerships: Partnerships are legal structures for businesses with two or more owners. Formal registration is not required to form a partnership, although there should be an agreement between partners. Business profits and losses are passed through to the owners and filed on their personal income tax returns. The owners in a partnership may be responsible for the debts and obligations of the business based upon the type of partnership that has been formed.
- Corporations: Corporations are the most expensive and complicated of all legal entities. Corporations have regulations that other legal structures don’t have, such as establishing bylaws and holding meetings. Corporations may also be subject to corporate tax rates and may face double taxation. However, there is limited liability on the owners, and corporations also have more opportunities for raising large amounts of capital through the sale of stock.
- Limited Liability Company: A limited liability company (or LLC) combines the benefits of multiple entities. Owners of LLCs have limited liability, so personal assets aren’t at risk if the business goes under. The owners of the LLC can also determine how business revenue is taxed.
Check out our post, Types of Business Structures: The Complete Guide, to learn more about the different business entities, and consider speaking to an attorney to determine which choice is best for your business.
In addition to setting up your business entity, there are a few other steps you need to take in these early stages. The first is selecting a name for your business. As a sole proprietor, you aren’t required to register your business if you’re using your own name. However, some small business owners opt to file a Doing Business As, or DBA. A DBA is a fictitious name that is registered with the county or state where the business will operate. If you select another legal structure, such as an LLC or corporation, you’ll register your business name when you file other paperwork with state and local authorities.
The next step is obtaining any licenses and permits required to legally operate your business. Your local chamber of commerce or Small Business Administration office can help you find out what your business needs and how to obtain these licenses and permits.
Other steps that you may need to take before opening your business may include purchasing business insurance, hiring employees, buying or leasing commercial space, and advertising your business to bring in customers.
Open A Business Bank Account
When you start your own business, you need a business bank account. This should always be one of the first steps you take before launching your business. However, if you’ve already gotten your business off the ground and don’t have a separate account, it isn’t too late to head to your local branch to open a business account.
There are a few reasons why opening a separate bank account is so important for your business. First of all, it simplifies bookkeeping and filing taxes. You won’t have to pick apart every transaction to determine which ones were personal and which were for business purposes.
Speaking of taxes, keeping a separate business bank account could prove to be extremely helpful in the event that you’re audited by the IRS. Sloppy bookkeeping and jumbled expenses could very easily turn a simple audit into a drawn-out nightmare.
Finally, if you plan to apply for any type of business funding, such as loans or lines of credit, a lender typically only deposits funds into a business bank account. By opening a business bank account, you also establish a relationship with a bank, which could provide you with low-interest funding further down the road.
Choose Your Accounting Method
Now, if accounting didn’t seem confusing enough, we’re about to throw another curveball your way. There are actually two different methods of accounting. Before you get frustrated, though, just know that the two types are very easy to understand and differentiate from each other.
The first (and most common) method is accrual accounting. Accrual accounting recognizes revenue and expenses or sales or bills are incurred, not when the cash switches hands. With this type of accounting, accounts payable and accounts receivable are recorded.
- Accounts Payable: Expenses that you owe but haven’t yet paid (think bills).
- Accounts Receivable: Revenue that your customers owe but haven’t yet paid (think invoices).
Let’s take a look at an easy example. Let’s say that you’ve received $5,000 in payments from your customers and $1,000 in outstanding invoices. You also have paid bills totaling $500 and $100 in unpaid bills.
Using the accrual method, your total profit for this time period would be $5,400. You would add the revenue you have received ($5,000) plus your accounts receivable ($1,000). Then, you would subtract your expenses ($500) and your accounts payable ($100) because your accounts receivable (unpaid invoices) and accounts payable (unpaid bills) are already recognized as part of your profit/loss.
The benefit of using the accrual accounting method is that it gives you a clear view of your income and expenses. On the flip side, though, it doesn’t give you a clear picture of the cash flow of your business. While your books may show that you have earned a bigger profit, you might not have as much available cash because of unpaid invoices.
The other method that you may use for your business is cash basis accounting (or simply cash accounting). Cash basis accounting recognizes revenue and expenses when cash changes hands. This method does not use accounts receivable or accounts payable. Instead, only revenue that has been received and expenses that have been paid are calculated.
Let’s go back to the previous example. Remember, we have $5,000 in revenue, $1,000 that we haven’t yet received, $500 in expenses, and $100 that we owe. Using the cash method, your total profit would be $4,500. You would simply subtract your expenses that have been paid ($500) from the revenue that your business has received ($5,000) because cash basis accounting does not include your accounts receivable (unpaid invoices) or accounts payable (unpaid bills).
The benefit of using the cash basis accounting method is that you can more easily track your cash flow at any time. However, you won’t get the longer-term overview of your revenue and expenses through the accrual method and most accountants do not recommend this form of accounting.
There are some other differences between the two methods of accounting, such as how income is reported for tax purposes, but this is just a basic overview. If you want to learn more to help you decide which method is right for your business, check out our post, Cash VS Accrual Method: Which Is Better For Your Business?
Find The Right Accounting Software
Our modern, tech-filled world makes it easier than ever to operate a business. This includes accounting software that eliminates the tedious tack of paper accounting. While this software doesn’t do all the work for you, it does keep your financial information organized in one spot, automates some tasks, and simplifies the accounting process. In other words, you don’t have to have a degree in accounting to do your own books if you have the right accounting software. If you don’t have the funds to hire a bookkeeper or accountant for your business (and most new businesses don’t), accounting software is a cost-effective way to keep your finances on track.
So, how do you know which software is best for your business? There are a few considerations to keep in mind:
- Price: Before searching for accounting software, have a budget in mind. What can your business comfortably afford? In some cases, you may not be able to afford anything — and that’s okay! There is free accounting software available. However, free software may come with lots of ads, fewer features, or allow for no more than one user. If you have complex accounting needs, multiple users, or have other specific needs, there are options available at all price points.
- Features: Consider the needs of your business when choosing accounting software. If you’re running a larger business, for example, or need software specific to your industry, free software with basic features won’t be a good fit. You may want the whole gambit: invoicing, contact management, accounts, payable, time tracking, project management, and more. However, if you run a smaller business, have only a few clients, and don’t need a ton of added features, a basic and easy-to-use program is a good choice.
- Online & Offline Options: Most business owners and entrepreneurs these days use online accounting solutions. There are many benefits, including no installations required, automatic updates, integration with apps, and access from multiple devices, such as your smartphone. However, there are also desktop-based options that may work for you, such as in locations that don’t have fast and reliable internet connections.
- Your Accounting Skills: Before choosing accounting software, keep in mind your accounting skills. If you’re new to the game, look for software designed with the beginner in mind that offers an easy-to-use interface and has great customer service. If you have some experience in accounting, you can certainly dive right into one of the more complex programs.
- Add-Ons: Some accounting software offers additional add-ons for an extra fee. Payment processing, for example, may be an additional feature that benefits your business. Again, consider the needs of your company and shop around your options for software that best fits these needs.
Not sure where to start? Compare some of the top options available to your business.
Stay On Top Of Bookkeeping
Accounting software certainly simplifies accounting and bookkeeping tasks, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t do all the work for you. You will still have to keep on top of certain bookkeeping tasks. The specifics of your bookkeeping requirements vary based on the needs of your business, but some common bookkeeping tasks you may have to perform include:
- Creating and sending invoices to customers
- Reconciling bank statements
- Reviewing expenses and income
- Reviewing aged receivables
- Sending payment reminders or setting up automated reminders
- Analyzing and updating inventory
- Reviewing and paying invoices to your suppliers and vendors
- Scanning receipts
- Running and reviewing financial statements
Run Financial Statements
Running and reviewing financial statements is made easier with accounting software. Financial statements not only help you stay on top of your business finances but also help when filing your taxes and may be required if you apply for a loan or other funding.
Let’s discuss some of the most common financial statements you need to run for your business.
- Balance Sheet: A balance sheet reports assets, liabilities, and equity for a set period of time. This report provides an overview of owner investments, what the company owes, and what the company owns. The balance sheet uses the accounting equation we discussed earlier and is used in conjunction with other reports to analyze the financial health of the business. The balance sheet can also be used to calculate ratios, such as the debt-to-equity ratio.
- Profit & Loss Statement: A profit and loss statement (also known as P&L or income statement) shows the profit or loss of a business over a specific period of time, such as quarterly or annually. The cost of doing business — including cost of goods sold and operating expenses — are deducted from the revenue (or top line) of the business. The difference between the two is known as the net income, or the bottom line, and shows whether the business had a profit or a loss.
- General Ledger: The general ledger contains every financial transaction that occurs within a company. Transactions are broken down into accounts, which include assets, liabilities, equity, income, and expenses. The chart of accounts that we discussed earlier is typically the first page of the general ledger.
- Statement Of Cash Flows: A statement of cash flows (or simply cash flow statement) shows how money comes into and goes out of the business. Cash inflows from operations, financing, and investments are recorded on this statement. Cash outflows are also recorded. This includes investments and expenditures for business activities. A statement of cash flow gives you a view of the financial health of your business, helps you analyze how your money is made and spent, and helps you plan for the future to ensure you have cash available to keep your business in operations.
These are just a few of the financial statements that you can run using accounting software. While these are the major reports that every business should run, the software you select may also offer additional reports that are important for your business like job costing reports, annual budgets, reports of sales by product, and other financial documents.
Don’t Forget Tax Deductions
It’s time to discuss the moment that most small business owners dread: filing and paying taxes. With good accounting, though, filing your taxes (or getting through an IRS audit) won’t be quite so painful.
The rates and requirements for filing taxes are based on the legal structure of your business. For example, a sole proprietor simply files the business income or loss on their personal tax return, while certain corporations may face double taxation wherein tax is paid on the income of the business and on the dividends received by the owners.
While filing your taxes can be scary, especially if your business made a profit, you can ease your tax burden by taking advantage of the tax deductions available to small business owners. This can include:
- Furniture & expenses
- Employee benefits
- Travel expenses
- Loan interest
- Insurance premiums
- Marketing & advertising expenses
- Salaries & wages
- Vehicle expenses
These aren’t all of the tax deductions available to small business owners. Working with an accountant or tax professional can ensure you take advantage of all the deductions available to your business.
Know When To Hire An Accountant
While it is possible to handle much of your own accounting for your small business, there comes a time when many businesses need to enlist the help of an accountant. There are a number of reasons that business owners choose to hire an accountant. As the business grows, you may become too busy to handle the financial side of things and would prefer to focus on other activities within the business. An accountant is also extremely beneficial to have on board when it’s time to file your taxes. If you plan to acquire or sell a business, an accountant can provide advice and help determine if the transaction is a smart financial move. When you want to expand your business, an accountant can give advice and help you create a business plan.
There are several situations where hiring an accountant is in the best interest of your business. Even though this is an additional expense, it is often a critical move if you want to grow a successful and profitable small business. Learn more about when you should hire an accountant for your business.
The Benefits Of Good Accounting
We’ve established that every small business should have an accounting system in place. But why is it important to have good accounting? At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the success of your business depends on it — quite literally. Here are the benefits of good accounting:
- Budgeting & Planning: Good accounting can help you set company budgets for your business and plan for upcoming projects.
- Financial Health: As previously mentioned, having your numbers organized allows you to assess the financial health of your business to determine what you’re doing right … and what needs to be changed.
- Track Payments: Without good accounting and bookkeeping, it’s difficult to keep up with customers that haven’t yet paid you for your products or services. By staying on top of your accounting and bookkeeping, you can easily send out invoices, payment reminders, and even collect payments.
- Tax Time Benefits: Keeping accurate records makes it easier to file your taxes or go through an audit by the IRS.
- Funding Opportunities: If you seek capital from investors or lenders, having accurate financial statements is critical to securing funding — and some lenders (like Fundbox) even require that you use accounting software to be approved.
- Major Purchases: If you’re considering a major purchase to grow your business, the numbers can help you determine if it’s the right time to make the purchase, or if it makes more sense financially to hold off on spending the funds.
- Cash Flow: Good accounting lets you assess the cash flow of your business to determine where you need to make changes to boost profitability.
- Revenue Forecasts: With the right financial reports, you can more accurately forecast future revenues of your business.
- Maximize Business Growth: Accounting allows you to track the growth of your business, allowing you to make important decisions and changes to help maximize growth.
The Bottom Line
Every business is different, but one thing should remain constant: good accounting. Whether you’re a sole proprietor running a business from your home office or you visualize running a large international corporation, all business owners and entrepreneurs should make accounting a priority. With so many great software programs and tools at your disposal, it’s easier and more affordable than ever to track your company’s finances. Take a look at the Best Accounting Software For Small Businesses to start your journey on finding the perfect accounting software.
Ready to learn more about accounting? Check out our eBook, The Beginners Guide To Accounting. It’s free to download and is a must-read for any business owner or entrepreneur that’s ready to master the basics of accounting.