Cash vs. Accrual Accounting: What’s the Difference?


Updated January 17, 2018

As if accounting wasn’t vexing enough, every business also has to choose between two different methods of keeping their books: cash accounting or accrual accounting. These two terms often cause dizziness and confusion among non-accountants, but here’s the difference in a nutshell. 

Cash accounting is basically simple bookkeeping, and it's the method used by many sole proprietors and mom-and-pop businesses because it’s easy and straightforward. In contrast, accrual accounting requires more work and technical accounting skill, but it's the method normally used by larger businesses because you can't get truly accurate financials without it. Among accountants, accrual accounting is "real accounting."

To help you understand the differences, here’s a quick snapshot of each method:

Cash Accounting

  • The method used by many sole proprietors and small businesses (i.e. simple bookkeeping).
  • Easy and straightforward: You record income when it’s received and expenses when they get paid (checks in = income, checks out = expenses).
  • Cash accounting makes intuitive sense but doesn’t necessarily provide accurate financials. For example, sales can be disproportionately high one month (for example, if you deposit payments from many customers all at once), or expenses can be too low (if you forget to enter all your bills).

Accrual Accounting

  • More difficult and time-consuming than the cash method, but widely regarded as the more professional and correct method of accounting.
  • Provides accurate financial reports because income and expenses are recorded when they occur and can’t be moved between periods.
  • Requires significantly more technical accounting skill than the cash method (for example, to correctly record income and expenses each month and handle tricky items like depreciation, interest, and taxes).

Which method is right for you?

If you have a small, cash-based business and you run things primarily by looking at your bank balance, then the cash method might be fine and dandy for you. However, if your business carries inventory and/or has liabilities that need to be tracked and recorded on a regular basis (accounts payable, sales tax, sales commissions, etc.), then the accrual method will probably be required. In many cases, small businesses start out with the cash method and then transition to accrual accounting (or a hybrid of the two) as they grow and their accounting needs become more sophisticated.

Legal stuff: This information is provided for educational purposes only and does not constitute advice for your specific situation.

William Keller