JAMES CHENUpdated Jul 29, 2021
What Is a Transaction?
A transaction is a completed agreement between a buyer and a seller to exchange goods, services, or financial assets. But in business bookkeeping, this plain definition can get complicated. A transaction will be recorded earlier or later depending on whether the company uses accrual accounting rather than cash accounting.
Accrual accounting is used by businesses with gross receipts above $5 million a year, while the cash accounting method is used by most small businesses.1
Understanding the Transaction
A sales transaction between a buyer and a seller is relatively straightforward. Person A pays person B in exchange for a product or service. When they agree on the terms, the transaction is complete.
Transactions can be more complex in the accounting world since businesses may make a deal today which won't be settled until a future date. Or, they may have revenues or expenses that are known but not yet due. Third-party transactions can also complicate the process.
Whether a business records income and expense transactions using the accrual method of accounting or the cash method of accounting affects the company’s financial and tax reporting.
Using Accrual Accounting
When accrual accounting is used, a company records income when completing a service or delivering goods. If inventory is required when accounting for a company’s income, and the company has gross receipts above $5 million a year, the company normally uses the accrual method of accounting for sales and purchases.1
Examples of Accrual Accounting
For example, a company selling merchandise to a customer on store credit in October records the transaction immediately as an item in accounts receivable. Even if the customer does not make a cash payment on the merchandise until December or pays in installments, the transaction is recorded as income for October.
If a customer buys something on credit, it will immediately be recorded as a transaction if the accrual accounting method is used.
The same goes for goods or services the company purchases. Business expenses are recorded when the products or services are received. Supplies purchased on credit in April are recorded as expenses for April, even if the business does not make a cash payment on the supplies until May.
Using Cash Accounting
Most small businesses, especially sole proprietorships and partnerships, use the cash accounting method. Income is recorded when cash, checks, or credit card payments are received from customers.
Examples of Cash Accounting
For example, a business sells $10,000 of widgets to a customer in March. The customer pays the invoice in April. The company recognizes the sale only after the cash is received in April.
Meanwhile, expenses are recorded only when a payment is made. For example, a business may purchase $500 of office supplies in May and pay for them in June. The business recognizes the purchase when it pays the bill in June.
For tax reasons, the cash basis of accounting is available only if a company has less than $5 million in sales annually. The cash basis is easier than the accrual basis for recording transactions because no complex accounting transactions, such as accruals and deferrals, are necessary. Its drawback is that the profit of the business may vary wildly from month to month, at least on paper.1
Related Terms
What Is Accrual Accounting and Who Uses It?
Accrual accounting is an accounting method that measures the performance of a company by recognizing economic events regardless of when the cash transaction occurs. more
Accrued Expense Definition
An accrued expense is recognized on the books before it has been billed or paid. more
Cash Cost
Cash cost is a term used in cash basis accounting (as opposed to accrual basis) that refers to the recognition of costs as they are paid in cash. more
Completed Contract Method (CCM)
The completed contract method (CCM) enables a company to postpone recognizing revenue and expenses until a contract is completed. more
Accrued Interest Definition
Accrued interest refers to the interest that has been incurred on a loan or other financial obligation but has not yet been paid out. more
Deferred Charge
A deferred charge is a prepaid expense for an underlying asset that will not be fully consumed until future periods are complete. more
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What Is the Difference Between Accrual Accounting and Cash Accounting?
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