Saturday, March 14, 2009

Principles of Accounting

Any discussion of how to use QuickBooks to better manage your business begins with a discussion of the basics of accounting. For this reason, in this chapter and the next two, I attempt to provide the same information that you would receive in an introductory college accounting course. Of course, I tailor the entire discussion to QuickBooks and the small business environment. What you'll read about here and in the next chapters of this book pretty much describes how accounting works in a small-business setting using QuickBooks.

If you've had some experience with accounting, if you know how to read an income statement and balance sheet, or if you know how to construct a journal entry, you don't need to read this chapter or the next. However, if you're new to accounting and business bookkeeping, take the time to carefully read this chapter. The chapter starts by giving a high-level overview of the purpose of accounting. Then I review the common financial statements that any accounting system worth its salt produces. I also discuss some of the important principles of accounting and the philosophy of accounting. Finally, I talk a little bit about income tax law and tax accounting.

The Purpose of Accounting

In the movie Creator, Peter O'Toole plays an eccentric professor. At one point, O'Toole's character attempts to talk a young student into working as an unpaid research assistant. When the student protests, noting that he needs 15 credit hours, O'Toole creates a special 15-credit independent study named "Introduction to the Big Picture." Below, I describe the "big picture" of accounting. At its very core, accounting makes perfect, logical sense.

The Big Picture

The most important thing to understand about accounting is that it provides financial information to stakeholders. Stakeholders are the people who do business with or interact with a firm; they include managers, employees, investors, banks, vendors, government authorities, and agencies who may tax a firm. Stakeholders and their information requirements deserve a bit more discussion. Why? Because the information needs of these stakeholders determine what an accounting system must do.

Managers, Investors, and Entrepreneurs

The first category of stakeholders includes the firm's managers, investors, and entrepreneurs. This group needs financial information to determine whether a business is making money. This group also wants any information that gives insight into whether a business is growing or contracting and how healthy or sick it is. To fulfill its obligations and duties, this group often needs detailed information. For example, a manager or entrepreneur may want to know which customers are particularly profitable — or unprofitable. An active investor may want to know which product lines are growing or contracting.

A related set of information requirements concerns asset and liability record keeping. An asset is something that the firm owns, such as cash, inventory, or equipment. A liability is some debt or obligation that the firm owes, such as bank loans and accounts payable.

Obviously, someone at a firm — perhaps a manager, bookkeeper, or accountant — needs to have very detailed records of the amount of cash that the firm has in its bank accounts, the inventory that the firm has in its warehouse or on its shelves, and the equipment that the firm owns and uses in its operations.

If you look over the preceding two paragraphs, nothing I've said is particularly surprising. It makes sense, right? Someone who works in a business, manages a business, or actively invests in a business needs good general information about the financial affairs of the firm and, in many cases, very detailed information about important assets (such as cash) and liabilities (such as bank loans).

External Creditors

A second category of stakeholders includes outside firms that loan money to a business and credit reporting agencies that supply information to these lenders. For example, banks want to know about the financial affairs and financial condition of a firm before lending money. The accounting system needs to produce the financial information that a bank requires in order to consider a loan request.

What information do lenders want? Lenders want to know that a business is profitable and enjoys a positive cash flow. Profits and positive cash flows allow a business to easily repay debt. A bank or other lender also wants to see assets that could be liquidated, in a worst case scenario, to pay a loan — and also other debts that may represent a claim on the firm's assets.

Vendors also typically require financial information from a firm. A vendor often loans money to a firm by extending trade credit. What's noteworthy about this is that vendors sometimes require special accounting. For example, one of the categories of vendors that a company such as Wiley Publishing, Inc., deals with is authors. In order to pay an author the royalty that he or she is entitled to, Wiley puts in a fair amount of work to calculate royalty-per-unit amounts and then reports and remits these amounts to authors.

Other firms sometimes have similar financial reporting requirements for vendors. Franchisees (such as the man or woman who owns and operates the local McDonald's) pay a franchise fee based on revenues. Retailers may perform special accounting and reporting in order to enjoy rebates and incentives from the manufacturers of the products that they sell.

Government Agencies

Predictable stakeholders that require financial information from a business are the federal and state government agencies with jurisdiction over the firm. For example, every business in the United States needs to report on its revenues, expenses, and profits so that the firm can correctly calculate income tax due to the federal government and then pay that tax.

Firms with employees must also report to the federal and state government on wages paid to those employees — and pay payroll taxes based on metrics, such as number of employees, wages paid to employees, and unemployment benefits claimed by past employees.

Providing this sort of financial information to government agencies represents a key duty of a firm's accounting system.

Business Form Generation

In addition to the financial reporting described in the preceding paragraphs, accounting systems typically perform one other key task for businesses: producing business forms. For example, an accounting system almost always produces the checks needed to pay vendors. In addition, an accounting system prepares the invoices and payroll checks. More sophisticated accounting systems, such as those used by large firms, prepare many other business forms including purchase orders, monthly customer statements, credit memos to customers, sales receipts, and so forth.


Every accounting function that I've described so far is performed ably by each of the versions of QuickBooks: QuickBooks Simple Start, QuickBooks Pro, QuickBooks Premier, and QuickBooks Enterprise.

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