Accrued Expenses vs. Provisions: An Overview

In accounting, accrued expenses and provisions are separated by their respective degrees of certainty. All accrued expenses have already been incurred but are not yet paid for. By contrast, provisions are allocated toward probable, but not certain, future obligations. They act like a rainy-day fund, based on educated guesses about future expenses.

It's very difficult to draw clear lines between accrual liabilities, provisions, and contingent liabilities. In many respects, the characterization of an expense obligation as either accrual or provision can depend on the company's interpretations.

Accrued Expenses

All accruals are divided into either expenses or revenues. An accrued expense is one that is known to be due in the future with certainty. In a publicly listed corporation's financial statement, there is an accrued expense for interest that is paid to shareholders each quarter.

When companies buy and sell from each other, they frequently do so on credit. A credit transaction occurs when an entity purchases merchandise or services from another but does not pay immediately. The unpaid expenses incurred by a company for which no invoice has been received from its suppliers and vendors are referred to as accrued expenses. Other forms of accrued expenses include interest payments on loans, services received, wages and salaries incurred, and taxes incurred, all for which invoices have not been received and payments have not been made.

Interest payable on owner's equity is a known figure. It can be estimated well ahead of time, and money can be set aside for it in a very specific fashion. The accrued expense is listed in the ledger until payment is actually distributed to the shareholders.

Provisions

Provisions provide protection and specify deadlines for actions. Provisions can be found in the laws of a country, in loan documents, and in investment-grade bonds and stocks. For example, the anti-greenmail provision contained within some companies' charters protects shareholders from the board passing stock buybacks. Although most shareholders favor stock buybacks, some buybacks allow board members to sell their stock to the company at inflated premiums. 

Provisions are far less certain than accruals. Companies elect to make them for future obligations whose a specific amount or date of incurrence is unknown. The provisions basically act like a hedge against possible losses that would impact business operations.

[Important: Companies often make provisions for depreciation or bad debts; a company might estimate that it will have to charge off $10,000 worth of delinquent receivables during the course of a year based on past experience, but it cannot know exactly how much for certain.]

There are general guidelines that should be met before a provision can be justified in the financial statement. The entity must have an obligation at the reporting date—that is, the present obligation must exist. The amount of the obligation needs to be reliably estimated. Most importantly, the event must be near-certain, or at least highly probable.

Key Takeaways

  • In accounting, accrued expenses and provisions are separated by their respective degrees of certainty.
  • An accrued expense is one that is known to be due in the future with certainty.
  • Companies elect to make provisions for future obligations whose a specific amount or date of incurrence is unknown.