What is Accounts Payable (AP)?

Accounts payable (AP) is an account within the general ledger that represents a company's obligation to pay off a short-term debt to its creditors or suppliers. Another common usage of "AP" refers to the business department or division that is responsible for making payments owed by the company to suppliers and other creditors.

Key Takeaways

  • Accounts payable are amounts due to vendors or suppliers for goods or services received that have not yet been paid for.
  • The sum of all outstanding amounts owed to vendors is shown as the accounts payable balance on the company's balance sheet.
  • The increase or decrease in total AP from the prior period appears on the cash flow statement.
  • Management may choose to pay its outstanding bills as close to their due dates as possible in order to improve cash flow.
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Accounts Payable

Understanding Accounts Payable (AP)

A company's total accounts payable (AP) balance at a specific point in time will appear on its balance sheet under the current liabilities section. Accounts payable are debts that must be paid off within a given period to avoid default. At the corporate level, AP refers to short-term debt payments due to suppliers. The payable is essentially a short-term IOU from one business to another business or entity. The other party would record the transaction as an increase to its accounts receivable in the same amount.

Accounts payable (AP) is an important figure in a company's balance sheet. If AP increases over a prior period, that means the company is buying more goods or services on credit, rather than paying cash. If a company's AP decreases, it means the company is paying on its prior period debts at a faster rate than it is purchasing new items on credit. Accounts payable management is critical in managing a business's cash flow.

When using the indirect method to prepare the cash flow statement, the net increase or decrease in AP from the prior period appears in the top section, the cash flow from operating activities. Management can use AP to manipulate the company's cash flow to a certain extent. For example, if management wants to increase cash reserves for a certain period, they can extend the time the business takes to pay all outstanding accounts in AP. However, this flexibility to pay later must be weighed against the ongoing relationships the company has with its vendors. It's always good business practice to pay bills by their due dates.

Recording Accounts Payable (AP)

Proper double entry bookkeeping requires that there must always be an offsetting debit and credit for all entries made into the general ledger. To record accounts payable, the accountant credits accounts payable when the bill or invoice is received. The debit offset for this entry is typically to an expense account for the good or service that was purchased on credit. The debit could also be to an asset account if the item purchased was a capitalizable asset. When the bill is paid, the accountant debits accounts payable to decrease the liability balance. The offsetting credit is made to the cash account, which also decreases the cash balance.

For example, imagine a business gets a $500 invoice for office supplies. When the AP department receives the invoice, it records a $500 credit in accounts payable and a $500 debit to office supply expense. The $500 debit to office supply expense flows through to the income statement at this point, so the company has recorded the purchase transaction even though cash has not been paid out. This is in line with accrual accounting, where expenses are recognized when incurred rather than when cash changes hands. The company then pays the bill, and the accountant enters a $500 credit to the cash account and a debit for $500 to accounts payable.

A company may have many open payments due to vendors at any one time. All outstanding payments due to vendors are recorded in accounts payable. As a result, if anyone looks at the balance in accounts payable, they will see the total amount the business owes all of its vendors and short-term lenders. This total amount appears on the balance sheet. For example, if the business above also received an invoice for lawn care services in the amount of $50, the total of both entries in accounts payable would equal $550 prior to the company paying off those debts.

Accounts Payable vs. Trade Payables

Although some people use the phrases "accounts payable" and "trade payables" interchangeably, the phrases refer to similar but slightly different situations. Trade payables constitute the money a company owes its vendors for inventory-related goods, such as business supplies or materials that are part of the inventory. Accounts payable include all of the company's short-term debts or obligations.

For example, if a restaurant owes money to a food or beverage company, those items are part of the inventory, and thus part of its trade payables. Meanwhile, obligations to other companies, such as the company that cleans the restaurant's staff uniforms, falls into the accounts payable category. Both of these categories fall under the broader accounts payable category, and many companies combine both under the term accounts payable.

Accounts Payable vs. Accounts Receivable

Accounts receivable and accounts payable are essentially opposites. Accounts payable is the money a company owes its vendors, while accounts receivable is the money that is owed to the company, typically by customers. When one company transacts with another on credit, one will record an entry to accounts payable on their books while the other records an entry to accounts receivable.