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What is 'Cash Basis'

Cash basis refers to a major accounting method that recognizes revenues and expenses at the time cash is received or paid out. This contrasts accrual accounting, which recognizes income at the time the revenue is earned and records expenses when liabilities are incurred regardless of when cash is received or paid.

BREAKING DOWN 'Cash Basis'

When transactions are recorded on a cash basis, they affect a company's books upon exchange of consideration; therefore, cash basis accounting is less accurate than accrual accounting in the short term.  The Tax Reform Act of 1986 prohibits the cash basis accounting method from being used for C corporations, tax shelters, certain types of trusts, and partnerships that have C Corporation partners.  

Example of Cash Basis Accounting

A construction company secures a major contract but will only receive compensation upon completion of the project. Using cash-basis accounting, the company is only able to recognize the revenue upon project completion, which is when cash is received.  However, during the project, it records the project's expenses as they are being paid. If the project's time span is greater than one year, the company's income statements will appear misleading as they show the company incurring large losses one year followed by great gains the next.

Benefits of Cash Basis Accounting

Cash basis accounting is advantageous because it is simpler and less expensive than accrual accounting. For some small business owners and independent contractors who carry no inventory, it is a suitable accounting practice. Many small businesses avoid employing accountants and using complex accounting systems when using this method because of its ease of use.  It also gives an accurate picture of how much cash is on hand.

Disadvantages of Cash Basis Accounting

The cash-basis method is not without disadvantages.  It can paint an inaccurate picture of a business's health and growth. For example, a business can experience a decline in sales one month but if a large number of clients pay their invoices with the same period, cash-basis accounting can be misleading by showing an influx of cash.  For business owners, comparative analysis (to project future earnings and identify trends) can be difficult with cash-basis accounting because of scenarios like this.  

In contrast, with the accrual method, payments are recorded when earned, giving the business a better sense of the company's actual sales and profits. Additionally, cash-basis accounting can make obtaining financing more difficult due to its high probability of inaccuracies.

Choosing Between Cash-Basis and Accrual-Method Accounting

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows most small businesses to choose between the cash and accrual method of accounting, but the IRS requires businesses with over $5 million in sales per year or over $1 million in gross receipts for inventory sales to use the accrual method. Businesses must use the same method for tax reporting as they do for their own accounting records.

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