Contra Account

What Is a Contra Account?

A contra account is used in a general ledger to reduce the value of a related account when the two are netted together. A contra account's natural balance is the opposite of the associated account. If a debit is the natural balance recorded in the related account, the contra account records a credit. For example, the contra account for a fixed asset is accumulated depreciation.

Key Takeaways

  • A contra account is an account used in a general ledger to reduce the value of a related account.
  • They are useful to preserve the historical value in a main account while presenting a decrease or write-down in a separate contra account that nets to the current book value.
  • Contra accounts are presented on the same financial statement as the associated account, typically appearing directly below it with a third line for the net amount.
  • Note that accountants use contra accounts rather than reduce the value of the original account directly to keep financial accounting records clean.
  • Key examples of contra accounts include accumulated deprecation and allowance for doubtful accounts.
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Contra Account

Understanding a Contra Account

Contra accounts are reported on the same financial statement as the associated account. For example, a contra account to accounts receivable, often called allowance for doubtful accounts, is a contra asset account.

This type of account could be called the allowance for doubtful accounts or bad debt reserve. The balance in the allowance for doubtful accounts represents the dollar amount of the current accounts receivable balance that is expected to be uncollectible. The amount is reported on the balance sheet in the asset section immediately below accounts receivable. The net of these two figures is typically reported on a third line.

Accountants use contra accounts rather than reduce the value of the original account directly to keep financial accounting records clean. If a contra account is not used, it can be difficult to determine historical costs, which can make tax preparation more difficult and time-consuming.

By keeping the original dollar amount intact in the original account and reducing the figure in a separate account, the financial information is more transparent for financial reporting purposes. For example, if a piece of heavy machinery is purchased for $10,000, that $10,000 figure is maintained on the general ledger even as the asset's depreciation is recorded separately.

Contra accounts provide more detail to accounting figures and improve transparency in financial reporting.

Types of Contra Accounts

There are four key types of contra accounts—contra asset, contra liability, contra equity, and contra revenue. Contra asset accounts include allowance for doubtful accounts and accumulated depreciation. Contra asset accounts are recorded with a credit balance that decreases the balance of an asset.

A key example of contra liabilities include discount on notes or bonds payable. Contra liabilities hold a debit balance. Contra liability accounts are not as popular as contra asset accounts.

A liability that is recorded as a debit balance is used to decrease the balance of a liability. The balance of a contra liability account is a debit balance. This account decreases the value of the liability. Contra Liability a/c is not used as frequently as contra asset accounts. It is not classified as a liability since it does not represent a future obligation.

The third contra type is contra equity. These contras reduce the equity account and carry a debit balance. Contra equity reduces the total number of outstanding shares on the balance sheet. The key example of a contra equity account is Treasury stock, which represents the amount paid to buyback stock.

Now, for contra revenue accounts there are sales discounts, sales allowances, or sales returns. Contra revenue reduced gross revenue, resulting in net revenue. These contra revenue accounts tend to have a debit balance.

How to Record a Contra Account

When a contra asset account is first recorded in a journal entry, the offset is to an expense. For example, an increase in the form of a credit to allowance for doubtful accounts is also recorded as a debit to increase bad debt expense.

When accounting for assets, the difference between the asset's account balance and the contra account balance is referred to as the book value. There are two major methods of determining what should be booked into a contra account.

The allowance method of accounting allows a company to estimate what amount is reasonable to book into the contra account. The percentage of sales method assumes that the company cannot collect payment for a fixed percentage of goods or services that it has sold. Both methods result in an adjustment to book value.

For example, a company has $40,000 worth of accounts receivable at September month-end. It estimates 10% of its accounts receivable will be uncollectible and proceeds to create a credit entry of 10% x $40,000 = $4,000 in the contra account, allowance for doubtful accounts.

In order to balance the journal entry, a debit will be made to the bad debt expense for $4,000. Although the accounts receivable is not due in September, the company still has to report credit losses of $4,000 as bad debts expense in its income statement for the month. If accounts receivable is $40,000 and allowance for doubtful accounts is $4,000, the net book value reported on the balance sheet will be $36,000.

Those who are struggling with recording contra accounts may benefit from utilizing some of the best accounting software currently available.

Fast Fact

The difference between an asset's account balance and the contra account balance is known as the book value.

Example of a Contra Account

A major example of a contra account is the accumulated depreciation. Again, accumulated depreciation reduced fixed and capital asset balances. Apple breaks out its amount of property, plant, and equipment (PP&E) and then lists its accumulated deprecation that reduces the PP&E figure.

For fiscal year 2020, Apple's gross PP&E (which includes land, buildings, machinery, etc.) came in at $103.5 billion. Meanwhile, its accumulated depreciation and amortization figure comes in at $66.8 billion. Here's how Apple break it down in their annual report:

Apple 10-K

Contra Account FAQs

What Is the Benefit of Using a Contra Account?

Contra accounts are used to reduce the value of the original account directly to keep financial accounting records clean. If a contra account is not used, it can be difficult to determine historical costs, which can make tax preparation more difficult and time-consuming.

What Are the Different Types of Contra Accounts?

There are four key types of contra accounts—contra asset, contra liability, contra equity, and contra revenue. Contra assets decrease the balance of a fixed or capital asset, carrying a credit balance. Contra liabilities reduce liability accounts and carry a debit balance. Contra equity accounts carry a debit balance reduce equity accounts. Contra revenue accounts reduce revenue accounts and have a debit balance.

What Are Examples of a Contra Asset Account?

Key examples of contra asset accounts include allowance for doubtful accounts and accumulated depreciation. Allowance for doubtful accounts reduce accounts receivable, while accumulated deprecation is used to reduce the value of a fixed asset.

Bottom Line

Contra accounts are used to reduce the original account directly, keeping financial accounting records clean. This allows for the easy determination of historical costs. This is particularly important for contra asset accounts. The difference between an asset's balance and the contra account asset balance is the book value.

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  1. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Form 10-K." Accessed May 13, 2021.