What Is a Prepaid Expense?

A prepaid expense is a type of asset on the balance sheet that results from a business making advanced payments for goods or services to be received in the future. Prepaid expenses are initially recorded as assets, but their value is expensed over time onto the income statement. Unlike conventional expenses, the business will receive something of value from the prepaid expense over the course of several accounting periods.

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Prepaid Expense

Understanding Prepaid Expenses

Companies make prepayments for goods or services such as leased office equipment or insurance coverage that provide continual benefits over time. Goods or services of this nature cannot be expensed immediately because the expense would not line up with the benefit incurred over time from using the asset.

According to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), expenses should be recorded in the same accounting period as the benefit generated from the related asset. For example, if a large Xerox machine is leased by a company for a period of twelve months, the company benefits from its use over the full time period. Recording an advanced payment made for the lease as an expense in the first month would not adequately match expenses with revenues generated from its use. Therefore, it should be recorded as a prepaid expense and allocated out to expense over the full twelve months.

Journal entries that recognize expenses related to previously recorded prepaids are called adjusting entries. They do not record new business transactions but simply adjust previously recorded transactions. Adjusting entries for prepaid expenses are necessary to ensure that expenses are recognized in the period in which they are incurred.

Due to the nature of certain goods and services, prepaid expenses will always exist. For example, insurance is a prepaid expense because the purpose of purchasing insurance is to buy proactive protection in case something unfortunate happens in the future. Clearly, no insurance company would sell insurance that covers an unfortunate event after the fact, so insurance expenses must be prepaid by businesses.

Example of Prepaid Expense

For example, assume ABC Company purchases insurance for the upcoming twelve month period. It pays $120,000 upfront for the insurance policy. ABC Company will initially book the full $120,000 as a debit to prepaid insurance, an asset on the balance sheet, and a credit to cash. Each month, an adjusting entry will be made to expense $10,000 (1/12 of the prepaid amount) to the income statement through a credit to prepaid insurance and a debit to insurance expense. In the twelfth month, the final $10,000 will be fully expensed and the prepaid account will be zero.