May 25, 2022

Expense recognition principle: Guide to using this key accounting method

The expense recognition principle is a small but critical part of U.S generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). Incorrect expense recognition can skew income statements and balance sheet numbers, leading to restated financial results. In this guide, you will learn how technology simplifies expense reporting and leads to seamless expense recognition.

What is the expense recognition principle?

The expense recognition principle is an accounting best practice which states that you must acknowledge your expenses and the revenue from those expenses in the same time period. An example of the expense recognition principle is if your company purchases t-shirts for $2,000 and sells them for $4,000, you must recognize the revenue ($4,000) and the expense ($2,000) in the same accounting period.

In this case, the expense leads to revenue generation. If you didn't incur expenses purchasing t-shirts, you couldn't have sold them for a profit. This is done to standardize the way companies track and document profits, maintain financial statement accuracy, and avoid tax penalties.

The expense recognition principle is a part of the matching principle, a pillar of U.S GAAP. Businesses that follow accrual accounting use the matching principle. If you use cash accounting, the expense recognition principle does not apply to you since you will record expenses and revenues when cash enters or leaves your accounts.

How does the expense recognition principle relate to revenue recognition?

Revenue recognition is a pillar of accrual accounting with the expense recognition principle. U.S GAAP states that businesses must recognize revenues on their income statement in the period they were realized and earned.

Businesses must have a reasonable degree of certainty that they will receive revenues upon completing an activity. When paired with the expense recognition principle, revenue recognition helps your business present a transparent and accurate financial picture.

These principles smooth income reporting, giving you a good idea of what drives revenues and the expenses your business needs to function smoothly.

How does the expense recognition principle work?

The expense recognition principle works in tandem with the revenue recognition principle. Here's how both work together in practice. Let's say your company purchased $40,000 worth of raw materials in May. Your journal entries would look like this:

Note that you have not recorded an expense yet. This is because you have not earned any revenues from selling goods created from the raw materials.

You sell finished goods in July and earn revenues of $100,000. At this point, you must recognize the expenses you incurred selling the goods along with the revenue.

In this example, the only expense incurred involved purchasing raw materials. In reality, you'll have other expenses to account for, such as operating expenses. Make sure you're on top of your expense management processes to record these numbers accurately.

Why is the expense recognition principle important?

The expense recognition principle is central to determining your business' financial health. Here are a few reasons why this principle is important:

  • Financial statement accuracy: Recognize expenses in the wrong periods, and you'll misstate net income and cash flow, disrupting your spend management processes.
  • Tax implications: Misstating revenues and income creates tax burdens or penalties. Regulators and investors take a dim view of repeated changes to audited financial statements.
  • Determines business accounting approach: The expense recognition principle is central to accrual accounting. This approach is very different from cash accounting and reflects your perspective when stating financial results.
  • Creates financial transparency: By matching expenses with revenues, you can better understand how you generate the latter.

The 3 expense recognition methods

There are three methods you can use to recognize expenses.

Method 1 : Immediate recognition

Immediate recognition is the most intuitive way of recording an expense. In this method, you recognize an expense when you incur it. For instance, you can immediately recognize fixed periodic expenses such as rent payments, utility bill payments, and selling costs.

You incur these expenses in a relatively predictable manner. In addition, tying these fixed costs to different sets of revenue is impossible. For example, what percentage of office rent went towards generating your revenue? Due to the nature of these situations, immediate recognition works best.

Note that you must recognize these expenses immediately, not at a future date. You will automatically associate them with the revenues you generated during a period.

Method 2: Systematic and rational allocation

Some expenses clearly contribute to revenues but recognizing them is tough. For instance, you purchase a new machine that creates more manufactured units and sales. The machine's purchase cost leads to the revenues you earn.

However, should you recognize the machine's total cost every time it produces a saleable unit? This method makes no sense since the machine's lifetime might last for several years. Recognizing the expense over and over is illogical.

In such instances, the systematic and rational allocation method comes to the rescue. You can depreciate the machinery and tie that expense to revenues earned. Here's what your journal entries will look like, assuming a $50,000 machine cost and a 10% depreciation rate:

Method 3: Cause and effect

Cause and effect is the most prevalent expense recognition method. In this method, you will record expenses in the same period as the revenue generated by those costs. Naturally, you must establish a clear link between expenses and revenues for this method to work.

Here's an example. You incur $30,000 in COGS and sell the finished product the following month, earning revenues of $100,000. In addition, you incur a salesperson commission expense of $10,000. Both expenses and the revenue they're tied to must be recorded in the same period.

Your journal entries will look like this:

Once you've sold the finished goods:

How Ramp simplifies expense recognition

Ramp makes expense reporting simple by centralizing all of your data in one place. Here's how expense recognition is simple with Ramp.

Real-time expense reporting and receipt collection

Expenses incurred when using Ramp's cards appear on your dashboards in real-time. Whether SaaS subscriptions or travel expenses, you can instantly track every data point and monitor trends. You can also export expense data to popular analytics tools for deep visualizations.

Receipt matching, a common bottleneck in expense accounting, is automatic when using Ramp. Integrations with Gmail, Lyft, and Amazon Business, make receipt collection a breeze. Ramp's AI-powered receipt matching engine automates matching, freeing your time.

Ramp auto-categorizes all expenses making expense accounting a breeze.

Digitize expense policies

Monitoring expense policies is a resource-intensive task. Ramp streamlines expense recognition by helping you define spending categories and automating approvals. You can create merchant-specific cards and define controls. You can even block entire merchant categories, streamlining employee spending.

Thanks to digitizing expense policies, you create predictable spending patterns that make expense recognition a breeze.

Set multi-layer approval to create audit trails

Some expenses need approvals and additional documentation before clearing. Ramp helps you create multi-layered workflows that automatically involve the right stakeholders connected to every expense.

You can involve the right people from different parts of your organization and approve large expenses before they clear.

Integrates with popular accounting platforms

Expense reporting is useless if you cannot transfer data to your accounting platform. Ramp simplifies expense recognition by integrating with popular accounting platforms such as Xero, Sage Intacct, QuickBooks, and NetSuite.

Thanks to Ramp's powerful API, you can view journal entries in your accounting platform within seconds. You can also specify rules that direct expenses to categories within your accounting platform. Whether it's syncing expenses across multiple entities or offering real-time visibility, Ramp does the heavy lifting for you.

The expense recognition principle is central to accrual accounting. Execute it correctly, and you'll create accurate statements that reflect your company's financial position.

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When should I recognize an expense?

According to U.S GAAP, you must recognize expenses in the same period as the revenues to which they are connected. For instance, COGS and sales must be recognized in the same period, not separately.

Why is the expense recognition principle important?

The expense recognition principle directly affects the following:

  • Financial statement accuracy
  • Tax implications
  • Determining your use of cash versus accrual accounting 
  • Creates financial transparency 

What are the 3 expense recognition methods?

The three expense recognition methods are:

  • Immediate recognition: Periodic and fixed expenses are recognized immediately
  • Systematic and rational allocation: Large asset expenses depreciated and applied to revenue periods
  • Cause and effect: Costs directly linked to revenues are recognized in the same period as revenues

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