A guide to accounting: what it is and how it works

Accounting plays a vital role in the financial management of businesses and organizations. This guide will provide an overview of accounting, explaining its fundamental principles and processes. We’ll review types of accounting, key documents, special considerations, and more.

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What is accounting?

Accounting is the process of recording, analyzing, interpreting, and summarizing the financial transactions of a business or organization. It enables the measurement, reporting, and communication of financial information to relevant stakeholders.

The importance of accounting

Accounting serves several crucial purposes in the business world. It helps in tracking financial performance, making informed decisions, complying with regulations, securing funding, and assessing the overall health of an organization.

Basic accounting principles

To ensure accuracy and consistency, accounting follows a set of principles and guidelines. These principles include:

  • The matching principle: Expenses need to be recognized and recorded in the same accounting period as the revenue that they are related to
  • Revenue recognition principle: Revenue should be recognized and recorded when it is earned, regardless of when the actual payment is received
  • Consistency principle: Accounting methods and practices should remain consistent over time, allowing for meaningful comparisons of financial statements between different periods
  • The principle of materiality: Financial information should be disclosed if its omission or misstatement might influence the decision-making process of users relying on the financial statements

Types of accounting

There are different branches of accounting, each serving specific purposes.

  • Managerial accounting focuses on internal decision-making
  • Financial accounting involves preparing financial statements for external stakeholders
  • Tax accounting deals with tax-related matters
  • Auditing ensures the accuracy and compliance of financial records

Different accounting needs for different types of businesses

Each type of business has its own unique needs when it comes to accounting. Let’s take a look at a few types:

  • Freelancers – Freelance and self-employed business owners have the option to do their taxes on their own or hire an accountant to take care of things for them. This choice usually depends on the size of the specific business. 
  • Marketplaces – Marketplaces owners not only have to manage their business and online sales but also have to report to the authorities regarding the vendors in the marketplace. This, naturally, complicates things and makes it more important for the business owner to have systems in place and professionals at hand to handle their accounting needs. 
  • Businesses and startups – Although these businesses may be small in size and at the beginning of their journey, it is critical to have their accounting needs in order. This is why they will often hire outside help (consultants/accountants) to make sure that they are set up properly and to run the everyday operations. 
  • Corporations and enterprises – These businesses typically have accounting departments in-house that handle the business’ accounting needs.

What is the accounting cycle?

The accounting cycle consists of a series of steps that accountants follow to record and analyze financial transactions. These steps include:

  • Identifying and analyzing transactions
  • Journalizing
  • Posting to ledgers
  • Preparing a trial balance
  • Making adjusting entries
  • Producing financial statements

Key documents for accounting

In addition to recording and analyzing financial transactions, accounting involves the management and organization of various essential documents. These documents provide a comprehensive trail of financial activities and serve as crucial evidence for auditing and financial analysis. Here are some key documents commonly used in accounting:

  • Invoices: Invoices are documents issued by a seller to a buyer, outlining the details of a sale transaction. They include information such as the date, item, or service sold, quantity, unit price, total amount, payment terms, and any applicable taxes. Invoices serve as evidence of revenue and accounts receivable for the seller and accounts payable for the buyer.
  • Receipts: Receipts are written or electronic documents issued by a seller to a buyer after receiving payment for goods or services. They provide proof of payment and typically include details such as the date, amount paid, description of the item or service, and the seller’s information. Receipts are crucial for tracking income, verifying expenses, and maintaining accurate financial records.
  • Purchase orders: A purchase order is a document issued by a buyer to a seller, indicating the intent to purchase goods or services. It outlines the quantity, description, agreed-upon price, and any specific terms and conditions. Purchase orders help establish a formal agreement between the buyer and seller and facilitate the accurate recording of expenses and accounts payable.
  • Bank statements: Bank statements provide a summary of all transactions and balances within a specific period for a bank account. They include details such as deposits, withdrawals, transfers, and any fees or charges. Bank statements are crucial for reconciling accounts, verifying transactions, and ensuring the accuracy of recorded financial information.
  • Payroll records: Payroll records include documents related to employee compensation, such as timesheets, wage calculations, tax withholding forms, and pay stubs. These records are essential for accurately calculating employee wages, tracking payroll expenses, and complying with tax and labor regulations.
  • Financial statements: Financial statements are formal reports that provide an overview of a company’s financial position and performance. The main financial statements include the balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement. These statements summarize financial data, including assets, liabilities, equity, revenues, expenses, and cash flows, and provide insights into the company’s financial health.

Proper organization and maintenance of these key documents are crucial for accurate accounting records and financial analysis. Using accounting software or cloud-based platforms can help streamline document management, enhance recordkeeping accuracy, and improve overall efficiency in accounting processes.

Special accounting considerations

In the ever-evolving business landscape, accounting practices must adapt to address various special considerations beyond remote work. These considerations arise from modern business practices and trends, and understanding them is essential for accurate financial management. Here are some key factors to consider:

  • Payment processing for remote workers: With remote work becoming increasingly common, businesses must develop efficient payment processing methods tailored to remote workers. This includes implementing secure online payment systems or direct deposit options to ensure timely and convenient compensation for remote employees.
  • Ecommerce and online sales: The rise of ecommerce and online sales introduces unique accounting challenges. Businesses need to carefully track and record online transactions, including sales revenue, refunds, shipping costs, and any associated fees, to accurately reflect their financial performance.
  • Subscription-based services: Many businesses now offer subscription-based services, requiring specialized accounting practices. Proper recognition of subscription revenue, management of recurring billing, and tracking of customer churn rates are critical to ensure accurate financial reporting.
  • Data security and privacy compliance: Businesses must ensure the protection of sensitive financial and personal data. Accounting considerations include implementing robust data security measures, complying with data privacy regulations, and accounting for any associated costs or liabilities.
  • International business operations: Globalization has led to increased international business operations. Accounting for multinational transactions, currency conversions, and compliance with international accounting standards and tax regulations is crucial for accurate financial reporting and risk management.

Frequently asked questions 

While specific requirements may vary, most accountants have a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field. Additionally, obtaining professional certifications like CPA (Certified Public Accountant) can enhance career prospects.

Popular accounting software includes QuickBooks, Xero, and Wave. These platforms offer features such as bookkeeping, invoicing, and financial reporting to streamline accounting processes.

Accountants must adhere to ethical standards to maintain integrity and trust in the profession. Ethical considerations include confidentiality, objectivity, professional competence, and compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.

Bookkeeping involves recording financial transactions, while accounting encompasses a broader range of activities, including analyzing financial data, preparing reports, and providing financial insights.

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