8. Revenue Recognition Principle
Under the accrual basis of accounting (as opposed to the cash basis of accounting), revenues are recognized as soon as a product has been sold or a service has been performed, regardless of when the money is actually received. Under this basic accounting principle, a company could earn and report $20,000 of revenue in its first month of operation but receive $0 in actual cash in that month.
For example, if ABC Consulting completes its service at an agreed price of $1,000, ABC should recognize $1,000 of revenue as soon as its work is done—it does not matter whether the client pays the $1,000 immediately or in 30 days. Do not confuse revenue with a cash receipt.
Because of this basic accounting principle or guideline, an accountant might be allowed to violate another accounting principle if an amount is insignificant. Professional judgement is needed to decide whether an amount is insignificant or immaterial.
An example of an obviously immaterial item is the purchase of a $150 printer by a highly profitable multi-million dollar company. Because the printer will be used for five years, the matching principle directs the accountant to expense the cost over the five-year period. The materiality guideline allows this company to violate the matching principle and to expense the entire cost of $150 in the year it is purchased. The justification is that no one would consider it misleading if $150 is expensed in the first year instead of $30 being expensed in each of the five years that it is used.
Because of materiality, financial statements usually show amounts rounded to the nearest dollar, to the nearest thousand, or to the nearest million dollars depending on the size of the company.
If a situation arises where there are two acceptable alternatives for reporting an item, conservatism directs the accountant to choose the alternative that will result in less net income and/or less asset amount. Conservatism helps the accountant to “break a tie.” It does not direct accountants to be conservative. Accountants are expected to be unbiased and objective.
The basic accounting principle of conservatism leads accountants to anticipate or disclose losses, but it does not allow a similar action for gains. For example, potential losses from lawsuits will be reported on the financial statements or in the notes, but potential gains will not be reported. Also, an accountant may write inventory down to an amount that is lower than the original cost, but will not write inventory up to an amount higher than the original cost.
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