Small businesses often use the cash-basis method of accounting. As businesses grow, they usually convert to accrual-basis reporting for federal tax purposes and to conform with the U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Starting this tax year, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has increased the threshold for businesses that qualify for the simpler cash method for federal tax purposes. Here’s how these accounting methods compare and how the TCJA could affect your financial and tax reporting decisions.
Cash method Companies that use the cash-basis method of accounting recognize revenue as customers pay invoices and expenses as they pay bills. So, cash-basis entities often report large fluctuations in profits from period to period, especially if they’re engaged in long-term projects. This can make it hard to benchmark a company’s performance from year to year — or against other entities that use the accrual method. Cash-basis entities also tend to postpone revenue recognition and accelerate expense payments at year-end. This strategy can temporarily defer the company’s tax liability. But the flipside is that it can make a company appear less profitable to lenders and investors.
The more complex accrual-basis accounting method conforms to the matching principle under GAAP. That is, revenue (and expenses) are “matched” to the periods in which they’re earned (or incurred). Accrual-basis entities report several asset and liability accounts that are generally absent on a cash-basis balance sheet. Examples include prepaid expenses, accounts receivable, accounts payable, work in progress, accrued expenses and deferred taxes.
Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), for tax years beginning after 2017, businesses with average annual gross receipts of $25 million or less for the previous three tax years are eligible for the cash method of accounting for federal income tax purposes. Under prior law, the gross-receipts threshold for the cash method was only $5 million. In addition, for tax years beginning after 2017, the TCJA modifies Section 451 of the Internal Revenue Code so that a business recognizes revenue for tax purposes no later than when it’s recognized for financial reporting purposes. So, if you use the accrual method for financial reporting purposes, you must also use it for federal income tax purposes.
These changes could prompt more companies to opt for the simpler, tax-deferred cash method for both financial reporting and tax purposes. But it’s not right for everyone. Look before you leap As your small business grows, you might be tempted to switch to the accrual method of accounting to reduce variability in financial reporting from year to year — and to attract more sophisticated lenders and investors who prefer GAAP financials. But doing so could accelerate your tax obligations. On the other hand, if you’re newly eligible for the cash method for tax purposes, you may want to switch to that method for the simplicity and tax deferral it offers. If you’re in either situation, contact us to discuss the pros and cons of these two options to ensure you’re using the optimal method based on your circumstances.