Basic Accounting Principles and Guidelines
The following is a list of the ten main accounting principles and guidelines together with a highly condensed explanation of each.
1. Historical Cost Principle
From an accountant's point of view, the term "cost" refers to the amount spent (cash or the cash equivalent) when an item was originally obtained, whether that purchase happened last year or thirty years ago. For this reason, the amounts shown on financial statements are referred to as historical cost amounts.
Because of this accounting principle asset amounts are not adjusted upward for inflation. In fact, as a general rule, asset amounts are not adjusted to reflect any type of increase in value. Hence, an asset amount does not reflect the amount of money a company would receive if it were to sell the asset at today's market value. (An exception is certain investments in stocks and bonds that are actively traded on a stock exchange.) If you want to know the current value of a company's long-term assets, you will not get this information from a company's financial statements–you need to look elsewhere, perhaps to a third-party appraiser.
2. 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.
3. Matching Principle
This accounting principle requires companies to use the accrual basis of accounting. The matching principle requires that expenses be matched with revenues. For example, sales commissions expense should be reported in the period when the sales were made (and not reported in the period when the commissions were paid). Wages to employees are reported as an expense in the week when the employees worked and not in the week when the employees are paid. If a company agrees to give its employees 1% of its 2017 revenues as a bonus on January 15, 2018, the company should report the bonus as an expense in 2017 and the amount unpaid at December 31, 2017 as a liability. (The expense is occurring as the sales are occurring.)
Because we cannot measure the future economic benefit of things such as advertisements (and thereby we cannot match the ad expense with related future revenues), the accountant charges the ad amount to expense in the period that the ad is run.
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.
6. Full Disclosure Principle
If certain information is important to an investor or lender using the financial statements, that information should be disclosed within the statement or in the notes to the statement. It is because of this basic accounting principle that numerous pages of "footnotes" are often attached to financial statements.
As an example, let's say a company is named in a lawsuit that demands a significant amount of money. When the financial statements are prepared it is not clear whether the company will be able to defend itself or whether it might lose the lawsuit. As a result of these conditions and because of the full disclosure principle the lawsuit will be described in the notes to the financial statements.
A company usually lists its significant accounting policies as the first note to its financial statements.