Demystifying Common Accounting Terms: A Beginner’s Guide

Demystifying Common Accounting Terms: A Beginner’s Guide

Jelena Lukic
Written by Jelena Lukic
March 20, 2024

Let’s break down some common accounting terms!

Accounting is an essential aspect of managing finances for businesses and individuals alike.

However, the practice features complex jargon and technical language.

Hence, it can be intimidating for those without a background in finance.

In this blog post, we will demystify some of the most common accounting terms, breaking them down into simple and easy-to-understand language.

Whether you’re a small business owner, a student, or simply someone interested in improving your financial literacy, this guide will help you navigate the world of accounting with confidence.

1. Assets

Assets are resources with an economic value owned and controlled by a person, country, or organization.

They can be tangible or intangible.

Tangible assets include

  • Cash
  • Inventory
  • Property

On the other hand, intangible assets aren’t physical. They include

  • Patents
  • Trademarks
  • Brands

Think of assets as the things you own that have value and can generate future benefits.

👨‍🏫 Why Learn

Understanding accounting terms helps you make better financial decisions.

Simply put, they enable you to understand your or your business’s financial health and performance.

2. Liabilities

Liabilities are financial obligations or debts a person or organization owes to others.

They can include

  • Loans
  • Accounts payable
  • Accrued expenses.

In other words, liabilities represent the claims that others have on your assets.

3. Equity

Equity, also known as net worth or shareholders’ equity, is among mysterious common accounting terms.

However, it simply represents the ownership interest (aka legal rights) in a company.

It is calculated by subtracting liabilities from assets.

Equity can be held by individual owners (in the case of a sole proprietorship) or shareholders (in the case of a corporation).

To put it differently, you can view it as the residual interest in the assets after deducting liabilities.

👨‍🏫 Why Learn

Knowing common accounting terms will help you communicate clearly with financial professionals.

This way, you’ll be sure everyone, including the stakeholders, is on the same page.

4. Revenue

Revenue refers to the income generated by a company from its normal business activities.

These activities most often are selling products or providing services.

This accounting term is often referred to as sales or sales revenue.

Revenue is a key indicator of a company’s financial performance and is typically reported on the income statement.

5. Expenses

Expenses are the costs incurred by a company in its day-to-day operations.

They can include

You can calculate net profit or net loss by subtracting expenses from revenue.

👨‍🏫Why Learn

Financial literacy is a valuable asset in many roles and industries.

Understanding the financial standing and implications can lead to professional advancement.

6. Profit

Profit is another boogeyman among common accounting terms, also known as net income or earnings.

It represents the financial gain made by a company after deducting all expenses from revenue.

Profit is a measure of the company’s profitability, as the name suggests.

In other words, it is a key component in evaluating its financial health.

7. Depreciation

Depreciation is the systematic allocation of the cost of an asset over its useful life.

It is used to reflect the gradual wear and tear, obsolescence, or expiration of an asset’s value over time.

Its main purpose is to help businesses spread out the cost of expensive assets.

In contrast, without depreciation, you’d expense the full amount immediately after the purchase.

Depreciation expense is recorded on the income statement and reduces the value of the asset on the balance sheet.

👨‍🏫 Why Learn

Even if you don’t plan to use financial knowledge for professional advancement, knowing common accounting terms helps.

Namely, you’ll be able to track and manage personal finances with a deeper understanding.

8. Cash Flow

Cash flow refers to the movement of money into and out of a company over a specific period.

It shows how well a business manages its cash within operations, investments, and activities.

It is categorized into three main types:

  • Operating cash flow – coming from a company’s regular business operations
  • Investing cash flow – cash coming or spent on investment-related activities
  • Financing cash flow – coming from debt, equity, and dividends

Positive cash flow indicates that a company is generating more cash inflows than outflows.

In other words, cash flow determines an organization’s liquidity, solvency, and financial flexibility.

9. Balance Sheet

A balance sheet is a financial statement that provides a snapshot of a company’s financial position.

Each balance sheet represents a specific point in time.

It consists of three main sections:

  • Assets
  • Liabilities
  • Equity

The balance sheet equation states that assets must always equal the sum of liabilities and equity.

This way, the accounting equation remains in balance.

👨‍🏫 Why Learn

Managers and entrepreneurs alike need a basic understanding of finances as well.

This way, they can understand how they manage their finances and overall business operations.

10. Income Statement

An income statement is among common accounting terms, and is also known as a profit and loss statement.

This document summarizes a company’s revenues, expenses, and net income or loss over a specific period.

It helps assess the profitability of a business and provides insights into its revenue-generating and cost-incurred activities.

11. Accruals

Accruals are expenses or revenues that have been incurred but not yet recorded in the accounting books.

They are the recognition of economic events regardless of whether cash has been received or paid.

Accrual accounting aims to match revenues and expenses to the period in which they are earned or incurred.

This way, you’ll have a more accurate picture of a company’s financial performance.

👨‍🏫 Why Learn

Understanding common accounting terms helps you ensure compliance with financial regulations.

You will also be able to understand finance-related legal obligations.

12. Accounts Payable

Accounts payable are also among common accounting terms you’ve probably heard and not understood.

They represent the amounts owed by a company to its suppliers or vendors for goods or services that have been received but not yet paid for.

This term represents a liability that reflects the company’s short-term debts.

Managing accounts payable effectively is crucial for maintaining good relationships with suppliers and ensuring timely payment.

13. Accounts Receivable

Accounts receivable are amounts owed to a company for goods or services rendered on credit.

It is an asset that represents the company’s right to receive payment.

Efficient management of accounts receivable is essential for maintaining cash flow and minimizing the risk of bad debts.

👨‍🏫 Why Learn

Accounting is the universal language of business.

Understanding it will help you engage with international markets and expand your organization.

14. Cash Basis Accounting

Cash basis accounting is a simple method of recording transactions based on the actual inflow and outflow of cash.

To put it simply – it recognizes revenue when cash is received.

On the other hand, expenses are recognized when cash is paid.

While cash basis accounting is straightforward, it may not provide an accurate representation of a company’s financial performance or position.

This is especially important for businesses with significant credit transactions.

15. General Ledger

The general ledger is one of the more cryptic common accounting terms.

It is the central repository of all financial transactions recorded by a company.

The ledger contains all individual accounts, such as

  • Assets
  • Liabilities
  • Equity
  • Revenue

This way, you can prepare financial statements and analyze financial data.

16. Trial Balance

A trial balance is a list of all the balances in the general ledger accounts, both debit and credit.

In other words, it represents the balances at a specific point in time.

Its purpose is to ensure that the total debits equal the total credits.

Thus, it maintains the balance sheet equation (assets = liabilities + equity).

The trial balance is an important step in the accounting cycle.

To put it simply, it helps identify any errors or discrepancies in the accounting records.

👨‍🏫 Why Learn

Markets can be extremely volatile. Having accounting knowledge helps you better understand financial news and events.

This way you will be prepared for upcoming changes in your finances.

17. Cost of Goods Sold (COGS)

If you’re trying to decipher common accounting terms, you’ve probably heard of COGS.

Cost of Goods Sold are the direct costs associated with producing or acquiring the goods sold by a company.

It includes

  • The cost of raw materials
  • Direct labor
  • Manufacturing overhead.

You subtract from revenue to determine gross profit.

This way, you’ll calculate the profit coming from the core operations of a business.

18. Return on Investment (ROI)

Return on Investment is a key performance indicator that evaluates the profitability of an investment.

You can calculate it by dividing the net profit generated by an investment by its initial cost.

Then, express the result as a percentage.

ROI helps assess the efficiency and effectiveness of investments and can guide resource allocation decisions.

To Wrap It Up

Understanding these common accounting terms gives you a clearer understanding of the financial aspects of your business or personal finances.

Accounting seems daunting if you are doing it for the first time.

Yet, breaking down complex jargon into digestible language will encourage you to take a closer look at your finances.

Whether you’re managing your own finances or running a business, a basic knowledge of accounting terms will serve you well in navigating the financial world with confidence.

Remember, mastering accounting terms takes time and practice.

Continuously expanding your knowledge and understanding of these concepts will help you interpret financial information accurately.

As a result, you’ll be able to make positive financial decisions.

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Jelena Lukic

Jelena has a Master’s Degree in teaching Serbian literature and language. Creative writing is her biggest passion.

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Zabriskie studio