Tedious as it may seem, every business transaction needs to be recorded in the right account. The problem, however, is that unless you have automated accounts payable software, finding the correct account isn’t always such a simple task. Fortunately, a chart of account can help you with that.
Whenever you need to find a line item on an old invoice, do you find yourself having to go back and search through mountains of paperwork, or thumb through rows of filing cabinets drawers? If so, then you would benefit from using a chart of accounts.
Having a complete list of accounts being run by your company makes for simple tracking and frictionless logging. In many organizations, they’re a necessary tool for organizing financial records and setting up accounting systems.
To get you up to speed regarding what a chart of accounts is, how they’re used, and why they’re vital for your business’s success, we put together this comprehensive guide. In it, we will show you why a chart of accounts isn’t just a “nice-to-have” tool, but often an organizational necessity if you want to grow your business and manage multiple accounts at scale.
Chart of Accounts 101
A chart of accounts (COA) is a list of all accounts—including asset, liability, expense, revenue, and equity—that are included in a business’s general ledger. The size of the company will largely determine the number of accounts listed in a company’s COA. For instance, your local mom and pop shop might have a dozen total accounts whereas Microsoft likely has hundreds.
While this provides a basic chart of accounts definition, it doesn’t quite make clear where the value of a COA is found. The central purpose of a COA is to provide a foundation within which all of a company’s financial records are kept according to an easy-to-follow, logical structure.
We’re often asked, “in which order are the accounts listed in the chart of accounts?” Fortunately, the answer is simple. Accounts are listed in the order that they appear on a company’s financial statements, such an income statement or balance sheet. Therefore, the COA starts with cash, moving on to liabilities and equity, and eventually finishing with revenues and expenses.
Balance Sheet Accounts
- Owner’s Equity
Income Statement Accounts
- Operating Revenues
- Operating Expenses
- Non-Operating Revenues and Gains
- Non-Operating Expenses and Losses
Sample Chart of Accounts
To get a better idea of what a chart of accounts is and what it looks like, refer to the following sample. Although no two charts will look identical, most will follow a basic framework that resembles what you see below, especially if you’re a small company with few vendors and a limited number of products.
Occasionally, you may find a chart of accounts that is organized by department. For instance, it’s not uncommon to find similar expense information listed for the accounting department, marketing department, software development department and so forth that all share the same characteristics.
The size and scope of the organization will ultimately determine how this information is presented—with greater uniformity among smaller firms.
- 1001 CASH – Operating Account
- 1002 CASH – Petty Cash
- 1003 CASH – Debitors
- 1110 A/REC Trade
- 1120 A/REC Receivable (Trade Notes)
- 1130 A/REC Receivables (Installment)
- 1140 A/REC Retainage Withheld
- 1190 A/REC Uncollectible Accounts Allowance
- 1210 INV – Reserved
- 1220 INV – Work-in-Progress
- 1230 INV – Reserved
- 1240 INV – Unbilled Costs & Fees
- 1250 INV – Finished Goods
- 1280 INV – Reserve (Obsolescence)
1300 EXPENSES (PREPAID) & OTHER ASSETS
- 1310 Prepaid Insurance
- 1320 Prepaid Real Estate Taxes
- 1330 Prepaid Rent
- 1340 Prepaid Maintenance & Repairs
- 1350 Prepaid Deposits
- 1410 PPE – Buildings
- 1420 PPE – Vehicles
- 1430 PPE – Machinery
- 1440 PPE – Laptops & Computers
- 1450 PPE – Fixtures
- 1460 PPE – Leasehold
1500 DEPRECIATION & AMORTIZATION (ACCUMULATED)
- 1510 ACC DEP – Buildings
- 1520 ACC DEP – Vehicles
- 1530 ACC DEP – Machinery
- 1540 ACC DEP – Laptops & Computers
- 1550 ACC DEP – Fixtures
- 1560 ACC DEP – Leasehold
1600 RECEIVABLES (NON-CURRENT)
- 1610 NCA – Installment Receivables
- 1620 NCA – Notes Receivable
- 1630 NCA – Retainage (Withheld)
1700 RECEIVABLES (INTERCOMPANY)
1800 OTHER ASSETS (NON-CURRENT)
- 1810 Intellectual Property, Patents & Licenses
- 1820 Intangible Assets
- 1830 Organizational Costs
- 2010 A/P Trade
- 2020 A/P Retainage Withheld
- 2030 A/P Accrued Accounts Payable
- 2040 Long-Term Debt Current Maturities
- 2050 Construction Loans Payable
- 2060 Bank Notes Payable
2100 ACCRUED COMPENSATION
- 2110 Accrued Payroll
- 2120 Accrued Commissions
- 2130 Accrued Unemployment Taxes
- 2140 Accrued FICA
- 2150 Accrued Medical Benefits
- 2160 Accrued 401(K) Match
- 2170 W/H Medical Benefits
- 2180 W/H 401 (K) Employee Contribution
2200 ACCRUED EXPENSES
- 2210 Accrued Rent
- 2220 Accrued Interest
- 2230 Accrued Taxes
- 2240 Accrued Warranty Expense
2300 ACCRUED TAXES
- 2310 Accrued Federal Income Taxes
- 2320 Accrued State Income Taxes
- 2330 Accrued Franchise Taxes
- 2340 Deferred State Income Taxes
- 2350 Deferred FIT Current
2400 DEFERRED TAXES
- 2410 FIT – NON CURRENT
- 2420 SIT – NON CURRENT
2500 LONG-TERM DEBT
- 2510 LTD – Notes Payable
- 2520 LTD – Installment Notes Payable
- 2530 LTD – Mortgages Payable
2600 PAYABLES (INTERCOMPANY)
2700 LIABILITIES (NON-CURRENT)
2800 EQUITIES (OWNERS)
- 2810 Common Stock
- 2820 Preferred Stock
- 2830 Partners Capital
- 2840 Paid in Capital
- 2850 Member Contributions
- 2890 Retained Earnings
- 3010 REVENUE – PRODUCT 1
- 3020 REVENUE – PRODUCT 2
- 3030 REVENUE – PRODUCT 3
- 3100 Interest Income
- 3200 Other Income
- 3300 Sales Returns and Allowances
- 3350 Sales Discounts
- 3400 Finance Charge Income
4000 COST OF GOODS SOLD
- 4010 COGS – PRODUCT 1
- 4020 COGS – PRODUCT 2
- 4030 COGS – PRODUCT 3
- 4100 Freight
- 4200 Inventory Adjustments
- 4500 Purchase Returns
- 4600 Reserved
5000 – 6000 OPERATING EXPENSES
- 5010 Amortization Expense
- 5020 Advertising Expense
- 5100 Auto Expense
- 5200 Bad Debt Expense
- 5300 Bank Charges
- 5400 Cash Over and Short
- 5500 Commission Expense
- 5600 Depreciation Expense
- 5700 Employee Benefit Program
- 5900 Office Expense
- 6000 Payroll Taxes
- 6100 Rent
- 6200 Taxes – FIT Expense
- 6300 Utilities Expense
- 6900 Gain/Loss on Sale of Assets
Most chart of accounts examples will follow a similar design as the one listed above. While this might prove useful for learning about how a chart of account is structured, a chart of accounts example says little about how it should be interpreted or its underlying logic.
Making Sense of the COA
Think of a business as an organic, living entity—like a tree—with various branches that each correspond to a different department (i.e., sales, marketing, human resources, etc.). Each branch on this tree has its own expenses and liabilities to take care of, which can be visualized as leaves on the tree.
Therefore, every department contains enumerated accounts that appear on the COA. To extend the analogy further, you can think of the accounts subtypes as the ripples on the leaves. On a standard COA, a typical account coding scheme will appear like this:
- Assets: 100 -199
- Liabilities: 200 – 299
- Equity: 300 – 399
- Revenues: 400 – 499
- Expenses: 500 – 599
You may have noticed that chart of accounts numbering is a little wonky and seemingly all over the place. However, the COA numbering system follows a careful internal logic that is structured according to three components:
- Division Code: A two-digit serial number that specifies the company division if the company has more than one division or has multiple subsidiaries.
- Department Code: A two-digit serial number that specifies the company department within a multi-department company (i.e., marketing, sales, etc.).
- Account Code: A three-digit serial number that corresponds to an account type (i.e., revenue, liabilities, etc.).
When put together, the above codes form a pattern that resembles an “xx-xx-xxx” serial number. However, smaller companies with one division may only include the latter two components, forming “xx-xxx.” Altogether, a chart of accounts number for advertising expenses (“660”) within a marketing department (“07”) within a single-division company will appear as: 07-660.
Accessing the QuickBooks Chart of Accounts
If you’re one of the many small to medium-sized enterprises that uses QuickBooks to manage your books, you’ll be relieved to know that sample charts of accounts for QuickBooks are available. When you create your account, you can select from a variety of pre-created COAs or manually import a CSV file that contains a chart of account template.
No matter whether you’re using Intuit’s QuickBooks Desktop or the latest QuickBooks Online (QBO), there are several chart of accounts template types that can be selected from the “Lists” drop-down under the “Company” tab. Alternatively, you could press “CTRL+A” on your keyboard while using QuickBooks.
Clean Up Your Chart of Accounts by Automating Your Payables
Simply by looking at your chart of accounts, you can see how much money your company has, how much it owes, and how much is coming in and out of the company.
For a record this important, it’s crucial that you invest in the best software available to automate your invoices and payments to keep the document readily accessible at a moment’s notice.
Thankfully, digital tools exist so you can import your paper-based chart of accounts and store it securely within a digital environment. This way, you never have to worry about tracking down a dollar amount from an old invoice or searching endlessly through pen-and-paper account records. Instead, you can pinpoint any account in seconds using automated AP solutions with the click of a button.