What is GAAP?

GAAP, which stands for Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, is a collection of rules and standards for corporate accounting and financial reporting. Adopted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, it is the required method of accounting for regulated and public companies in the United States.

The aim of GAAP is to ensure financial statements are transparent, consistent, and comparable across different organizations. Its framework includes various detailed rules and practices, including specific requirements for revenue recognition, balance sheet item classification, and materiality, among dozens of others.

In the United States, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) is the primary body responsible for developing and updating GAAP rules. For publicly traded companies, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also plays a critical role in defining financial reporting requirements.


  • Generally Accepted Accounting Principles
  • GAAP accounting principles

The Importance of GAAP in Financial Reporting

GAAP provides a standardized set of procedures and practices for companies to follow when compiling their financial statements. It guarantees investors, regulators, and other stakeholders have a clear, consistent, and fair view of a company’s financial health. This is critical for making informed decisions about investing, lending, or doing business with a company.

Following GAAP standards provides:

  • Transparency. All stakeholders have access to a company’s accurate financial information, and it’s granular enough to understand the company’s financial performance at a detailed level.
  • Consistency. By adhering to GAAP, companies report their financial information in a consistent manner that makes it easy to compare financial data across different reporting periods and track a company’s performance over time.
  • Comparability. Since it standardizes how financials are presented, GAAP allows analysts and investors who are looking at potential investments across different companies or industries to compare different companies’ financial statements.
  • Reliability. Financial statements prepared under GAAP are presumed to be reliable and free from significant error or bias.
  • Regulatory compliance. For public companies in the U.S., following GAAP is a legal requirement enforced by the SEC.
  • Economic decisions. Investors, creditors, and other users of financial statements rely on GAAP-compliant financial reports to make informed economic decisions, such as whether to buy, hold, or sell equity, or to extend credit.
  • Fraud prevention. GAAP includes rigorous documentation and process standards that require consistent application of accounting methods and detailed record keeping, limiting the potential for fraudulent financial reporting.

For investors, GAAP increases trust in financial markets. It also provides a benchmark for the financial health of companies and increases their comparability, making it easier to evaluate potential investments.

Topics Covered by GAAP

GAAP standards cover a wide range of financial reporting topics, but its five core focuses are:

  • Revenue recognition
  • Inventory valuation
  • Expense recognition
  • Asset valuation
  • Liabilities and equity accounting

Revenue Recognition

Revenue recognition under GAAP, as outlined by the ASC 606 standard, is a fundamental concept that determines when and how revenue should be accounted for. The process is designed to provide consistency and comparability across financial statements.

It’s governed by a five-step process:

  1. Identify the contract with a customer.
  2. Identify the performance obligations in the contract.
  3. Determine the transaction price.
  4. Allocate the transaction price to a performance obligation in the contract.
  5. Recognize revenue when (or as) the entity satisfies a performance obligation.

The important distinction here is that revenue is always recognized when a performance obligation is fulfilled. This occurs when the control of the good or service is transferred to the customer, either over time or at a specific point in time. When a customer pays you upfront, you don’t recognize those earnings on the income statement until the performance obligation is completed.

This gets tricky when it comes to SaaS revenue recognition. Let’s say a SaaS contract locks a customer in at a monthly rate. Each month, the customer receives continuous access to the software. However, software companies receive upfront subscription payments — they haven’t fully fulfilled their performance obligation until that month runs its course.

Inventory Valuation

Inventory valuation in accordance with GAAP rules affects a company’s cost of goods sold (COGS) and, consequently, net income and tax liability. Companies can choose from several methods, each with its own implications on financial reporting and tax obligations.

  • First-in, first-out (FIFO) — This method assumes the items first added to the inventory are sold first. It’s most beneficial during inflationary periods, as it lets companies match older (usually lower) costs against current revenues, showing higher profits. FIFO is often preferred by businesses with perishable goods​.
  • Last-in, first-out (LIFO) — Under LIFO, the most recently added items are assumed to be sold first. For tax purposes, it’s advantageous when prices rise because it matches higher recent costs against current revenues, reducing taxable income. However, if prices have been rising, it can lead to outdated inventory costs on the balance sheet​.
  • Weighted average cost (WAC) — WAC averages out all costs of goods available for sale during the period and applies this average cost to the COGS and ending inventory valuations. It provides a balance that doesn’t reflect large fluctuations in costs, making it suitable for companies with large quantities of similar items.
  • Specific identification — This method tracks each item individually from purchase to sale. It is used for unique or high-value items such as jewelry or custom machinery, where specific cost identification is necessary for accurate profit measurement. It requires detailed tracking and is less common in industries with homogeneous products​ (e.g., retail).

The choice of inventory valuation method can significantly affect a company’s financial statements. FIFO typically shows higher net income when prices rise compared to LIFO. When prices fall, LIFO shows higher profits because the most expensive products move off the shelves first.

Expense Recognition

The expense recognition principle under GAAP is fundamentally about matching expenses with the revenues they help generate within the same reporting period. Like revenue recognition, it’s a cornerstone of accrual basis accounting.

Its key aspects include:

  • Matching principle — Expenses must be reported on the income statement in the period the related revenues are recognized.
  • Period costs — Some expenses, such as administrative salaries, rent, and utilities, do not directly relate to revenue generation and are termed period costs. These are expensed in the period they occur because they are not tied to a specific revenue transaction​.
  • Systematic expense recognition — For expenses that cannot be directly linked to specific revenues, such as general administrative costs or R&D, recognition occurs as they’re incurred.

Adjusting entries are sometimes necessary at the end of an accounting period to properly align expenses and revenues. For instance, if an expense is incurred in one period but the related payment is deferred to a later period, an accrual is made to recognize the expense in the same period as the related revenue​.

Asset Valuation

Asset valuation under GAAP involves assigning a value to assets using one of several approved methods, each suitable for different types of assets and financial reporting needs.

The three main methods are the cost approach, market approach, and income approach.

  • The cost approach values an asset based on its historical cost, adjusted for any depreciation or amortization. It is straightforward and relies on the initial purchase price of the asset, making it commonly used for valuing tangible assets.
  • The market approach (also known as “mark-to-market”) assesses an asset’s value based on current market prices for similar assets. It’s highly responsive to market conditions and works for assets that frequently trade in active markets, like securities​.
  • The income approach is used mainly for valuing businesses or intangible assets. It involves estimating future income streams that an asset is expected to generate and discounting them to their present value. It incorporates expectations about future financial performance and is useful for assets not actively traded in open markets.

These valuation methods are underpinned by the principle of fair value measurement, which seeks to estimate the price at which an orderly transaction to sell the asset or transfer the liability would take place between market participants at the measurement date.

GAAP’s fair value hierarchy categorizes the inputs used in these valuation methods into three levels:

  • Level 1 — Direct observations of quoted market prices in active markets for identical assets or liabilities (e.g., stock prices).
  • Level 2 — Observable market inputs (like interest rates or exchange rates) for similar assets, whether directly or indirectly related to the asset or liability.
  • Level 3 — Unobservable inputs based on the best information available in the circumstances, often requiring significant estimation by the reporting entity (e.g., cash flows from a unique asset).

Liabilities and Equity Accounting

Accounting for liabilities and equity involves distinguishing between the two based on the nature of the financial instrument and the issuer’s obligations.

  • Financial liabilities are contractual obligations to pay cash or another financial asset. These include bank loans, bonds, and trade payables.
  • Equity instruments represent ownership interests and do not constitute a liability of the issuer. They include common and preferred shares, stock options, and retained earnings.

Both liabilities and equity are initially measured at the cash or cash equivalents received in exchange for the issuance of the financial instrument. Liabilities are normally measured at amortized cost using the effective interest method, whereas equity instruments are not re-measured unless additional shares are issued or stock buybacks occur.

Some financial instruments — like convertible debt or preferred shares that can be converted into common stock — might be split into liability and equity components under GAAP. The liability component is measured initially at its fair value, with the remainder of the proceeds from the issuance assigned to the equity component, representing the conversion option​.

10 Principles of the GAAP Framework

GAAP provides 10 core principles that form the basis of financial reporting and ensure consistency across different companies and industries.

Here’s a brief look at each of them:

  1. Principle of Regularity — Accountants and companies must always adhere strictly to GAAP rules and regulations.
  2. Principle of Consistency — Financial reporting should be consistent throughout all periods, allowing for comparability.
  3. Principle of Sincerity — Accountants must be honest and impartial in their reporting, ensuring accuracy and objectivity.
  4. Principle of Permanence of Methods — Methods used in financial reporting should be consistent, ensuring that financial statements are comparable over time.
  5. Principle of Non-Compensation — All aspects of an organization’s performance, both positive and negative, must be reported without expectation of debt compensation.
  6. Principle of Prudence — Financial information must be reported factually and conservatively, avoiding speculation.
  7. Principle of Continuity — The assumption is that the business will continue operating in the foreseeable future (affecting asset valuations).
  8. Principle of Periodicity — Financial reporting should reflect the specific periods (quarters or years) in which income and expenses occur.
  9. Principle of Materiality — All significant financial information that could influence decision-making requires disclosure (for publicly traded companies, that means public disclosures).
  10. Principle of Utmost Good Faith — All parties involved in financial reporting should act honestly and in good faith.

Ensuring GAAP Compliance

While it’s only companies that are (a) regulated or (b) publicly traded that have to produce GAAP-compliant financial statements, but a good chunk of private companies (particularly those with more than $10 million in assets) use it as well.

FASB develops the accounting standards that form the foundation of GAAP, ensuring these standards adapt to changing business environments. The board provides guidance for applying them through official pronouncements and detailed examples. They operate independently and base their decisions on what’s best for the public interest, not the needs of individual stakeholders.

Ensuring GAAP compliance in financial reporting practices is a complex process that involves:

  • Detailed record-keeping
  • An accurate balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement
  • Proper internal controls, put in place by the company’s management and board of directors
  • Proper financial disclosures
  • Periodic audits by external auditors
  • Ongoing training and education for accountants and financial personnel

GAAP non-compliance can lead to fines and other penalties from the SEC for public and regulated companies. If auditors find that financial statements don’t comply with GAAP, they may issue a qualified, adverse, or disclaimer of opinion, severely affecting the organization’s credibility with lenders and investors.

Using billing software to automate revenue recognition makes it easier to comply with GAAP. Automated billing software automatically recognizes revenue based on GAAP guidelines, reducing the risk of human error and ensuring accurate financial reporting. It also allows companies to easily track contract terms, discounts, and other factors that may affect revenue recognition.


While GAAP is the standard in the United States, many other countries use the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). This leads to differences in financial reporting internationally.

The IFRS is a set of accounting standards developed by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). It’s used by over 140 countries around the world, including the EU and Australia.

Both GAAP and IFRS aim to provide financial transparency and consistency. And both sets of standards require similar kinds of financial statements — a balance sheet, income statement, cash flow statement, and statements of changes in equity.

There are, however, a few key differences:

  • GAAP is known for being rules-based, which means it provides detailed rules for many scenarios. IFRS, by contrast, is principles-based and offers a broader framework that can be applied more flexibly. This allows IFRS to adapt more readily to new and unusual financial transactions.
  • IFRS permits the revaluation of fixed assets to reflect fair market value if the asset has increased in value. GAAP does not allow the revaluation of fixed assets upwards; they can only be written down for impairment and not adjusted back up if the market value increases.
  • GAAP allows the use of the last-in, first-out (LIFO) method for inventory accounting, while IFRS does not.
  • Under IFRS, certain development costs can be capitalized if they meet specific criteria, potentially enhancing the assets on the balance sheet. In contrast, GAAP requires R&D costs to be expensed as incurred, affecting the income statement more immediately.

A company would opt for IFRS over GAAP when they have operations in multiple countries, they’re looking to attract international investors or list on foreign exchanges, or local regulations require them to.

People Also Ask

Who sets GAAP standards?

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) is the primary body responsible for setting GAAP in the United States. It is an independent non-profit organization, established in 1973, that works to standardize and improve financial accounting and reporting standards to foster financial reporting that provides useful information to investors and others.

What is the main goal of GAAP?

The main goal of GAAP is to ensure that financial reporting is transparent, consistent, and comparable across all companies. This allows investors, creditors, and other users of financial statements to make well-informed decisions.

Do all companies have to follow GAAP?

Not all companies need to follow GAAP. The requirement to adhere to GAAP standards primarily applies to publicly traded companies and certain regulated entities. Private companies, small businesses, and nonprofits aren’t strictly required to, but many choose to in order to maintain consistency and make their financial statements comparable to those of other entities.

Public sector organizations follow standards set by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), which are similar but tailored to the public sector’s specific needs.