Unearned Revenue

What Is Unearned Revenue?

Unearned revenue, or deferred revenue, is a fundamental concept in accounting. It represents the funds a company receives in advance for goods or services it is yet to deliver or perform. This advance payment is a liability on the company’s balance sheet, signifying a future obligation.

In essence, unearned revenue is the payment received before the fulfillment of the delivery of goods or the performance of services. For instance, if a software company gets an upfront payment for a six-month software license, the revenue for this transaction is considered ‘unearned’ until the company has provided the software services over the six months.


  • Deferred revenue
  • Prepaid revenue
  • Customer deposits

Importance of Accounting for Unearned Revenue

Accounting for unearned revenue is a critical aspect of financial management for businesses across various industries. It plays a significant role in ensuring the accuracy of a company’s financial statements, which is vital for several reasons.

Maintaining Accurate Financial Statements

Unearned revenue, by its nature, is a liability for a company because it represents a service or product that the company is obligated to provide in the future. Properly accounting for these amounts as liabilities when the payment is received helps to ensure that the company’s financial statements accurately reflect its current financial position. This accuracy is crucial for internal decision-making processes, such as budgeting and financial planning.

Ensuring Transparency

Accurate accounting for unearned revenue also promotes transparency. By clearly showing the amounts that have been received but for which the goods or services are still owed, business owners can provide a transparent view of their financial obligations to stakeholders, including investors, creditors, and customers. This transparency can enhance stakeholder trust and confidence in the company.

Regulatory Compliance

Proper accounting for unearned revenue is not just a good business practice; it’s also a requirement under various accounting standards, including Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). These accrual accounting standards require future revenue to be recognized when earned, not received. Therefore, amounts received in advance for goods or services to be provided in the future must be recorded as unearned revenue, a liability, until the goods are delivered or the services are performed.

Risk Management

Accurately accounting for unearned revenue can also aid in risk management. By recognizing and tracking these liabilities, businesses can better manage and plan for the delivery of the associated goods or services. This can prevent overcommitment of resources and ensure the company is adequately prepared to meet its obligations.

Investor and Credit Relations

Investors and creditors often scrutinize a company’s financial statements when making decisions. If a company accurately accounts for its unearned revenue, it can provide a more realistic picture of its financial health and performance. This can influence investment decisions and the company’s ability to secure credit or financing.

In conclusion, properly accounting for unearned revenue is vital to a company’s financial management, contributing to accurate financial reporting, regulatory compliance, effective risk management, and healthy investor and credit relations.

Unearned Revenue vs. Accrued Revenue

While unearned revenue refers to payments received before goods or services are provided, accrued revenue is the opposite. Accrued revenue pertains to income that has been earned by providing goods or services, but payment has yet to be received from the customer. This often arises when a company provides goods or services on credit or has performed services under a contract but has yet to bill the customer.

In this case, the company has fulfilled its obligation to provide the goods or services and earned the revenue. However, because it has yet to receive payment, it records the amount as an asset, specifically as accounts receivable, on its balance sheet. Once the company receives the payment, it removes the amount from accounts receivable.

The key difference between unearned and accrued revenue lies in the timing of the transaction and the company’s obligation. Unearned revenue represents a future obligation for the company and is recorded as a liability. Accrued revenue, however, represents a current asset for the company because it has already provided the goods or services and is merely awaiting payment.

Deferred Revenue vs. Unearned Revenue

While the terms deferred revenue and unearned revenue imply different concepts, they are two names for the same accounting principle. Whether a company uses the term ‘deferred’ or ‘unearned’ can depend on its preference or the common usage within its industry or region. Regardless of the terminology, the important thing is that the company accurately records these transactions to reflect its financial position and complies with the revenue recognition principle.

Types of Unearned Revenue Reporting

Unearned revenue can be reported in a company’s financial statements using two primary methods: the liability method and the income method. Each method has its own set of rules and guidelines for when and how unearned revenue should be recognized.

Liability Method

The liability method, also known as the deferred method, is the most commonly used approach for reporting unearned revenue. Under this method, when a company receives advance payment for goods or services, the entire amount is recorded as a liability on the balance sheet. This liability is usually recorded under ‘current liabilities’ as ‘unearned revenue’ or ‘deferred revenue.’

The liability exists because the company has an obligation to the customer to deliver the goods or perform the services in the future. As the company fulfills this obligation, it gradually reduces the unearned revenue liability and recognizes the amount as revenue on its income statement.

For example, if a company receives $12,000 in January for a one-year service contract, it would record the entire $12,000 as unearned revenue. Each month, as it provides the service, it would reduce the unearned income by $1,000 and recognize that amount as revenue.

Income Method

While less common, the income method is another approach for reporting unearned revenue. Under this method, the unearned revenue is recognized as income at the time of receipt rather than being recorded as a liability.

This method is typically used when there is a high certainty that the goods or services will be delivered without significant cost to the company. It’s also used when the payment received is non-refundable, and the company has no remaining obligations to the customer.

For instance, a company might use the income method if it receives a non-refundable payment for a service that it is highly likely to perform and that will not incur significant costs.

While the income method can simplify accounting procedures, it’s important to note that it may not comply with the revenue recognition principle under certain accounting standards, such as GAAP or IFRS, requiring revenue to be recognized when earned. Therefore, companies should carefully consider their obligations under these standards when choosing their method for reporting unearned income.

How to Record Unearned Revenue

Recording unearned revenue accurately is crucial for maintaining a company’s financial integrity. Here’s a more detailed look at the steps involved in this process:

Classifying Unearned Revenue

The first step in recording unearned revenue is to classify it correctly. This classification depends on the nature of the goods or services to be provided. For instance, if a company receives an advance payment for an annual subscription service, this would be classified as unearned revenue until the service is provided to the customer.

Recording Cash and Unearned Revenue

Once the unearned income is classified, the next step is to record the transaction in the company’s financial records. The received money is recorded as cash in the company’s asset account, and an equal amount is recorded as unearned revenue in the company’s liability account on the balance sheet.

Estimating Service Costs

To recognize the revenue accurately over time, businesses should estimate the costs associated with performing specific service tasks. This step is crucial for companies that recognize revenue over a period of time as the service is provided.

Deducting from Unearned Revenue

As the company performs the service or delivers the goods, it deducts the appropriate amount from the unearned revenue account. This step reduces the liability on the balance sheet and reflects the company’s progress in fulfilling its obligation to the customer.

Adding Earned Revenue to Income

The amount deducted from the unearned revenue account is then added to the earned revenue in the income statement. This process, known as revenue recognition, aligns the company’s revenue reporting with the delivery of goods or services.

Adhering to Reporting Procedures

Throughout this process, companies must adhere to government and accounting standard reporting procedures. This adherence ensures compliance with financial regulations and helps maintain the accuracy and integrity of the company’s financial reporting. Companies need to stay updated on any changes to these regulations to ensure ongoing compliance.

People Also Ask

Is unearned revenue a liability or an asset?

Unearned revenue is considered a liability, not an asset. This is because it represents a company’s obligation to provide future services or goods.

What is an example of unearned revenue?

An example of unearned revenue could be a software company that receives payment for a year’s worth of software updates that have yet to be provided. The company has the money, but it also must provide updates throughout the year. Until those updates are provided, the money is considered unearned revenue.