Prepaid expenses are amounts paid in advance by a business in exchange for goods or services to be delivered in the future. They usually relate to the purchase of something that provides value to the business over the course of multiple accounting periods (such as more than one month or quarter). The business records a prepaid expense as an asset on the balance sheet because it signifies a future benefit due to the business. As the good or service is delivered, the asset's value is decreased, and the amount is expensed to the income statement.
Examples of prepaid expenses
Prepaid expenses usually provide value to a company over an extended period of time, such as insurance or prepaid rent. For example, many types of business insurance are paid as a lump sum in advance of a specific coverage period. Similarly, when a business signs a rental agreement with a landlord, it may include a stipulation to prepay a certain number of months' rent upfront.
A business pays $18,000 in December for liability insurance covering January through December of the following year. When the business purchases the insurance policy in December, it records an $18,000 debit to prepaid expense, which is an asset account. It simultaneously records an $18,000 credit to cash, which is also an asset account. This is an example of a balance sheet transaction because it does not involve any revenue or expense accounts that appear on the income statement.
In January, the company records a journal entry to recognize 1/12 of the value of the insurance policy. The journal entry debits an insurance expense account and credits prepaid expenses for $1,500. At the end of January, the prepaid expense account balance is $16,500 on the balance sheet. The January month-end income statement reports $1,500 as the current period insurance expense. Every month, a similar journal entry further decreases the prepaid expense account balance as the value of the coverage period is recognized by the business.
To use another example, a business signs a rental agreement to open a new plant. The monthly rent is $10,000. As part of the rental agreement, the landlord requests the business prepay six months' rent before occupying the property. Upon the initial payment, the journal entry recorded by the business debits $60,000 to prepaid rent and credits $60,000 to cash. Both of these accounts are asset accounts, and the entire transaction affects the balance sheet only.
During the first month of occupancy, the business records a journal entry to debit rent expenses for $10,000 and credit prepaid rent for $10,000. The balance in the prepaid rent account at the end of the first month is, therefore, $50,000, and the rent expense is $10,000. The $50,000 balance in prepaid rent appears on the balance sheet for the month, while the $10,000 rent expense appears on the income statement.
Why are prepaid expenses an asset?
Under the accrual method of accounting, income is recognized when it is earned, and expenses are recognized when incurred, regardless of when cash exchanges hands for the transaction. Prepaid expenses are an asset because the business has not realized the value of the good or service when cash initially exchanges hands.
Instead, the value of the good or service must be recognized over time as the business realizes the benefit. In the insurance example, the service provided to the business is liability policy coverage. Each month, the value of this benefit is recognized when the business decreases its prepaid expense account. In the rent example, the good provided is the physical building. As the business enjoys the use of its rental location, it recognizes the benefit by decreasing the prepaid expense account.
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