What Is Accounting Cycle? Exploring the Phases of the Accounting Cycle

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Accounting, often considered the language of business, is integral to understanding a company’s financial health. At the heart of this complex yet fascinating subject lies the accounting cycle, a foundational process that records and analyzes financial transactions. This guide explores the essentials of the accounting cycle, highlighting its significance in the business world.


1. Definition of accounting cycle

2. Step-by-step guide to the accounting cycle

3. Key components of the accounting cycle

4. Accounting cycle vs. budget cycle

5. Common challenges in the accounting cycle

6. Best practices for efficient accounting cycle management

7. What accounting cycle is: FAQs

Definition of accounting cycle

The accounting cycle is a systematic series of steps followed by accounting professionals to record and manage the financial transactions of a business. It begins with identifying transactions and ends with closing books at the end of a fiscal period. This cycle ensures accuracy and completeness in financial reporting.

Importance of the accounting cycle in business

Understanding the accounting cycle is crucial for business owners, stakeholders, and financial professionals. It provides a clear and structured way to record financial activities, ensuring compliance with accounting standards and legal requirements. This cycle also helps in making informed business decisions based on accurate financial data.

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Step-by-step guide to the accounting cycle

Step-by-step guide to the accounting cycle

Step 1. Identifying transactions

The first step in the accounting cycle is identifying business transactions that have financial implications. These can range from sales, purchases, and expenses to more complex dealings like acquisitions or investments. Each transaction is critical as it forms the foundation of the accounting records.

Step 2. Recording transactions in journals

After identification, transactions are recorded in accounting journals. This is done using double-entry bookkeeping, where each transaction affects at least two accounts. For example, a sale would involve recording revenue and a corresponding cash or accounts receivable increase.

Learn more about double entry accounting and how it differs from the single entry accounting. 

Step 3. Posting to the general ledger

The next step involves transferring the journal entries to the general ledger. This ledger is a collection of all the accounts a business uses. Here, transactions are categorized into respective accounts, providing a clear view of each account’s activity over a period.

Step 4. Balancing ledger accounts

In this step, each account in the general ledger is balanced to summarize its activity. This balancing act reveals the total debits and credits in each account, providing insight into the impact of financial transactions on each account.

Step 5. Preparing trial balance

A trial balance is prepared to check the accuracy of the ledger accounts. It lists all the accounts and their balances (both debit and credit). Preparing trial balance is crucial for verifying that the total debits equal total credits, a fundamental aspect of double-entry bookkeeping.

Step 6. Making adjusting entries

Adjusting entries is necessary to update the account balances before financial statements are prepared. They ensure that revenues and expenses are recognized in the period they occur. Adjustments could include accrued expenses, prepaid expenses, depreciation, and revenue recognition adjustments.

Step 7. Preparing adjusted trial balance

Post adjustment, an adjusted trial balance is prepared. This step ensures that all adjusting entries have been correctly recorded and the debits still equal credits. This adjusted trial balance serves as the basis for preparing the financial statements.

Step 8. Creating financial statements

Financial statements are the end products of the accounting cycle. In this step, the main statements prepared are the income statement, which shows profit and loss; the balance sheet, which shows assets, liabilities, and equity; and the cash flow statement, which details cash inflows and outflows.

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Step 9. Closing the books

At the end of an accounting period, temporary accounts such as revenues and expenses are closed to a summary account (usually Retained Earnings). This process resets the balances of these accounts to zero in preparation for the next accounting period.

Step 10. Preparing a post-closing trial balance

Finally, a post-closing trial balance is prepared. This includes only the balance sheet accounts, as the temporary accounts have been closed. This trial balance confirms that the books are balanced and ready for the next accounting period.

Key components of the accounting cycle

1. Journals and ledgers

Journals are the initial books where financial transactions are recorded chronologically using the double-entry method. The general ledger, on the other hand, categorizes these entries into individual accounts, providing a more organized and detailed view of a business’s financial standing.

2. Trial balance

The trial balance is a critical component that lists all the account balances in the ledger. Its purpose is to verify that the total debits equal the total credits, ensuring that entries are mathematically correct.

3. Adjusting entries

These entries are necessary at the end of an accounting period to allocate income and expenses to the period in which they actually occurred. The goal is to adhere to the accrual basis of accounting and ensure financial statements reflect the true financial position of the business.

4. Financial statements

The primary purpose of the accounting cycle is to prepare financial statements – the income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement. These statements provide valuable information to stakeholders about the company’s profitability, financial position, and cash flows.

Accounting cycle vs. budget cycle

Understanding the distinction between the accounting cycle and the budget cycle is crucial for effective financial management in any business. While interconnected, these two cycles serve different yet complementary purposes in financial planning and reporting.

Purpose and function

Accounting cycle: The accounting cycle primarily focuses on the recording, classification, and summarization of past financial transactions. It’s a historical record of what has happened financially within a company during a specific period. This cycle ensures that a business’s financial statements are accurate and comply with accounting standards.

Budget cycle: On the other hand, the budget cycle involves planning future financial transactions. It’s about setting financial goals and allocating resources for the upcoming period. The budget cycle is a forward-looking process emphasizing planning and control. It helps in setting financial targets and determining how resources will be allocated to achieve these targets.

Timeframe and frequency

Accounting cycle: The accounting cycle is continuous and typically completed at regular intervals – monthly, quarterly, or annually. Each cycle results in the production of key financial statements, such as income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements.

Budget cycle: The budget cycle often occurs annually, aligning with the business’s fiscal year. However, it might also include periodic reviews and adjustments throughout the year, depending on the business’s needs and external factors.

Components and process

Accounting cycle: The components of the accounting cycle include identifying and recording transactions, posting to ledgers, preparing trial balances, making adjusting entries, and creating financial statements. It’s a detailed and structured process that requires accuracy and attention to detail.

Budget cycle: The budget cycle involves setting revenue and expense targets, analyzing past performance, forecasting future performance, and allocating funds. It requires strategic planning and often involves negotiation and revision as part of the budget approval process.

Decision-making influence

Accounting cycle: The accounting cycle provides the factual basis for financial decision-making. It offers insights into the financial health and past performance of a business, which is crucial for making informed decisions.

Budget cycle: The budget cycle, in contrast, influences decision-making by setting financial expectations and limits. It acts as a roadmap for the business, guiding spending and investment decisions based on projected revenues and expenses.

Relationship and integration

While distinct, the accounting cycle and budget cycle are closely related and should be integrated for effective financial management. The data and insights from the accounting cycle inform the budgeting process, providing a realistic foundation for setting future financial goals. Conversely, the budget cycle provides a framework against which the business’s actual financial performance, as recorded in the accounting cycle, can be measured and analyzed.

Common challenges in the accounting cycle

Tracking small transactions

Though often frequent and seemingly insignificant, small transactions can accumulate and significantly impact financial statements. Accurately tracking these requires meticulous attention and efficient bookkeeping practices.

Maintaining accuracy

Errors in bookkeeping can lead to significant financial discrepancies. Ensuring accuracy in recording and posting transactions is a constant challenge, especially in high-volume environments.

Periodic vs. perpetual systems

Choosing between periodic and perpetual inventory systems affects how businesses track inventory and costs of goods sold. Each system has its advantages and challenges, and the choice depends on the nature and scale of the business.

→ Check our special guides about periodic system and perpetual system to learn more information.  

Best practices for efficient accounting cycle management

Regular reconciliation

Regular reconciliation of accounts with bank statements and other financial records is essential to detect and correct errors timely. This practice ensures the accuracy and reliability of financial records.

Use of accounting software

Leveraging accounting software can automate many aspects of the accounting cycle, from recording transactions to generating financial statements. This not only saves time but also reduces the likelihood of human error.

Training and education for accountants

Continuous professional development is vital in keeping accounting staff updated with the latest accounting standards, technologies, and best practices. This includes regular training and attendance at relevant workshops and seminars.

Periodic review and update of accounting practices

Regularly reviewing and updating accounting practices and policies to align with current standards and technological advancements can significantly enhance the efficiency and accuracy of the accounting cycle.

Conclusion: The evolution and significance of the accounting cycle

The accounting cycle is a key part of managing a business’s finances. It’s a step-by-step process that helps companies keep track of their money, from recording every transaction to putting together final financial reports. This cycle is crucial for making smart business decisions and planning for the future. With the help of technology, the process has become more efficient and accurate, making it an essential tool in today’s business world.

In the end, the accounting cycle is a vital part of keeping a business financially healthy and ready to make good decisions for its future.

What accounting cycle is: FAQs

What are the main purposes of the accounting cycle?

The primary purposes of the accounting cycle are to systematically record, classify, and summarize a business’s financial transactions and to ensure accurate and complete financial reporting. It helps maintain consistency in financial processing and reporting, thereby providing reliable financial information essential for effective management, planning, and decision-making.

How does the accounting cycle impact financial decision-making?

The accounting cycle directly impacts financial decision-making by providing accurate and up-to-date financial information. Through its structured process of recording and analyzing financial data, businesses can track their financial health, profitability, and cash flows. This detailed financial insight aids managers and stakeholders in making informed decisions regarding investments, budgeting, resource allocation, and long-term strategic planning.

What is the difference between a journal and a ledger?

A journal and a ledger are both integral to the accounting cycle, but they serve different purposes. A journal, often called the book of original entry, is used to record transactions in chronological order as they occur. It details the date, accounts affected, and amounts involved in each transaction. In contrast, a ledger, or the book of final entry, organizes these transactions by account. It groups all transactions that affect a specific account, making it easier to see the overall impact on each account.

How often should the accounting cycle be completed?

The frequency of the accounting cycle depends on the specific needs and scale of the business. It is typically completed at the end of an accounting period, which can be monthly, quarterly, or annually. Most businesses perform this cycle monthly to keep a close eye on their financial position and to prepare for more comprehensive annual financial reports.

Can the accounting cycle be automated?

Yes, the accounting cycle can be significantly automated with modern accounting software. These software solutions can automate many aspects of the cycle, from recording transactions as they occur to generating financial statements. Automation reduces manual effort, minimizes errors, and increases efficiency, allowing businesses to focus more on analysis and decision-making rather than data entry and bookkeeping.

How do adjustments affect the accounting cycle?

Adjustments in the accounting cycle are made at the end of an accounting period to ensure that revenues and expenses are recorded in the period in which they are incurred. These adjustments, which include accrued revenues, accrued expenses, deferred revenues, and deferred expenses, are essential for adhering to the accrual basis of accounting. They ensure that the financial statements present an accurate and fair view of the company’s financial position and performance for the period.

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