What are Contra Accounts?

An accountants calculator, symbolic of accounts working with contra accounts.

Understanding business accounting can be an overwhelming task. There are common accounting terms like assets, liabilities, and equity that individuals and small business owners quickly become familiar with, and some like debits, receivables, and contra assets that require more research. Contra assets are an important bookkeeping concept that helps balance a business’s books. In this article, we look closely at contra assets and the different types of contra accounts you may see on financial statements.

What is a contra asset?

Contra assets are negative asset accounts that show an opposite balance to a normal account in the same asset category. The purpose of a contra asset account is to offset the asset account and show a reserved amount that reduces the balance of the corresponding asset account. The balance in a contra asset account allows the accountant, tax preparer, or other end-user to know how much to subtract from the paired asset’s value.

One reason contra asset accounts are used is that they facilitate a faster calculation of net book value, which is the amount a business records as an asset on financial reports. The contra accounts make financial statements more user-friendly, help preparers complete annual filings, and are globally accepted accounting policies.

How are contra asset accounts presented?

Assets, or what is owned by the business, are recorded in a company’s general ledger and appear on the balance sheet. Assets appear with a positive balance because they are recorded as a debit to the account. A negative balance, or credit entry, in an asset account, usually indicates a mistake or is accompanied by an explanation. Contra assets are a rare exception as they are recorded as a credit balance and appear as a negative number. A debit entry in a contra asset account is unnatural and most likely indicates an incorrect journal entry.

Contra asset accounts appear as separate line items on the balance sheet. They are also accessible via the general ledger, trial balance, and some cash flow statements. Contra accounts with small balances may not appear separately, but may be combined with the asset account, subtracting the contra balance from the asset balance. Contra accounts that are combined into the asset value and not shown as separate line items are noted in the footnotes of the balance sheet.

Types of contra accounts (they’re not only for assets…)

So far, we’ve discussed contra asset accounts, which offset the value of asset account balances. Contra accounts can be used for all of the financial components on the balance sheet including assets, liabilities, and equity. (That is, you can have contra assets, contra liabilities, and contra equity.) In fact, contra accounts can even be reflected on the income statement in the form of contra revenue accounts.

Contra asset accounts

As discussed in the first sections of this article, contra asset accounts carry a credit balance. The balance sheet of a business shows:

Assets – Liabilities = Owner’s Equity

The equation shows that liabilities offset assets. Contra assets are classified as assets on the balance sheet, but their negative balance and purpose of offsetting the asset value mean they act more like a liability. Examples of contra asset accounts include accumulated depreciation, obsolete inventory reserves, and allowance for doubtful accounts.

Accumulated depreciation

The accumulated depreciation account is the contra account for fixed asset values. Fixed assets are long-term tangible assets purchased by the business and may include:

  • Land
  • Buildings
  • Equipment and Machinery
  • Computer Hardware and Software
  • Vehicles
  • Furniture and Fixtures

While the balance sheet often lists fixed assets separately, there is only one contra account: the accumulated depreciation account, to which all fixed asset accounts are linked. Contra asset accounts can be used to quickly evaluate depreciation and the remaining useful life of assets.

Obsolete inventory reserves

The obsolete inventory reserve account is the contra account to inventory, another asset listed on the balance sheet.  Products that become unusable are recorded in this contra account to show that they are still owned by the company, but they should be excluded from the market value of inventory.

A forklift in a warehouse filled with inventory, symbolic of the accounting concept obsolete inventory reserves.
Have obsolete inventory? Than use an obsolete inventory account!

Allowance for doubtful accounts

The contra account to the accounts receivable account is the allowance for doubtful accounts and is used to represent the amount of invoiced goods or services that the business does not expect to collect. Combining the value of the allowance for doubtful account and the accounts receivable balance gives a company the net amount of cash it can expect to receive from goods it has sold or services it has already provided.

Contra liability accounts

Just like contra asset accounts offset the positive values of assets on the balance sheet, contra liabilities offset the negative value of liabilities on the balance sheet. Since liabilities are recorded with credit entries, contra liabilities show a debit balance. A contra liability acts more like an asset account because it is recorded as a debit and benefits the business’s bottom line by decreasing the liabilities. Examples of contra liability accounts include financing fees and original issue discounts (OID).

Financing Fees

Financing fees are a contra account used in debt accounting and are seen when a business is engaged in mergers and acquisitions. Businesses amortize the fees associated with debt over the life of the loan. The fees reduce the tax burden for the business so it can be beneficial to record them in a separate contra account called financing fees.

Original Issue Discounts

Original issue discounts (OID) are a type of contra liability like financing fees because they are also amortized over a loan’s term and reduce pre-tax income. The purpose of recording OID as a contra account is to quickly show the difference between the redemption price and the discounted offering price of debt.

Contra equity accounts

The owner’s equity is calculated by subtracting liabilities from the business’s assets. Contra equity accounts reduce the total amount of the owner’s, or shareholders’, equity. While equity accounts typically appear on the balance sheet as a credit balance, the contra equity accounts have a debit balance. An example of contra equity accounts is treasury stock.

Treasury stock

Treasury stock is a contra equity account that is entered as a negative value on the balance sheet of public companies. It shows the amount of funds used to repurchase previous issuances of stock, reducing the total number of shares outstanding.

Contra revenues

Revenues do not appear on the balance sheet but are listed as part of the income statement. Some accounting professionals use contra revenue accounts to adjust gross receipts and calculate net revenue. Contra revenue carries a debit balance and may be listed as sales discounts, sales returns, or sales allowances.

The Bottom Line

At first glance, contra accounts may seem complicated, but contra accounts exist to simplify financial statements. Contra asset accounts appear as a credit balance and reduce the value of assets. Contra liabilities appear as a debit balance and reduce the amount a company owes. Contra equity accounts reduce shareholders’ equity and contra revenues account for a reduction of collected income. Using contra accounts can allow financial statement users to prepare annual reports and calculate net values more efficiently and are an important part of the accounting toolkit.

Still need a bit more help? Better understanding balance sheets and income statements can help you to better understand contra accounts. Our introduction to income statements and introduction to balance sheets is just the thing. Take a look to continue on with your accounting learning.

Interested in learning more cool accounting concepts in general? Check out the best bookkeeping and accounting blog known to man. (Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration.) Or, to skip straight to some more intermediate business tips, take a look at our introduction to S-Corps.

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