Understanding and Using Debits and Credits

Debits and credits form the basis of the double-entry accounting system. Without understanding how they work, it becomes very difficult to make any entries to a company's general ledger.

Bookkeepers and accountants use debits and credits to balance each recorded entry for a company's balance sheet and income statement accounts. Double-entry accounting, debits, and credits all tie into the accounting equation: Assets = Liabilities + Owners' Equity.​

Debits and Credits: Why Are They Important?

Businessman working at late at computer in office
Hero Images/Getty Images

Every business transaction has a buyer and a seller. The business sells a product or service to a customer or client. Most companies use a system of double-entry bookkeeping to keep track of their transactions. Double-entry bookkeeping requires a recording system using debits and credits.

Determining whether a transaction is a debit or credit is the challenging part. This is where T-accounts come in. T-accounts are used by accounting instructors to teach students how to do accounting transactions.

T-accounts are simply an account, such as accounts receivable, written the visual representation of a "T. " For that account, each transaction is recorded as debit or credit. This information can then be transferred to a journal from the T-account.

How to Record Debits and Credits as Journal Entries

Pencil on notepad next to calculator
Hero Images/Getty Images

In reality, accounting transactions are recorded by making accounting journal entries. Just like everything else in accounting, there's a particular way to make an accounting journal entry when recording debits and credits.

In an accounting journal, debits and credits will always be in adjacent columns on a page. Debits will be on the left, and credits on the right. Entries are recorded in the relevant column for the transaction being entered.

How to Record Debits and Credits for Asset Accounts

Woman paying bills online
Image Source/Getty Images

Assets consist of items owned by a company, such as inventory, accounts receivable, fixed assets like plant and equipment, and any other account under either current assets or fixed assets on the balance sheet.

Memorize the rule that debits are increases in asset accounts, while credits are decreases in asset accounts. 

In a general ledger, increases in assets are recorded as debits. Decreases in assets are recorded as credits. 

Let's say a company buys a large quantity of inventory to gear up for holiday sales. Inventory is a current asset, and the company pays for the inventory with cash. The company purchased $10,000 of inventory. The journal entry would look like this:

Inventory    $10,000

Cash           $10,000

Inventory has increased so it's debit and cash decreased. This requires a credit entry.

If the company decided to sell a building for $250,000 and it received cash for the property, the journal entry would look like this:

Cash                    $250,000

Fixed Assets        $250,000

Cash, an asset, increased so it would be debited. Fixed assets would be credited because they decreased.

Recording Debits and Credits for Liability and Owner's Equity Accounts

Balance Sheet
blackred/E+/Getty Images

Liabilities are items on a balance sheet that the company owes to vendors or financial institutions. They can be current liabilities, such as accounts payable and accruals, or long-term liabilities, such as bonds payable or mortgages payable.

Owner's equity accounts sit on the right side of the balance sheet, such as common stock and retained earnings. They are treated exactly the same as liability accounts when it comes to journal entries.

Debits are decreases in liability accounts. Credits are increases in liability accounts. Here's the rule for liability accounts: 

Increases in liabilities are recorded as credits. Decreases in liabilities are recorded as debits.

Let's say a company owes one of its suppliers $1,000 and that bill is now due. What companies owe their suppliers are typically accounts payable and a liability on the balance sheet. Here is how the journal entry would look:

Accounts Payable   $1,000

Cash                         $1,000

You would debit accounts payable because you paid the bill, so the account decreases. Cash is credited because cash is an asset account that decreased because cash was used to pay the bill. 

If this company decided to purchase $15,000 in inventory from a supplier and do it on credit (accounts payable), the journal entry would look like this:

Inventory                $15,000

Accounts Payable  $15,000

You would debit inventory because it is an asset account that increases in this transaction and accounts payable is credited to a liability account that increases because the inventory was purchased on credit.

Let's look at a journal entry for the owner's equity account. Say a business has two owners and one owner wants to invest an additional $50,000 in the business. Here's the resulting journal entry:

Cash                        $50,000

Owner's Equity        $50,000

Cash increases when you make the investment. It's an asset account, so an increase is shown as a debit and an increase in the owner's equity account shows as a credit.

How to Record Debits and Credits for Expense Accounts

Mature woman doing home finances
Image Source/Getty Images

Expense accounts are items on an income statement that cannot be tied to the sale of an individual product. Of all the accounts in your chart of accounts, your list of expense accounts will likely be the longest.

Expense accounts run the gamut from advertising expenses to payroll taxes to office supplies. It's imperative that you learn how to record correct journal entries for them because you'll have so many.

Here's an example of a business transaction involving an expense account and the resulting journal transaction. Let's say a company needs to stock up on office supplies. It purchases $750 in office supplies using cash. Here's the resulting journal entry:

Office Supplies     $750

Cash                      $750

"Office supplies" is an expense account on the income statement, so you would debit it for $750. Cash is an asset account. You credit an asset account, in this case, cash, when you use it to purchase something.

How to Record Debits and Credits for Revenue or Income Accounts

Business people reviewing data in meeting
Hero Images/Getty Images

Revenue accounts come from a company's income statement. A company's revenue usually includes income from both cash and credit sales.

A company can also have investment income. Larger companies sometimes invest in other companies. Smaller firms invest excess cash in marketable securities which are short-term investments.

Let's look at a sample journal entry for a revenue transaction. A small business has $5,000 in cash sales on a given day. Here's how those sales, revenue for the firm, would be recorded:

Cash                     $5,000

Sales Revenue      $5,000

You would post sales revenue as a credit. Increases in revenue accounts, the cash sales, are recorded as credits. Cash, an asset account, is debited for the same amount. An asset account is debited when there is an increase, such as in this case.

These steps cover the basic rules for recording debits and credits for the five accounts that are part of the expanded accounting equation.