Home > Accounting and Tax Guide

Generally Accepted Accounting Principals - A Primer

Accountants are the keepers of the standards. They are the ones who make sure that when we look at a financial statement, we can be reasonably that it was built using sound accounting practices and that it is comparable to other audited financial statements for other companies.

That sounds like a daunting task, but never fear. The accounting professional is in business to help you through all this.

The accounting profession is self-regulated. They decide the most appropriate way to record company activity on the financial books of record. They do this through an august board of seasoned professionals, the Accounting Practices Board of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). This group defines what is known as “Generally Accepted Accounting Principals” or GAAP, which all public accountants must adhere to on behalf of all their clients.

The process used to introduce new GAAP or change old GAAP is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is a lengthy process with plenty of review opportunities for all CPAs and business people.


The main purpose of having GAAP is to assure consistency in accounting practices, not only within a company, but across all regulated companies. The SEC requires all publicly held companies to be audited at least annually by a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). The CPA assures the stockholders that they can count on the financial information from the company, because it is in compliance with GAAP.

By preparing all financial information according to GAAP,

• Management can depend on the records and make course corrections for their individual departments or the company as a whole for the betterment of the company.

• Investors and lenders can make sound decisions based on the financial records of the company.

• Stockholders and prospective stockholders get an accurate picture of the company’s financial health.

• Stock can be valued fairly on the market

• Deceptive, unfair and even criminal practices are minimized.


The following are some of the primary principles upon which GAAP is built. This is, by no means, a complete description of GAAP, which is very detailed and takes much study to become expert at, but it shows the abiding purpose behind all that detail.

1. Historical Cost Principle: In general, the value of a company’s assets is the original cost of those assets less suitable depreciation or amortization. This keeps companies from stating their assets at market value, which is not only difficult to ascertain, but very subjective in nature. Historical cost provides the actual cost which is very objective.

2. Revenue Recognition Principal: This simply states that revenue is recognized when it is earned, which may be a different time than it is received. For example, if your company provides a service at the end of December, but you customer doesn’t pay you until January of the following year, your December revenue total will include that amount. January will not, even though that is the month in which you deposited the payment.

3. Full Disclosure Principle: Any information, whether or not strictly financial, that is relevant to the business and may have a future impact, must be disclosed. All transactions must be posted, of course. But even further, this principle provides for disclosure of contingencies. For example, if your company is being sued, the lawsuit must be analyzed for expected chance of loss. This contingency must be disclosed in a footnote of the financial statements. This is to prevent a loan officer or investor from not knowing this possibly impacting information when making decisions regarding investments in or loans to the company.

4. Matching Principle: Put simply, revenue must be matched to the expenses that helped to create it. This is why you have accruals and deferrals. The expenses associated with earning revenue for this period must also appear in this period.


GAAP assumes the following:

1. Going Concern Assumption: The company or entity is a “going concern” and is not likely to end operations in the current year. It is expected to remain in business for the foreseeable future. Any exceptions to this assumption must be disclosed.

2. Economic Entity Assumption: The company is an independent entity and is separate from it’s owners.

3. Monetary Unit Assumption: The currency used to measure the entity’s financial performance is stable.

4. Periodic Reporting Assumption: Business operations are reported on a regular basis, usually annually. The fiscal year doesn’t have to be the same as the calendar year. This is usually set according to the business cycle for the particular company.

Using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles is necessary for all business entities. But you needn’t become a GAAP expert yourself. Hire a good accountant. A CPA may be necessary if your company is publicly held, or for loan or business venture requirements.

Michael Russell

Your Independent guide to Accounting

comments powered by Disqus