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What is a Chart of Accounts?

What is a Chart of Accounts?

A Chart of Accounts (COA) in accounting lists and organizes all types of money-related activities to simplify where the money is coming from and where it's going.

A chart of accounts is the backbone of generating financial statements like balance sheets, income statements, and cash flow statements since their structure determines how transactions are classified and displayed in these statements.

So, how do COAs work?

How does a chart of accounts work?

A chart of accounts (COA) provides an organized and transparent look at a company’s finances to encourage more effective recording, tracking, and reporting of transactions.

When a financial transaction is recorded, it’s done using a double-entry bookkeeping system, where every transaction affects at least two accounts: a debit and a credit. The COA ensures debits and credits are correctly recorded in the appropriate accounts.

In COAs, each account is assigned an account number with a unique number or code to help identify and locate specific accounts within the chart. The number of digits used depends on how big and complex a company is and the nature of its transactions.Each account is categorized as an asset, liability, equity, revenue, or expense account.

A COA can be individualized to specific business operations but must follow General Accounting Accepted Principles (GAAP) and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) guidelines.

The order of accounts within the chart is crucial for systematic reporting and stability over time to enhance consistency and comparability in financial statements. A GAAP chart of accounts typical order begins with assets, followed by liabilities, equity, revenue, and expenses. This order facilitates the systematic recording and reporting of financial transactions.

An efficient COA requires careful planning and periodic review to ensure it aligns with the needs of the business and maintains uniformity for stakeholders to interpret and analyze financial data accurately.

Breaking down an example of COA in accounting will help show how to organize financial information systemically.

Example of a COA

A COA can be beneficial when it comes to managing the finances of a medical practice effectively. The example below shows how a doctor could gain insights by categorizing the money-related activities of the business.

Sample Chart of Accounts for Cade’s Family Healthcare:

Account Number Description Account Type Financial Statement
1001 Cash Asset Balance Sheet
1010 Accounts Receivable Asset Balance Sheet
1020 Medical Equipment Asset Balance Sheet
2001 Accounts Payable Liability Balance Sheet
3001 Owner’s Equity Equity Balance Sheet
4001 Medical Services Revenue Revenue Income Statement
5001 Salaries and Benefits Expense Income Statement
5010 Office Supplies Expense Expense Income Statement


You’ll see the accounts in the chart for Cade’s Family Healthcare are listed in a specific order:

  1. Assets represent items of value the business owns. Commonly assigned numbers 1000 to 1900.
  2. Liabilities represent the obligations or debts owed by the company. Commonly assigned numbers 2000 to 2900.
  3. Owner’s equity represents the owner’s investment and retained earnings. Commonly assigned numbers 300 to 3900.
  4. Revenue represents the income generated by the business operations. Commonly assigned numbers 4000 to 4900.
  5. Expenses show the costs incurred to generate revenue. Commonly assigned numbers 5000 to 5900.

Following this order allows business owners and stakeholders to understand the financial position and performance of the company. Creating a chart of accounts follows general principles, but there’s no universal standard for account numbers. Companies and accountants usually decide the numbering system based on factors like industry, size, and internal preferences.

When comparing COA to a general ledger, you’ll notice that each serves a unique purpose. Depending on your needs, one might be more valuable than the other.

Chart of accounts vs general ledger

COAs and general ledgers are essential components of a company’s accounting system, but the two have some key differences.

A COA is like a blueprint that structures and categorizes a company’s financial accounts. It acts as a guide for recording transactions, making tracking and analyzing financial operations easier. Essentially, it’s a predefined list of categories where financial activities are organized.

On the other hand, the general ledger is like a detailed diary. It’s where all the nitty-gritty details of each financial transaction are recorded. Every entry in the general ledger includes specific information like debits, credits, dates, and transaction descriptions. It provides a comprehensive and chronological record of all financial activities.

In simpler terms, consider the COA as the overall plan or framework that outlines the categories and the general ledger as the detailed log that keeps track of every financial move within those categories. COAs organize accounts, while general ledgers provide the specifics for a complete financial picture.

In addition to general ledgers, applying an efficient COA process will be crucial for your finances.

Businesses can enhance financial operations with chart of accounts systems

The chart of accounts is designed to serve as an at-a-glance reference point for business owners and accountants to quickly review their financial standing.

You may encounter challenges when reconciling transactions or preparing financial statements. Thankfully, you can implement a well-organized COA to manage finances better and gain access to helpful analytics to improve decision-making abilities and generate long-term growth.

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