The Fallacy of "+/-" Nomenclature

The second observation above would not be true for an increase/decrease system. For example, if services are provided to customers for cash, both cash and revenues would increase (a "+/+" outcome). On the other hand, paying an account payable causes a decrease in cash and a decrease in accounts payable (a "-/-" outcome). Finally, some transactions are a mixture of increase/decrease effects; using cash to buy land causes cash to decrease and land to increase (a "-/+" outcome). In the previous chapter, the "+/-" nomenclature was used for the various illustrations.

As you can tell by reviewing the illustration in Part 1, the "+/-" system lacks internal consistency. Therefore, it is easy to get something wrong and be completely unaware that something has gone amiss. On the other hand, the debit/credit system has internal consistency. If one attempts to describe the effects of a transaction in debit/credit form, it will be readily apparent that something is wrong when debits do not equal credits. Even modern computerized systems will challenge or preclude any attempt to enter an "unbalanced" transaction that does not satisfy the condition of debits = credits.

The Debit/Credit Rules

At first, it is natural for the debit/credit rules to seem confusing. However, the debit/credit rules are inherently logical (the logic is discussed at linked material in the online version of the text). But, memorization usually precedes comprehension. So, you are well advised to memorize the "debit/ credit" rules now. If you will thoroughly memorize these rules first, your life will be much easier as you press forward with your studies of accounting.

Assets/Expanses Dividends

As shown at right, these three types of accounts follow the same set of debit/credit rules. Debits increase these accounts and credits decrease these accounts. These accounts normally carry a debit balance. To aid your recall, you might rely on this slightly off-color mnemonic: D-E-A-D = debits increase expenses, assets, and dividends.

Assets/Expanses Dividends


These three types of accounts follow rules that are the opposite of those just described. Credits increase liabilities, revenues, and equity, while debits result in decreases. These accounts normally carry a credit balance.


Analysis of Transactions and Events

You now know that transactions and events can be expressed in "debit/credit" terminology. In essence, accountants have their own unique shorthand to portray the financial statement consequence for every recordable event. This means that as transactions occur, it is necessary to perform an analysis to determine (a) what accounts are impacted and (b) how they are impacted (increased or decreased). Then, debits and credits are applied to the accounts, utilizing the rules set forth in the preceding paragraphs.

Usually, a recordable transaction will be evidenced by some "source document" that supports the underlying transaction. A cash disbursement will be supported by the issuance of a check. A sale might be supported by an invoice issued to a customer. Receipts may be retained to show the reason for a particular expenditure. A time report may support payroll costs. A tax statement may document the amount paid for taxes. A cash register tape may show cash sales. A bank deposit slip may show collections of customer receivables. Suffice it to say, there are many potential source documents, and this is just a small sample. Source documents usually serve as the trigger for initiating the recording of a transaction. The source documents are analyzed to determine the nature of a transaction and what accounts are impacted. Source documents should be retained (perhaps in electronic form) as an important part of the records supporting the various debits and credits that are entered into the accounting records. A properly designed accounting system will have controls to make sure that all transactions are fully captured. It would not do for transactions to slip through the cracks and go unrecorded. There are many such safeguards that can be put in place, including use of renumbered documents and regular reconciliations. For example, you likely maintain a checkbook where you record your cash disbursements. Hopefully, you keep up with all of the checks (by check number) and perform a monthly reconciliation to make sure that your checkbook accounting system has correctly reflected all of your disbursements. A business must engage in similar activities to make sure that all transactions and events are recorded correctly. Good controls are essential to business success.

Determining an Account's Balance

The balance of a specific account can be determined by considering its beginning (of period) balance, and then netting or offsetting all of the additional debits and credits to that account during the period. Earlier, an illustration for a Cash account was presented. That illustration was developed before you were introduced to debits and credits. Now, you know that accounts are more likely maintained by using the debit/credit system. So, the Cash account is repeated below, except that the increase/decrease columns have been replaced with the more traditional debit/credit column leadings. A typical Cash account would look similar to this illustration:







Jan. 1, 20X3

Balance forward

$ 50,000

Jan. 2, 20X3

Collected receivable

$ 10,000


Jan. 3, 20X3

Cash sale



Jan. 5, 20X3

Paid rent

$ 7,000


Jan. 7, 20X3

Paid salary



Jan. 8, 20X3

Cash sale



Jan. 8, 20X3

Paid bills



Jan. 10, 20X3

Paid tax



Jan. 12, 20X3

Collected receivable



A Common Misunderstanding About Credits

Many people wrongly assume that credits always reduce an account balance. However, a quick review of the debit/credit rules reveals that this is not true. Where does this notion come from?

Probably because of the common phrase "we will credit your account." This wording is often used when you return goods purchased on credit; but, carefully consider that your account (with the store) is on the store's books as an asset account (specifically, an account receivable from you). Thus, the store is reducing its accounts receivable asset account (with a credit) when it agrees to "credit your account."

On the other hand, some may assume that a credit always increases an account. This incorrect notion may originate with common banking terminology. Assume that Matthew made a deposit to his account at Monalo Bank. Monalo's balance sheet would include an obligation ("liability") to Matthew or the amount of money on deposit. This liability would be credited each time Matthew adds to his account. Thus, Matthew is told that his account is being "credited" when he makes a deposit.

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