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Double Entry System Bookkeeping and Accounting Explained
Definitions, Meaning, and Transaction Examples

© Business Encyclopedia, ISBN 978-1-929500-10-9. Updated 2016-02-10.

Most businesses use double entry accounting, a system in which every financial event causes two transactions, a debit in one account and an equal offsetting credit in another account.

What is double entry accounting?

When a company establishes an accounting system, it must choose to use either a single entry system or a double entry system. In business, the overwhelming majority of companies choose the double entry approach, in which each financial event brings at least two changes in the accounts: A credit entry in one account along with an equal, offsetting debit entry in another account.

The practice of using two account entries for every transaction in this way serves two purposes:

First, the double entry system provides a "built in" form of error-chceking. When the double entry system is used properly, the sum of all debit entries in the account ledgers for the accounting period must equal the sum of all credit entries. That is, at all times:

Total Debits = Total Credits

A mismatch in these two totals indicates that a bookkeeping error has been made. For more on error-checking, see the encyclopedia entry on trial balance.

Secondly, double entries maintain the balance in the so-called accounting equations: 

Assets = Liabilities + Owners Equity    

Debits = Credits

Keeping the company's accounts and maintaining the balance in these equations, in turn, means that the organization's balance sheet (statement of financial position) provides an accurate basis for assessing the company's financial structure, its capital structure, and financial statement metrics (ratios).


The account as the fundamental building block of an accounting system 

In business, each profit making company establishes an accounting system in order to manage and keep track of its assets, liabilities, equities, revenues, and expenses. The accounting system also provides the basis for the financial reports the company must file periodically.

The basic building block in such a system is the account, which can be defined as a place for recording value and changes in value (additions and subtractions) for one specific purpose. In fact, "specific purposes" are divided into five categories, and these categories represent the five—the only five—kinds of accounts possible in an accounting system:

First, there are the so-called "balance sheet" kinds of accounts:

  1. Asset accounts: Things of value that are owned and used by the business. 
    Example: Cash on hand
    Example: Accounts receivable
  2. Liability accounts: Debts owed by the business.
    Example: Accounts payable
    Example: Salaries payable
  3. Equity accounts: Owner claim to business assets.
    Example: Owner capital
    Example: Retained earnings

Secondly, there are the so-called "income statement" kinds of accounts"

  1. Revenue accounts: Amounts earned from the sale of goods and services.
    Example: Product sales revenues
    Example: Interest earned revenues
  2. Expense accounts: Expenditures incurred in the course of business.
    Example: Direct labor costs
    Example: Advertising expenses

In reality, even a very small business may identify a hundred or more such accounts for its accounting system, and a large company may identify many thousands. Nevertheless, for bookkeeping and accounting purposes, all named accounts fall into one of the five categories above (see Chart of accounts, below).

Every financial transaction for the company is recorded as a change in an account. If the company uses double-entry book keeping (as nearly all companies do), every financial transaction causes two equal and offsetting account changes, the change in one account called a debit and the change in another account called a credit.

In the double entry system, just how the bookkeeper and account handle each transaction for an account depends on which of the five account categories the account belongs to. Whether a debit or a credit increases or decreases the account balance depends on the kind of account involved: 

Debit (DR) Entry ... Credit (CR) Entry ...
Asset account   Increases (adds to) account balance Decreases (subtracts from) account balance
Liability account   Decreases (subtracts from) account balance Increases (adds to) account balance
Equity account   Decreases (subtracts from) account balance Increases (adds to) account balance
Revenue account   Decreases (subtracts from) account balance Increases (adds to) account balance
Expense account   Increases (adds to) account balance Decreases (subtracts from) account balance

Suppose, for example, that a company acquires assets valued at $100,000. An asset account will increase (be debited) $100,000 (perhaps asset Account 163 from the chart of accounts below, Factory manufacturing equipment). The increase in account balance is called a debit because this is an asset account. However, the balance sheet is now temporarily out of balance until there is an offsetting credit of $100,000 to another account, somewhere in the accounting system. This could be, for instance:

  • A credit of $100,000 to another asset account, reducing that account value by $100,000 (from the chart of accounts below, that could be a credit to asset Account 101, Cash on hand).
  • If the asset purchase is financed with a bank loan instead of the company's cash, however, the offsetting transaction could be a credit to a liability account, increasing that account value by $100,000 (which could be Account 171, Bank loans payable).

In this way, the basic accounting equation always holds and the balance sheet stays balanced:

Assets = Liabilities + Equities

And, for every pair of account entries that follow from a single transaction:

Debits = Credits

See the encyclopedia Double entry system for more on the accounting mathematics involved in double entry bookkeeping.

What are contra accounts (valuation allowance accounts)?

Not all accounts work additively with each other on the primary financial accounting reports—especially on the income statement and balance sheet. There are many instances where one account works to offset the impact of another account. The so-called contra accounts "work against" other accounts in this way. In some situations, the contra accounts reverse the debit and credit rules from the table above.

Contra-asset and contra-liability accounts are also called valuation allowance accounts, because they work to adjust the book value, or carrying value for assets or liabilities, as shown in the examples below.

The balance sheet example running throughout this encyclopedia has several  contra account examples, including these under Assets:


Two contra accounts on the Balance Sheet, listed under Current Assets.

You may notice from the chart of accounts example below, that Accounts receivable (Account 110 from the chart) and Allowance for doubtful accounts (Account 120) are both asset accounts. Allowance for doubtful accounts, however, is a contra asset account that reduces the impact (carrying value) contributed by Accounts receivable. The balance sheet result is a "Net accounts receivable" less than the Accounts receivable value.

In the same way, Account 163, Factory Manufacturing equipment carries the value of these assets at historical cost—what was actually paid for these assets. This will not decrease as long as the company owns the assets. However, the asset's book value does change downward from year to year, as shown on the balance sheet. Contra Account 175, Accumulated depreciation, factory manufacturing equipment, is subtracted from the Account 163 value, to produce the balance sheet result Net factory manufacturing equipment.

In each case above, incidentally there is also an expense category account involved, and those appear on the income statement, not the balance sheet. In the first example, the expense account is Bad debt expense and in the second case, the expense account is Depreciation expense, factory machinery. The offsetting debit and credit transactions might look like this way in the bookkeeper's journal (the chronological record of transactions):

Grande Corporation
Journal for Fiscal Year 20YY
Date Account Debit



 630  Bad debt expense
 120       Allowance for doubful accounts

 770  Depreciation expense, factory manufacturing equip
 175       Accumuulated depreciation expense, factory
              manufacturing equipment





All four transactions add to the value of the accounts listed. Debiting each of the two expense accounts adds to account value, as you would expect from the table in the previous section. However notice here that crediting the two asset accounts adds to their value as well—just the opposite of what the same table prescribes for asset accounts. For contra accounts in this situation the rules are reversed, so that the fundamental equation Debits = Credits still holds for every pair of transactions. The examples also show why a contra asset account is said to hold a credit balance.

The above examples show contra-asset accounts, but there are also examples of contra-liability accounts that operate in the same way. For example, on the liabilities side of the balance sheet, a long term liability account Bonds payable may be accompanied by another liability account, a contra liability account called Discounts on bonds payable. The value in the contra account reduces the company's actual liability from the stated figure in the Bonds payable account.

Contra liability accounts—like their contra asset account counterparts—also reverse the debit/credit "rules" from the table in the previous section. An addition to a liability account is normally a credit, but to a contra liability account, an addition is a debit. For this reason, contra liability accounts are said to carry a debit balance.

What is a Chart of Accounts

The example chart of accounts below is should be thourght of as an extract from a chart of accounts, rather than a complete chart. It shows the structure and general approach to account numbering and naming, but a complete example—even for a very small company—would no doubt list many more accounts.

Asset Accounts - Current Assets
100 Petty cash
101 Cash on hand
103 Regular checking account
105 Payroll checking account
110 Accounts receivable
120 Allowance for doubtful accounts
130   Work in progress inventory
139   Finished goods inventory
140   Prepaid expenses
150   Employee advances
                       Asset Accounts - Fixed Assets
160   Furniture and fixtures
162   Vehicles
163   Factory manufacturing equipment
165   Buildings
169 Land
170 Accumulated depreciation, furniture, fixtures
172 Accumulated depreciation, vehicles
175 Accumulated depreciation, factory mfr equip.
179 Accumulated depreciation, buildings
Asset Accounts - Other Assets
190 Accumulated amortization
194 Notes receivable, non current
Liability Accounts - Current Liabilities
200 Accounts payable
234 Payroll payable
235 Accrued fees
240 Accrued interest
              Liability Accounts - Long Term Liabilities
260 Bonds payable
270 Discount on bonds payable
280 Bank loans payable
290 Equipment payable
Equity Accounts
320 Owner capital
350 Retained earnings
380 Dividends
Revenue Accounts
410 Product sales revenues
420 Services sales
430 Rental property revenues
450 Interest earned revenues
Expense Accounts - Cost of Goods Sold
520 Raw materials costs
530 Direct labor costs
540 Indirect labor costs
550 Manufacturing plant costs
Expense Accounts - Other
601 Supplies expense
630 Bad debt expense
650 Advertising expense
720 Salary and wage expense
735 Travel expenses
750 Equipment lease expense
760 Depreciation expense, vehicles
770   Depreciation expense, factory mfr equipment
800 Other expenses

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