Chart of Accounts


  • What is a Chart of Accounts? 
  • How Does a Chart of Accounts Work? 
  • What Are the Different Types of Accounts Found in a Chart of Accounts? 
  • How is a Chart of Accounts Organised? 
  • What Are the Best Practices for a Chart of Accounts? 
  • How to Utilise a Chart of Accounts in Accounting Software Systems 

What is a Chart of Accounts? 

A Chart of Accounts (COA) is essentially a comprehensive list of all the financial accounts maintained within an entity’s general ledger, which serves as the central repository for recording all business transactions during a specific accounting period. 

Essentially, the chart of accounts acts as a financial roadmap for the entity, offering a structured filing system where all transactions are consolidated and categorised under relevant headings. Usually, these categories include assets, liabilities, equity, income, and expenses, offering a comprehensive overview of the entity’s financial status. 

Each account in the chart is designated with a unique alphanumeric code, facilitating subsequent reporting and analysis. This structured organisation allows for the efficient generation of precise and timely financial reports crucial for owners and investors in making informed decisions about the entity’s operations. 

Thus, the chart of accounts is a fundamental tool for tracking and managing financial activities, providing insight into the entity’s financial health and facilitating effective decision making processes. 

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How Does a Chart of Accounts Work? 

The fundamental role of a chart of accounts lies in facilitating double entry accounting, a systematic approach to record keeping where each business transaction is documented twice. This entails noting the source of money and its destination. 

Double entry accounting employs two columns, debits and credits, to represent these entries, thereby enabling the tracking of both incoming and outgoing funds. This framework allows entities to monitor the flow of money into and out of the business. 

Moreover, the double entry method permits the creation of additional accounts to monitor outstanding money yet to be received (accounts receivable), money yet to be paid (accounts payable), and inventory held for sale. The chart of accounts is essential in organising and overseeing the specifics of each transaction within these categories. 

In a chart of accounts, accounts are typically arranged in the same sequence as they appear on financial statements, usually divided into five primary categories: 

Balance sheet accounts: 

  • Assets 
  • Liabilities 
  • Shareholder equity 

Income statement accounts: 

  • Revenue 
  • Expenses 

This structured organisation enables entities to gain a clear understanding of their financial standing. 

Entities have the flexibility to tailor their chart of accounts to suit their specific needs. For instance, they can categorise revenue and expenses based on factors such as product lines, customer segments, or business stages. 

What Are the Different Types of Accounts Found in a Chart of Accounts? 

A standard chart of accounts includes various account types, with multiple accounts listed under each category. For instance, under asset accounts, an entity may have separate accounts for cash on hand, accounts receivable, and real estate holdings. These categories aid in organising financial data effectively. 

Balance Sheet Accounts

Balance sheet accounts, including assets, liabilities, and equity, are featured on an entity’s balance sheet, which depicts the entity’s financial position at a specific moment. Here’s an overview of what typically falls under each category: 

  • Asset Accounts: These include cash, securities, accounts receivable (AR), and inventory. 
  • Liability Accounts: These consist of accounts payable, taxes payable, wages payable, and accrued liabilities. 
  • Equity Accounts: Examples include common stock, retained stock, dividends, retained earnings, and owner capital. 

Income Statement Accounts

Income statement accounts capture both expenses and revenues. The income statement, also known as the profit and loss statement, illustrates a entity’s performance during a reporting period, highlighting gains or losses incurred. 

  • Expense Accounts: These cover various categories such as the cost of goods sold, operating expenses, non operating expenses, credit card expenses, and prepaid expenses. 
  • Revenue Accounts: These include sales revenue, dividend revenue, gains on asset sales, as well as other revenue sources like rent or royalty income claimed by the entity. 

By organising accounts into these categories, entities can effectively track and analyse their financial activities, gaining insights into their financial health and performance over time. 

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How is a Chart of Accounts Organised? 

Each account in the entity’s chart of accounts consists of three key elements: 

  • Identification code 
  • Description 
  • Name 

These components aid in locating specific accounts and transactions, particularly as the entity’s ledger becomes more intricate over time. 

Regarding chart of accounts numbering: 

The numbering system employed for accounts is crucial for maintaining financial organisation and facilitating transaction retrieval within each subcategory. 

A prevalent method involves a parent child structure using a four digit numbering system. This system allows for further breakdown into smaller, similarly numbered subcategories. 

For instance, the entity may adopt a numbering scheme as follows: 

  • 0100 for current assets accounts, such as cash and accounts receivable 
  • 0200 for liabilities, encompassing accounts payable and accrued expenses 
  • 0300 for owners’ equity accounts, including common stock and investments 

Similar accounts can then be nested under broader categories within these numerical ranges. 

It’s important to note that as more accounts are added, there’s a risk of exhausting numbers within each parent category. Consequently, inserting new numbers into existing sequences may become challenging. 

What Are Best Practices for a Chart of Accounts? 

Accounting managers have developed several practices beneficial for most entities when creating their initial charts of accounts: 

Align Structure with Financial Reporting Needs

Utilise a basic structure that aligns with the entitys financial reporting requirements. Maintain a clear separation between balance sheet and income accounts, ensuring they correlate where necessary. For instance, if the entity has debts, include both debt liability and interest expense accounts. 

Support Management Decision Making

Organise the chart of accounts to aid in management decision making. Define account types based on the entitys operational structure, ensuring clarity regarding income sources and expenditure destinations. Align the chart of accounts with budget categories for quick evaluation of performance against expectations. 

Implement Structured Codes and Subheadings

Employ structured codes and subheadings to facilitate rapid retrieval of key information. A five digit structured code can provide sufficient granularity for multiple levels within the chart of accounts. Reserve flexibility within the coding scheme to accommodate additional lines when necessary. 

Leverage Modern Accounting Software

Embrace modern accounting software, particularly cloud based solutions, which can enhance transaction detail dimensionality. This functionality can substitute for additional levels within the chart of accounts, simplifying complex coding schemes. 

Avoid Excessive Detail

Maintain a balance between comprehensiveness and clarity. Avoid an overly detailed chart of accounts that obscures the entitys financial overview. If the chart of accounts exceeds three levels, consider setting up subledgers to manage complexity effectively. 

Limit Changes to Period Ends

Minimise modifications to the chart of accounts, especially during active accounting periods. Changes should be restricted to period ends to ensure consistency and prevent disruptions. Avoid removing lines or reorganising the chart mid period to maintain data integrity and consistency. 

How to Utilise a Chart of Accounts in Accounting Software Systems 

Many accounting software platforms provide a basic chart of accounts to streamline the setup process. However, customisation is often necessary to tailor it to the entity’s specific requirements. This involves inputting the main categories and desired subcategories. Once configured, users can easily tag each transaction and allocate it to the appropriate subcategory. 

Setting up the chart of accounts using accounting software can be particularly beneficial when launching a new business. If transitioning between software platforms, the setup process may require additional time to ensure proper categorisation of transactions. The exact steps involved will vary depending on the chosen accounting software, so consulting tutorials and demonstrations can expedite the setup process. 

Popular accounting tools offer assistance in setting up and managing a chart of accounts: 

  • Freshbooks: Provides a standard chart of accounts, which can be further customised with Plus, Premium, and Select accounts. 
  • Xero: Offers pre mapped templates aligned with Xero’s report codes or allows users to import their own. 
  • Intuit QuickBooks: Automatically sets up the chart of accounts, offering additional accounts tailored to the entity’s business type. 
  • Sage Intacct: Offers a CSV template for importing an existing chart of accounts. 

These software solutions streamline the setup and maintenance of a chart of accounts, ensuring that the entity’s financial data is accurately categorised and organised. 

This article is general information only and does not provide advice to address your personal circumstances. To make an informed decision you should contact an appropriately qualified professional.