What Is a Contra Account? 

Published on August 22, 2023
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A contra account is an asset account that is kept at either a negative or zero balance and is used on a balance sheet to offset the positive balance of a paired asset. To put it another way, a contra account is an account listed within a general ledger with the purpose of capturing the reduced value of a paired or related account when the two are added together.

Now, if that sounded like a lot of mumbo-jumbo jargon to you, don’t worry. In this article, we’re going on a deep dive into what exactly a contra account is, how contra accounts work, why and how you would use contra accounts and more. 

The purpose of contra accounts

There is almost always a story behind data; a clarification or historical insight that changes the meaning behind raw figures. In a report, layering on that additional context can be easy, but in a general ledger, you have few options for conveying nuance and subtlety. Namely, within a ledger, each account is intended to contain transactions and balances of a similar type only. But sometimes, dissimilar transactions are important to consider together within a ledger. That’s where contra accounts come in. 

A contra account provides missing context by pairing it with a related account. So as values shift depending on real-world factors, rather than making deductions or adjustments to the original or “parent” account, you would record these changes in the contra account instead. By viewing these accounts — the parent and contra — in tandem, business owners can gain broader insights, preserve the historical figures stored in the parent account, and make accommodations for any relevant changes.

We’ll provide more examples below, but a quick example of contra accounts in action will help make this concept come alive:

Consider a business that offers an early payment discount to its customers, cutting their invoiced total by 3% if they pay within 1 week of invoicing. Over a given month, the company makes $345 thousand in sales. If every single buyer had taken advantage of the early payment discount, the company would have provided roughly $10 thousand in discounts during that same timeframe. In reality, the actual number of company discounts came closer to $5 thousand. 

In its general ledger, the business will want to capture its gross sales figures and the actual value of the discount.  Since the discount and sales are dissimilar, the business would record these entries in two separate accounts — a Gross Sales account and a Sales Discount account.The Sales Discount account — which is the contra for the Gross Sales account — provides the business with the context it needs to better understand its revenue over this particular time period.

Types of contra accounts

1. Contra revenue

A contra revenue represents any deductions or offsets that need to be removed from gross revenue to provide a clearer understanding of actual income  —  such as in the example just provided. These accounts will typically help track sales discounts, product returns, and allowances (e.g., a price reduction for a good with minor defects).

2. Contra equity

Since an equity account reflects the total capital invested in a business, these contra equity accounts allow for tracking of intersecting factors that might shift that value — typically either a withdrawal of capital by investors or the expense of a stock buyback.

3. Contra liabilities

These less-frequent contra accounts come into play when you need to account for changes in the outstanding liabilities for your business. For example, when your company borrows money, you would identify that debt in a Notes Payable account. Furthermore, if you subsequently pay off that debt early and capture a discount, the contra liability account — Discount Notes Payable — would record those savings. Another common contra liability account is a Discount on Bonds Payable account used by businesses that issue their own bonds.

4. Contra assets

The most common contra type, contra assets, records the loss in value of any asset accounts listed in your general ledger. And by comparing these contras against their corresponding parent accounts, you can better understand the actual value of the assets retained by your business. Because contra asset accounts are used so frequently, it’s worth spending a little bit more time on them here, including common subtypes.

Taking a closer look at contra asset accounts

The list of asset accounts on your general ledger and balance sheet conveys the combined, potential value of all of the tangible and intangible items that your organization possesses. But in the real world, converting all of that potential into hard cash is highly unlikely, if not impossible. Instead, you need to record this value gap, and a contra asset account serves that purpose.

Types of contra asset accounts

The following are examples of commonly-used contra asset accounts you could create to better understand your business financials. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you can create any contra account you want to more clearly describe your business — this is not an exhaustive or definitive list.   

Bad debt

When considering all of the money currently owed to your business that’s recorded in your Accounts Receivable (A/R) line item as an existing asset, there’s a good chance that not all of those customers are going to pay you back in full. To compensate for those potential deadbeat customers, you can use a Bad Debts account to serve as a contra for your A/R.

Depletion

For industries that rely on natural resources — mining, logging, oil, gas — depletion tracks the gradual exhaustion of the raw material in question, offsetting that loss in value against the initial appraisal of the land. So an Accumulated Depletion account would serve as the contra for the parent Fixed Asset account.

Depreciation

As your business acquires new assets (e.g., machinery, office equipment, vehicles), you record the initial purchase value in your Fixed Asset account. But these items don’t retain that initial value; if liquidated, they would likely be sold at a loss. In order to record this ongoing value drop, you would use a corresponding contra account — an Asset Depreciation account.

Notes discounts

The Notes Receivable account documents the total value of any promissory notes held by the company. Typically, these notes reflect purchases made on credit by your customers. To obtain a cash payout before the note reaches maturity, you can sell these notes to a bank or other financial institution for some price below the note’s face value. This price gap — or discount — would then be recorded in a Discount on Notes Receivable account, and when the total of this contra account is combined with the parent account, you’ll be able to determine the net value of any outstanding notes.

Obsolete inventory

The hottest retail item of today can be relegated to nostalgia channels on YouTube tomorrow. And when your business still has some of these outdated, unwanted, or unusable items in your inventory, you’ll want to offset the lost value of these assets in your general ledger and balance sheet. So rather than adjusting your Inventory account, you would update its contra account — Obsolete Inventory.

Contra account examples

Contra asset account example

 A business called Show-Fleur offers private driving tours of local botanical gardens — all from the comfort of high-end limousines. For its day-to-day operations, the business maintains a fleet of 75 identical 2016 Ford Explorer limousines, each initially retailing at $150 thousand. However, these vehicles have experienced significant wear and tear in the intervening years. And currently, Show-Fleur anticipates that it could only sell each one for roughly $50 thousand, meaning the depreciation per vehicle is $100 thousand.

Assuming the only asset that the business owned was its limo fleet, the company’s ledger might look something like this:

Fixed Assets

$11,250,000

Less: Accumulated Depreciation

$7,500,000

Net Fixed Assets

$3,750,000

Contra liability account example

Wanting to spruce up its aging inventory, Show-Fleur purchased new, climate controlled-seats for its fleet, delivering increased comfort for passengers and a cleaner, more modern look for vehicle interiors. The initial cost of this upgrade was $8 thousand per limo or $600,000 in total.

Rather than pay this cost up-front and tie up a significant chunk of capital, Show-Fleur makes this purchase on credit with a 90-day due date after invoicing. Fortunately, the seat vendor offered an early payment discount of 5%, meaning that when Show-Fleur paid off its full credit note within the first 30 days, it recouped $30 thousand in savings.

Assuming that the line of credit for the seats was the only note secured in a given timeframe, the accounting would resemble the following:

Notes Payable

$600,000

Less: Discount on Notes Payable

$30,000

Net Notes Payable

$570,000

How are contra accounts recorded?

Properly documenting these contra accounts in your ledger can sometimes feel counter-intuitive since they operate in an opposite manner from their parent accounts. Consider an asset account, where the values are listed as debits, and the account itself will present a positive total. Conversely, for a contra asset account like depreciation, you would list all entries as a credit, carrying a negative total balance for the overall account.

And while you would record this contra asset account on your ledger just below the corresponding parent account — and above a corresponding net parent account entry — the contra is technically not an asset since it does not represent a long-term value. Nor would it count as a liability as it does not reflect a future obligation.

This general structure can be applied across all contra types, so if the parent account has a credit, the contra account will have a debit. Similarly, if the parent account lists entries as debits, the contra account will appear as a credit.

Account  Type

Credit

Debit

Normal Revenue

x

 

          Contra Revenue

 

x

Normal Equity

x

 

          Contra Equity

 

x

Normal Liability

x

 

          Contra Liability

 

x

Normal Asset

x

 

          Contra Asset

 

x

Get accurate contra account records with Invoiced

Accounting software can simplify the management of and reporting from your ledger. With the appropriate level of automation integration in your chosen tool, you can pull the relevant values into these individual accounts directly from invoices, credit agreements, and other documentation.

At Invoiced, we provide a suite of solutions that work together to make managing your invoicing, accounts receivable, and accounts payable seamless and easy.

To convert your invoice management efforts to an electronic format that can easily share data with other financial systems, businesses can leverage Invoiced’s E-invoice Network. At the same time, our Accounts Receivable Automation software and Accounts Payable Automation software makes tracking, managing, and processing crucial assets and liabilities — and their contras — easier than ever before.

To learn more about what Invoiced can do for you, schedule a demo today!

Published on August 22, 2023
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