📣 Discover Absolute Cash Flow Mastery with a Centralized AR Hub:
Join Our Exclusive Webinar on June 20 at 11 AM PDT.
Reserve Your Spot.

What is Unearned Revenue?

What is Unearned Revenue?

Unearned Revenue Definition

Unearned revenue refers to the money received by an individual or a company for goods or services yet to be provided. It is considered a liability for the business because it represents an obligation to deliver products or services in the future. Think of it as a "pre-payment" from customers. When a company gets this pre-payment, it doesn’t immediately count it as income. Instead, it considers it as an obligation, a promise to provide value later. As the company fulfills its promise over time, this money gradually shifts from being a promise to actual earnings.

Unearned Revenue vs. Deferred Revenue

Unearned revenue and deferred revenue are essentially the same concepts with different names. They represent advance payments received for services or products to be delivered in the future and are treated similarly in accounting.

  • Unearned Revenue is the money received for goods or services to be provided in the future.
  • Deferred Revenue is another term for unearned revenue; both terms are often used interchangeably.

Accounting Treatment

Both are recorded as a liability on the balance sheet when received and later moved to revenue as goods or services are delivered.


The usage of unearned revenue and deferred revenue varies by region and context. "Unearned revenue" is more commonly used in some regions or contexts, while "deferred revenue" is preferred in others.

Recognition in Financial Statements

Both are initially recognized as a liability; and recognized as revenue on the income statement over time as the service is performed or the product is delivered.

Understanding Unearned Revenue in Accounts Receivables

Unearned revenue and accounts receivable are two distinct concepts. Understanding their differences helps in accurate financial reporting and analysis, ensuring that the financial statements reflect the financial position and performance of the business. The relationship between unearned revenue and accounts receivable is important in accounting, especially under the accrual accounting method.

Unearned Revenue vs. Accounts Receivable

Unearned revenue is money received by a business for goods or services yet to be provided. It is recorded as a liability because it represents an obligation to the customer.

  • Accounting Treatment: When a business receives payment for services not yet rendered or goods not yet delivered, it records this payment as unearned revenue on the balance sheet under liabilities.
  • Revenue Recognition: Over time, as the services are provided or goods are delivered, this liability is gradually converted into revenue. This conversion is reflected in the company's income statement.

Accounts receivable represents the money owed to a business for goods or services that have been delivered or used but not yet paid for by customers.

  • Accounting Treatment: When a business delivers a service or product but has not yet received payment, it records this amount as an asset in accounts receivable on the balance sheet.
  • Revenue Recognition: The revenue for these goods or services is recognized immediately upon delivery or service completion, even though payment has not yet been received.

Key Differences between Unearned Revenue and Accounts Receivable

Timing of Payment and Revenue Recognition

  • Unearned revenue is recorded when payment is received before the service is provided or goods are delivered. 
  • Accounts receivable is recorded when the service or goods have been provided, but payment is yet to be received.

Balance Sheet Classification

  • Unearned revenue is a liability on a balance sheet because it is an obligation to the customer. 
  • Accounts receivable, however, is an asset, as it represents future cash inflows.

Impact on Cash Flow

  • Payments contributing to unearned revenue provide immediate cash flow.
  • Accounts receivable indicates expected future cash inflows.

Why is Unearned Revenue Important?

Unearned revenue plays a crucial role in the financial health and management of a company, ensuring compliance, enhancing cash flow, and providing valuable insights for strategic planning and decision-making.

Accurate Financial Reporting

In accrual accounting, revenue must be matched with the expenses incurred to generate it, regardless of when the cash transactions occur. Unearned revenue allows for this matching by deferring the recognition of revenue until the goods or services are delivered. This leads to more accurate financial statements, providing a realistic view of the income and financial position of a business.

Cash Flow Management

Receiving payments in advance can significantly improve a company's cash flow. This influx of cash can be used for various purposes, such as funding operations, investing in new projects, or paying off debts. Effective management of unearned revenue can help stabilize the company's finances, especially for businesses with seasonal fluctuations.

Customer Commitment and Relationship Management

Unearned revenue often reflects a commitment from customers for future products or services. This can help in forecasting demand and planning for future business activities. It also helps in building and maintaining long-term customer relationships, as customers are essentially showing trust by paying in advance.

Regulatory and Tax Compliance

Proper accounting for unearned revenue is crucial for complying with financial reporting standards and tax regulations. Misclassifying or failing to report unearned revenue correctly can lead to regulatory penalties and misstated financials.

Performance Measurement

Unearned revenue provides insights into a company's future obligations and its ability to generate sales. It's a useful metric for assessing the company's performance, especially in industries like subscription-based services, where advance payments are common.

Risk Management

By recording unearned revenue as a liability, a business acknowledges its obligation to deliver goods or services in the future. This helps in managing and recognizing the risks associated with these obligations.

Budgeting and Planning

Unearned revenue can assist in budgeting and financial planning. Knowing the amount of revenue that is yet to be earned can help managers make informed decisions about resource allocation and operational planning.

Key Components of Unearned Revenue

Understanding the key elements of unearned revenue can help businesses and their stakeholders get a true picture of financial health and operational performance. These components are crucial for accurate financial reporting and analysis.

Advance Payment

Unearned revenue arises when a company receives payment for goods or services that it has yet to deliver or perform. This payment is received in advance of the actual delivery of the product or service.

Liability Recognition

Upon receiving the payment, the company records this amount as a liability on its balance sheet. This liability reflects the company's obligation to provide goods or services to the customer in the future.

Revenue Recognition

Unearned revenue becomes recognized as actual revenue over time as the goods are delivered or services are performed. This process aligns with the revenue recognition principle, ensuring that revenue is recorded in the accounting period in which the delivery of goods or services occurs.

Adjustment of Entries

As the company earns the revenue, it makes adjusting journal entries. These entries decrease the unearned revenue account (a liability) and increase the revenue account (on the income statement), reflecting the earning process.

Impact on Financial Statements

Unearned revenue impacts both the balance sheet and the income statement. Initially, it appears as a liability on the balance sheet. As the revenue is earned, it decreases on the balance sheet and appears as revenue on the income statement.

Periodic Reporting

The recognition of unearned revenue is important for periodic financial reporting. It ensures that revenues and expenses are matched in the period they are incurred, providing a clearer picture of the company's financial performance in a specific period.

Cash Flow Implications

The collection of unearned revenue can positively impact the company's cash flow in the short term, even though it doesn't immediately affect the income statement.

Contractual or Regulatory Basis

Often, unearned revenue is governed by the terms of contracts or agreements with customers, and in some industries, by regulatory requirements.

How to Calculate Unearned Revenue

Calculating unearned revenue typically involves adjusting the balance of the unearned revenue account over an accounting period as the company delivers goods or provides services. The process doesn't usually involve complex calculations, but rather a series of straightforward accounting entries. Here's a general approach to handle it:

Initial Recognition

When the payment is first received, the entire amount is recorded as unearned revenue.

Formula: Unearned Revenue (Initial) = Total Payment Received

Revenue Recognition Over Time

As the company delivers goods or services, a portion of the unearned revenue is recognized as earned revenue. The amount of revenue recognized in each accounting period depends on the proportion of the total goods or services provided.

Formula: Revenue Recognized = (Total Payment Received / Total Period of Service or Goods Delivery) × Periods Completed

Adjusting Unearned Revenue

After recognizing the earned revenue, the unearned revenue balance is reduced accordingly.

Formula: Unearned Revenue (End of Period) = Unearned Revenue (Initial) - Revenue Recognized

Example of Unearned Revenue Calculation

Suppose a company receives $12,000 in advance for a service that will be provided evenly over 12 months.

  • Initial Unearned Revenue = $12,000 (at the time of receiving the payment)
  • Monthly Revenue Recognition = $12,000 / 12 months = $1,000 per month
  • After one month, the company would recognize $1,000 as earned revenue.
  • The unearned revenue at the end of the first month would then be $12,000 - $1,000 = $11,000.

This process continues each month until the unearned revenue balance reaches zero, indicating that the service has been fully provided and all the revenue has been recognized.

How is Unearned Revenue Recorded in Accounting

Unearned revenue is recorded in accounting using a specific process that reflects its nature as a liability until the goods or services are delivered. This process follows the principles of accrual accounting and involves the following steps:

Initial Receipt of Payment

When a company receives payment for goods or services that it has not yet delivered or performed, it records the receipt of cash and the corresponding liability.

Journal Entry

  • Debit (increase) Cash or Bank Account (asset account)
  • Credit (increase) Unearned Revenue (liability account)
  • This entry reflects the increase in the company's assets (cash/bank balance) and its obligations (liability).

Recognition of Revenue Over Time

As the company delivers the goods or performs the services, it gradually recognizes the revenue. The amount of revenue recognized should correspond to the portion of the goods or services provided in the accounting period. This entry moves the amount from the liability account (unearned revenue) to an income account (revenue), reflecting that the company has earned the revenue.

Journal Entry

  • Debit (decrease) Unearned Revenue (liability account)
  • Credit (increase) Revenue (income statement account)

End of the Accounting Period

At the end of each accounting period, the company will review the unearned revenue account and recognize any revenue for the portion of goods or services that have been delivered in that period. The remaining balance in the unearned revenue account continues to be reported as a liability on the balance sheet until it is fully earned.


Imagine a company receiving $6,000 in advance for a six-month service contract. The initial journal entry when receiving the payment would be:

  • Debit Cash: $6,000
  • Credit Unearned Revenue: $6,000
  • Each month, as the service is provided, the company would make the following journal entry:
  • Debit Unearned Revenue: $1,000 ($6,000 divided by 6 months)
  • Credit Revenue: $1,000

This process ensures that revenue is recognized in the period in which the service is provided, adhering to the matching principle of accrual accounting.

In conclusion, unearned revenue is a simple yet vital concept for business and accounting. It's essentially the money a company receives for products or services it promises to deliver in the future. Managing unearned revenue well is crucial for any business, as it helps to maintain accurate financial records, ensure a steady cash flow, and build trust with customers.

Growfin book a demo

Don't miss these stories: