You’ve found the Rigits guide to understanding prepaid expenses. 

This article is meant specifically for small business owners like you, aiming to demystify the concept of prepaid expenses. We’ll guide you through what prepaid expenses are, why they might be important for your business, and how to utilize them effectively.

This guide is also related to our articles on double-entry accounting: the basics, understanding journal entries in accounting, and how to read a balance sheet.

cartoon person showing prepaid expenses with diagramsHere’s what we’ll cover:

  • Definition and Explanation
  • Importance of Prepaid Expenses
  • Common Prepaid Expenses
  • Accounting for Prepaid Expenses
  • Common Challenges

Let’s dive in!

Accrual and prepaid expenses

Before we jump into what prepaid expenses are all about, let’s get a quick handle on accrual accounting. 

How accrual works

Think of accrual accounting as the method that helps you keep track of what you earn and spend, even if no cash has moved yet. 

In accrual accounting, there are two big rules. First, you record sales when you make them, not when you get the cash. Second, you jot down costs when they happen, not when you pay them. 

For a deeper understanding of cash vs. accrual accounting, check out this guide.

How prepaid expenses work

Now, let’s talk about prepaid expenses. These are payments you make upfront for things you’ll use or get benefits from over time. Think of it like paying for a year’s worth of rent all at once. Initially, this prepayment is like an asset—something valuable you have. Then, as each month goes by, you record a part of that payment as an expense, since you’re using up that rent over time.

For a small business owner, handling prepaid expenses this way helps you see more clearly how your business is doing month by month. You spread out the cost over the time you’re actually using what you paid for, whether it’s rent, insurance, or something else. 

This method gives you your actual profitability based on when expenses are used, not when cash leaves the bank. 

Examples of Common Prepaid Expenses

Prepaid expenses represent what you pay upfront, before you actually use the service. Here are the most common ones.

Rent or Lease Payments: Rental companies often require you to pay upfront for the use of office spaces, retail locations, or equipment. This upfront payment secures your right to use the asset for the coming month or even year. 

Insurance Premiums: Insurance policies, whether for property, liability, or employees, usually require premium payments upfront. These payments cover you for a specified period ahead and are essential for protecting your business against unforeseen events. 

Subscription-based Services: Many businesses rely on subscription services for software, industry data, or even janitorial services. These subscriptions often come with the option or requirement to pay upfront, typically offering a cost advantage over month-to-month payments. 

Prepaid Inventory or Supplies: Depending on your business model, you might need to purchase inventory or supplies well in advance of selling them. While this ties up cash upfront, it ensures that you have the necessary items to meet customer demand or production needs without last-minute price hikes or supply shortages.

Vendor prepayments: Some vendors may require payment upfront: for example a marketing agency requiring an upfront payment on a six-month campaign. 

Accounting for Prepaid Expenses: The Basics

Understanding how to record prepayments on your balance sheet is fundamental for accurate financial reporting. Let’s break down the basics to demystify this process.

Recording Prepaid Expenses on the Balance Sheet

Initially, prepaid expenses are recorded as assets on your balance sheet because they represent future benefits that your business has the right to consume or use over time. 

For instance, if you pay six months of rent in advance, this prepaid rent is an asset; it’s a space you’ll use in the future to generate income.

To record a prepaid expense, you would debit the prepaid expense account and credit your bank account. 

This reflects the outflow of cash or reduction in bank balance and the increase in an asset (the prepaid expense) that your business now owns.

Current Assets and Long-Term Assets?

Prepaid expenses can be classified into two categories: current assets and long-term assets. The differentiation depends on the time frame over which the prepaid item will be used or consumed.

Current Assets: If the benefit of the prepaid expense will be realized within one year or within the operating cycle of the business (whichever is longer), it is classified as a current asset. This includes items like prepaid rent, insurance premiums for a one-year policy, and annual subscriptions.

Long-Term Assets: If the benefit extends beyond one year, the prepaid expense is considered a long-term asset. This is less common but could apply to multi-year insurance policies or long-term lease payments made in advance.

Expensing Prepaid Costs Over Time

As time passes and you use the benefit of the prepaid expense, you need to adjust your accounts to reflect this use. This process is handled through adjusting entries, which gradually move the expense from the balance sheet to the income statement, where it is recognized as an expense.

For example, consider you’ve prepaid six months of rent. Each month, you would make an adjusting entry to decrease the prepaid rent asset by the amount that covers that month’s use of the space, moving it to rent expense on the income statement. This is done by debiting the rent expense account and crediting the prepaid rent account.

Tracking and Managing Prepaid Expenses

Prepaid expenses can get tricky and messy fast if you’re not on top of it. Here are some strategies to help you stay accurate. 

Setting Up a Dedicated System or Software

Leveraging technology is one of the most efficient ways to handle prepaid expenses. 

A dedicated accounting system or software tailored to small businesses can automate much of the work involved in tracking these expenses. Look for features that allow you to:

  • Categorize expenses easily as prepaid and differentiate them from regular expenses
  • Schedule amortization entries automatically over the expense’s useful life.
  • Generate reminders for when it’s time to review and adjust prepaid expense balances.

Review and Reconciliation of Prepaid Expenses

Even with automation, regular human oversight is important. Schedule monthly or quarterly reviews of your prepaid expense accounts to verify that the amortization is being recorded correctly and that the remaining balances accurately reflect the prepaid services or products yet to be consumed. This review should include:

  • Checking each prepaid expense to ensure its amortization schedule is still accurate.
  • Adjusting for any changes in service agreements or contracts that might affect the length of the service period or the cost.
  • Ensuring that your prepaid expense asset account will zero out when all the adjustments are made.

Cash Management with Prepaid Expenses

Cash flow, essentially the movement of funds in and out of your business, is the lifeblood that sustains daily operations and fuels growth. 

When you prepay an expense, you’re paying now for benefits you’ll receive over time, which can tighten your immediate cash availability but potentially provide financial advantages later on.

In periods of tight cash flow, tying up cash in prepaid expenses can limit your flexibility and ability to respond to unforeseen expenses or opportunities.

However, prepaying can also have its advantages. It may secure essential services or products at a fixed cost, protecting your business from price increases. Furthermore, some vendors offer discounts for upfront payments, which can lead to long-term savings and more predictable budgeting.

Some ways to utilize prepaid expenses without putting yourself into a cash crunch include:

  • Plan for large upcoming prepaid expenses by incorporating them into your cash flow projections. 
  • Leverage payment terms where possible. If a supplier or service provider offers a discount for prepaying, determine if it makes sense in your business to take advantage of it
  • Consider the timing of prepaid expenses in relation to your business cycle. If possible, schedule large prepaid payments during your business’s cash-rich periods to minimize impact on operations.


You should now have a grasp of the basics of prepaid expenses and how they relate to your financial statements, cash flow, and overall accounting processes.  

Remember, while prepaid expenses can tighten cash availability in the short term, the strategic use of this accounting concept can secure essential services or products, lock in prices, and potentially save money in the long run. 

By incorporating prepaid expenses into your cash flow planning and making informed decisions about when and how to utilize them, you can maintain flexibility and keep your business financially healthy. 

Next, check out our articles on bookkeeping vs. accounting, 15 best accounting books to read in 2023, and what are back office services.

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FAQ: Prepaid expenses

Here's some answers to commonly asked questions about prepaid expenses.

What are prepaid expenses and why do they matter?

Prepaid expenses are payments made in advance for goods or services that are to be received in the future. Prepaying can secure essential services or products and sometimes result in cost savings. 

However, if not managed carefully, they can also tie up valuable cash resources that could be used elsewhere in the business.

How do prepaid expenses affect my financial statements?

Prepaid expenses initially appear as assets on the balance sheet because they represent future economic benefits. Over time, as the benefits of the prepaid expenses are realized (for example, as the prepaid rent provides a place of business), these expenses are gradually expensed on the income statement. 

This process, known as amortization, matches the expense with the period in which it contributes to generating revenue, adhering to the matching principle in accounting. 

How should I manage and track prepaid expenses?

Start by setting up a dedicated accounting system or software that allows for easy categorization and tracking of prepaid expenses.

Regularly schedule amortization entries to spread the cost of the prepayment over its useful life, ensuring that your financial statements accurately reflect your business operations.

Additionally, conduct monthly or quarterly reviews of your prepaid expense accounts to confirm the accuracy of amortization schedules and adjust for any changes in service agreements or contracts.