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Understanding Deferred Revenue and Why is it a Liability

Deferred Revenue
Read Time: 8 min

The startup world thrives on innovation and pre-selling products or services. But have you ever wondered how these companies account for income received before they deliver their offerings? That’s where the concept of deferred revenue comes in. It’s a crucial accounting principle that ensures financial statements accurately reflect a startup’s economic health.

This comprehensive guide dives into deferred revenue, explaining its definition, functionality, and accounting treatment. We’ll explore real-world examples, compare them with similar concepts, and answer frequently asked questions to equip you with a thorough understanding of this vital financial metric.

Table of Contents

What is Deferred Revenue?

In simple terms, deferred revenue represents money a company receives in advance for products or services that will be delivered in the future. It’s a liability on the company’s balance sheet because it signifies an obligation to fulfill the customer’s expectations.

Imagine you run a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company offering annual subscriptions. When a customer signs up for a yearly plan, you receive the entire payment upfront. However, you still need to deliver the whole year’s service. This upfront payment becomes deferred revenue, reflecting a liability until you progressively earn it by providing the service throughout the year.

How Does Deferred Revenue Work?

The concept of deferred revenue hinges on the accrual accounting principle. Unlike cash accounting, which records income only when cash is received, accrual accounting recognizes revenue when it’s earned, regardless of cash flow.

Here’s a breakdown of how deferred revenue works:

  1. Customer Prepayment: A customer pays a company upfront for a product or service to be delivered in the future (e.g., annual subscription, magazine subscription).
  1. Deferred Revenue Account: The company records the received payment as a credit in a “deferred revenue” liability account on its balance sheet.
  1. Revenue Recognition: As the company delivers the product or service over time (e.g., monthly for SaaS, quarterly for magazines), a portion of the deferred revenue is recognized as earned income.
  1. Debit & Credit: The company debits the deferred revenue account and credits a revenue account, reflecting the earned portion of the income on the income statement.

This process ensures that a company’s financial statements accurately portray its economic performance by representing its obligations (deferred revenue) and earned income.

Why is Deferred Revenue a Liability?

The categorization of deferred revenue as a liability is based on the fact that it represents an obligation owed to the customer. The company has received payment but needs to fulfill its service or deliver the product. Until the service is rendered or the product is delivered, the company has an outstanding obligation to the customer.

Think of it this way: the customer has entrusted the company with money for a future benefit. The company is now liable to deliver on that promise.

Deferred Revenue – How to Calculate?

Calculating deferred revenue involves determining the portion of the customer’s prepayment that has yet to be earned. The specific calculation method depends on the nature of the product or service being offered. Here are two common approaches:

  • Straight-Line Method: This method assumes that revenue is earned equally over the contract period. For instance, if a customer pays $1,200 for a one-year SaaS subscription each month, $100 (1200/12) is recognized as earned revenue, with a corresponding decrease in the deferred revenue liability account.

  • Earned Income Method: This method considers the actual value of the service or product delivered over time. For example, a magazine subscription might assign a higher value to the initial issue (with valuable content or exclusive access) than subsequent issues. The calculation would reflect this difference in value as earned revenue throughout the subscription period.

The appropriate calculation method depends on the specific agreement with the customer and the nature of the offered product or service. Consulting with a certified accountant is always recommended to determine the most suitable method for your business.

Here’s a table summarizing the key points of deferred revenue calculation methods:

MethodDescription Example
Straight-Line MethodRevenue is recognized equally over the contract period A customer pays $3,600 for a 3-year magazine subscription. Each year, $1,200 (3600/3) is recognized as earned revenue 
Earned Income MethodRevenue is recognized based on the actual value of the service or product delivered over time. A customer pays $1,000 for a training course with an initial live session and subsequent online modules. A higher portion of the revenue might be recognized for the live session compared to the online modules.

Accounting for Deferred Revenue – Process Guide

Managing deferred revenue effectively requires a well-defined accounting process. Here’s a step-by-step guide to ensure accurate record-keeping:

  1. Identify Deferred Revenue Transactions: Identify all customer prepayments representing future product or service delivery. This could include annual subscriptions, magazine subscriptions, prepaid service contracts, advance payments for custom software development, and more.
  2. Record the Initial Transaction: When a customer makes a prepayment, record the entire amount as a credit in the “deferred revenue” liability account on your balance sheet. This reflects the customer’s payment and the company’s obligation.
  3. Establish a Recognition Schedule: Determine the appropriate method for calculating earned revenue based on the nature of your product or service (straight-line or earned income method). Create a schedule outlining the revenue recognition throughout the contract period.
  4. Periodic Adjustments: At the end of each accounting period (month, quarter, year), review your deferred revenue balance and recognition schedule.
  5. Revenue Recognition and Journal Entry: Based on the recognition schedule, calculate the portion of the deferred revenue earned during the period. Make a journal entry debiting the “deferred revenue” account and crediting the appropriate revenue account (e.g., subscription revenue, service revenue) for the earned amount. This reflects the income generated through service delivery.
  6. Maintaining Accurate Records: Ensure you keep detailed records of all deferred revenue transactions, including customer contracts, prepayment amounts, recognition schedules, and journal entries. This allows for easy reconciliation and audit purposes.

You can create a reliable accounting procedure to handle deferred revenue by following the steps provided. This will enable you to achieve precise financial reporting and comprehensively understand your business’s economic condition.

How to Record Deferred Revenue?

Here’s a practical example to illustrate how to record a deferred revenue transaction:

Scenario: A customer signs up for a 12-month web hosting plan with your company for $2,400 (prepaid annually).

Journal Entry (Initial Transaction):

  • Debit: Cash ($2,400)
  • Credit: Deferred Revenue ($2,400)

This entry reflects the receipt of the customer’s prepayment and the corresponding liability on your balance sheet.

Journal Entry (Monthly Recognition):

Assuming a straight-line method for revenue recognition, each month, you would record:

  • Debit: Deferred Revenue ($200)
  • Credit: Web Hosting Revenue ($200)

This monthly journal entry recognizes $200 (2400/12) of the deferred revenue as earned income and reduces the deferred revenue liability by the same amount. This process lasts 12 months until $2,400 is recognized as revenue.

Deferred Revenue – Examples

Deferred revenue is crucial in various industries, particularly those with subscription-based models or pre-paid services. Here are some real-world examples:

  • Software as a Service (SaaS): When a customer subscribes to a SaaS platform for a year or longer, the upfront payment is recorded as deferred revenue. The deferred revenue is gradually recognized as earned income as the company provides access and services throughout the year.

  • Magazine Subscriptions: Magazine publishers often offer annual subscriptions. The upfront payment received from the subscriber is recorded as deferred revenue. Each issue published contributes to a portion of the deferred revenue being recognized as earned income.

  • Prepaid Gym Memberships: When a customer pays for a year-long gym membership upfront, the gym records the prepayment as deferred revenue. The deferred revenue is recognized as monthly earned income as the customer utilizes the gym facilities yearly.

  • Custom Software Development: If a customer pays a portion of the total project cost upfront for custom software development, the received amount is recorded as deferred revenue. As the development progresses and milestones are achieved, the deferred revenue is recognized as earned income.

By understanding how deferred revenue works in these examples, you can gain a broader perspective on its application across various business models.

Deferred Revenue vs Unearned Revenue

“Deferred Revenue” and “Unearned Revenue” are often used interchangeably. However, there’s a subtle difference in emphasis:

  • Deferred Revenue: Focuses on liability, highlighting the company’s obligation to deliver a product or service in the future for the prepayment received.

  • Unearned Revenue: Emphasizes the income aspect, referring to the prepayment portion that has yet to be recognized as earned revenue.

In essence, both terms represent the same concept from different perspectives. Both terms are widely accepted and can be used synonymously in accounting practices.

Accrued Revenue vs Deferred Revenue

While deferred revenue and accrued revenue both involve income received before it’s thoroughly earned, they differ in terms of the timing and nature of the obligation:

Deferred Revenue:

  • Focus: Future delivery of products or services

  • Transaction: Customer prepays for a product or service to be delivered in the future (e.g., annual subscription, magazine subscription)

  • Liability: Represents a debt owed to the customer until the product or service is delivered.

Accrued Revenue:

  • Focus: Goods or services already delivered, but payment hasn’t been received yet

  • Transaction: Company provides a product or service to a customer on credit, with an expectation of payment shortly (e.g., consulting services, invoice issued for delivered goods)

  • Asset: Represents a claim on the customer for payment since the service or product has already been delivered.

Here’s a table summarizing the key differences:

FeatureDeferred Revenue Accrued Revenue
Timing of Obligation Future delivery Past delivery 
Transaction TypeCustomer prepaymentCredit sale
Balance Sheet Classification Liability Asset


  • Deferred Revenue: A customer pays $1,200 for a one-year web hosting plan upfront. This is deferred revenue as the hosting services will be delivered annually.

  • Accrued Revenue: A consulting firm completes a project for a client and issues an invoice for $5,000 with a net 30-day payment term. This is accrued revenue because the service has already been delivered, but payment is outstanding.

Understanding these distinctions is crucial for accurate financial reporting. Deferred revenue reflects a liability until the obligation is fulfilled, while accrued revenue reflects an asset until the customer settles the outstanding payment.


Deferred revenue is fundamental in accounting for subscription-based businesses and companies offering pre-paid services. Understanding how it works empowers startups and established companies to reflect their financial obligations and earned income accurately. This transparency is crucial for attracting investors, maintaining economic stability, and making informed business decisions.

Companies can guarantee precise financial reporting and obtain valuable insights into their revenue streams and future cash flow by establishing a clearly defined accounting process to manage deferred revenue.

FAQs on Deferred Revenue

Where does Deferred Revenue Go on the Balance Sheet?

Deferred revenue is recorded on the company’s balance sheet as a liability. It falls under the current liabilities category if the obligation to deliver the product or service is expected to be fulfilled within one year. If the fulfillment period extends beyond a year, it’s classified as a long-term liability.

Is Deferred Revenue a Debit or Credit?

When a customer prepays, deferred revenue is credited on the balance sheet, reflecting the company’s liability. As the product or service is delivered and revenue is earned, deferred revenue is debited, and the corresponding revenue account is credited on the income statement.

How do you show deferred revenue on the balance sheet?

Deferred revenue is typically listed under the “current liabilities” section of the balance sheet. The specific line item name might vary depending on the company’s accounting practices, but it could be titled “Deferred Revenue,” “Unearned Revenue,” or “Customer Advances.”

What Type of Account is Deferred Revenue?

Deferred revenue is a liability account on the balance sheet. It signifies a financial obligation owed to the customer until the product or service is delivered.

Is Deferred Revenue the Same as Accounts Receivable?

No. While both accounts represent amounts owed to the company, they differ in nature:

Deferred Revenue: Liability account reflecting a prepayment for a future obligation.

Accounts Receivable: Asset account reflecting outstanding payments for goods or services already delivered (similar to accrued revenue, but without the service already being rendered).

Contract Liability vs. Deferred Revenue

Contract liabilities are a broader category encompassing deferred revenue and extending to other potential obligations arising from contracts. For instance, a warranty liability associated with a product sale would be classified as a contract liability but wouldn’t necessarily be deferred revenue.