What Is Unearned Revenue?

Unearned Revenue Explained in Less Than 4 Minutes

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DEFINITION
Unearned revenue is the money received by a business from a customer in advance of a good or service being delivered.

Unearned revenue is the money received by a business from a customer in advance of a good or service being delivered. It is the prepayment a business accrues and is recorded as a liability on the balance sheet until the customer is provided a service or receives a product.

A business owner can utilize unearned revenue for accounting purposes to accurately reflect the financial health of the business. This type of revenue, for one, provides an opportunity to help small businesses with cash flow and working capital to keep operations running and produce goods or provide services. However, understanding how unearned revenue impacts the books and customer relationships is key to making the most out of this financial component.

Definition and Example of Unearned Revenue

A business generates unearned revenue when a customer pays for a good or service that has yet to be provided. Unearned revenue is most commonly understood as a prepayment provided by a customer or client who expects the business to deliver an item or service on time as agreed upon at the time of the purchase.

  • Alternate name: Unearned income, deferred revenue

In terms of accounting for unearned revenue, let’s say a contractor quotes a client $5,000 to remodel a bathroom. If the contractor received full payment for the work ahead of the job getting started, they would then record the unearned revenue as $5,000 under the credit category on the balance sheet. The contractor would also record the $5,000 in cash under the debit category.

How Unearned Revenue Works

Businesses can profit greatly from unearned revenue as customers pay in advance to receive their products or services. The cash flow received from unearned, or deferred, payments can be invested right back into the business, perhaps through purchasing more inventory or paying off debt.

Positive cash flow can keep a small business’s operations thriving. However, a business owner must ensure the timely delivery of products to its consumers to keep transactions steady and drive customer retention. This is why it is crucial to recognize unearned revenue as a liability, not as revenue.

An easy way to understand deferred revenue is to think of it as a debt owed to a customer. Unearned revenue must be earned via the distribution of what the customer paid for and not before that transaction is complete. By delivering the goods or service to the customer, a company can now credit this as revenue.

The Magazine Model

Media companies like magazine publishers often generate unearned revenue as a result of their business models. For example, the publisher needs the cash flow to produce content through its various teams, market the content compelling to reach its audience, and print and distribute issues upon publication. Each activity in a publisher’s business strategy can benefit from the resulting cash flow of unearned revenue.

Consumers, meanwhile, generate deferred revenue as they pay upfront for an annual subscription to the magazine. A publishing company may offer a yearly subscription of monthly issues for $120. This means the business earns $10 per issue each month ($120 divided by 12 months). According to the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), the business can account for this revenue by debiting the unearned revenue account and increasing the revenue account by the same amount each month on the balance sheet.

Unearned revenue is most often a short-term liability, meaning that the business enters a delivery agreement with the customer or client and must fulfill its obligations within a year of purchase. Services that will take over a year to deliver upon should be marked as a long-term liability on the balance sheet.

Types of Unearned Revenue

Some examples of unearned revenue include:

  • Annual magazine subscriptions
  • Prepaid insurance
  • Airline tickets
  • Advance rent payments or retainers

For items like these, a customer pays outright before the revenue-producing event occurs.

Criteria for Unearned Revenue

Like small businesses, larger companies can benefit from the cash flow of unearned revenue to pay for daily business operations. However, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) sets additional guidelines that public companies must follow to recognize revenue as earned.

The SEC marks that revenue must be realized or realizable and earned to transfer over to the income statement as revenue. The criteria to meet those qualifications include:

  • Having evidence of an agreement between company and customer
  • Completion of delivery of goods or services
  • A predetermined or fixed seller’s price
  • Collectibility is assured

Key Takeaways

  • Unearned revenue is the money received from a customer for goods or services that have yet to be delivered or produced.
  • Also known as deferred revenue, unearned revenue is recognized as a liability on a balance sheet and must be earned by successfully delivering a product or service to the customer.
  • On a balance sheet, unearned revenue is recorded as a ​​debit to the cash account and a credit to the unearned revenue account.
  • Most unearned revenue will be marked as a short-term liability and must be completed within a year.

Article Sources

  1. Social Security Administration. “Code of Federal Regulations: § 416.1123 How We Count Unearned Income.” Accessed Dec. 1, 2021.

  2. Eastern Oregon University. "University GAAP Accrual Accounting Overview," See Slide 8. Accessed Dec. 1, 2021.

  3. Access Washington, Office of Financial Management. “85.70: Short-Term Liabilities.” Accessed Dec. 1, 2021.

  4. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Codification of Staff Accounting Bulletins. Topic 13: Revenue Recognition." Accessed Dec. 1, 2021.