Revenue Recognition

The Ultimate Guide to Revenue Recognition

Serge Frigon

Revenue recognition is a key accounting principle that dictates when the recording of revenue is appropriate. It shapes the formula organizations must follow, detailing the specific conditions under which revenue is to be recognized within their financial statements.

Most often, revenue is recognized when a company has fulfilled its obligations to earn the income, which often coincides with the delivery of promised goods, provision of services, or the completion of other performance obligations. Consistency in reporting on this revenue recognition then plays a larger role in ensuring an accurate depiction of a company’s financial health. 

Determining the effective date of revenue recognition aids in transparency, compliance, risk management, operational decision-making, and investor relations. 

All to say that revenue recognition isn’t just an accounting formality. It’s a vital component of financial reporting that has far-reaching implications for internal and external stakeholders.


  • Revenue recognition is a key accounting principle that dictates when the recording of revenue is appropriate. Its five-step revenue recognition process is a fixed framework to streamline this process, ensuring businesses recognize their revenue in a way that accurately reflects the transactions they engage in.
  • Different industries and business models have different revenue recognition requirements. Thorough research, assessment, and staff training are necessary to minimize errors and ensure compliance.
  • Falling behind can expose a company to financial penalties, legal risks, and a loss of stakeholder trust.

The Five-Step Revenue Recognition Process

The five-step revenue recognition process is a fixed framework designed to ensure that businesses recognize their revenue in a way that accurately reflects the transactions they engage in. This model has been standardized under the Accounting Standards Update 2014-09 by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) for Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) in the United States. The process largely aligns with the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) 15.

The five-step process goes as follows:

1. Identify the contract with the customer:

The first step involves formalizing the agreement between the business and the customer. A contract can be written, verbal, or implied, but it must create enforceable rights and obligations for both parties.

2. Identify the performance obligations

A performance obligation is a promise to transfer a good or service to a customer. The business must identify all the individual performance obligations within the contract. This can include distinct goods delivered, services rendered, or any other actions the business has promised to undertake.

3. Determine the transaction price

Once the contract is established and the performance obligations are detailed, the business must calculate the total amount of consideration (i.e., payment) receivable in exchange for fulfilling those performance obligations. This can include fixed amounts, variable amounts, or even non-cash considerations. It may also require adjustments if the payment terms are extended.

4. Allocate the transaction price to performance obligations

Once the total transaction price is determined, it must be allocated to the various performance obligations identified in step two. This is generally done on a relative standalone selling price basis, which reflects how much each obligation would be sold for if it were sold separately.

5. Recognize revenue when (or as) performance obligations are satisfied

Revenue is recognized when the business has met its performance obligations, meaning it has transferred control of the goods or services to the customer. The timing of this can vary, as some obligations may be satisfied over time, while others may be satisfied at a point in time.

Different Revenue Recognition Methods

There are a few different revenue recognition methods used in accounting to depict how revenue is earned and recorded. Here are some commonly used methods:

Cash basis

The cash method is the simplest. Revenue is recognized when cash is received from customers. The trade-off in this simplicity is that it’s less accurate in portraying a company’s financial health. Therefore, the cash method suits small businesses with less complex operations.

Cash-based accounting is not permissible for companies that must adhere to GAAP, such as public companies.

Accrual basis

Within the accrual method, there are a few different ways to recognize revenue. They are:

  • Sales method – Revenue is recognized at the point of sale, which is usually when the ownership of goods changes hands or when services are rendered.
  • Percentage-of-completion method – Commonly used in long-term contracts, especially in construction and consulting industries. Revenue, costs, and profit are recognized as work progresses on the contract.
  • Completed-contract method – Unlike the percentage-of-completion method, the revenue is recognized only when the contract is fully completed. This method is less common due to its lack of periodic revenue reporting.

The accrual basis of accounting is generally the method required by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and incorporated into the U.S. GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles). Accrual accounting aligns well with the revenue recognition principles outlined in FASB’s Accounting Standards Update (ASU) No. 2014-09, also known as Topic 606 or ASC 606.

Factors Affecting Revenue Recognition

After determining the appropriate revenue recognition accounting method, businesses must be aware of a few factors affecting how/when their revenue is recognized. Each factor introduces complexity to the revenue recognition process and must be carefully considered to ensure that revenue is recognized accurately and complies with applicable accounting standards. These factors are:

Delivery of goods and services

The timing of the delivery of goods or the completion of services impacts when revenue can be recognized. For instance, revenue cannot typically be recognized if the goods are still in transit or if a service is only partially completed. Deferred revenue would occur if the company received payment for goods or services it has not yet delivered or performed. In accounting terms, deferred revenue is considered a liability because it represents an obligation to provide a product or service in the future.

Collectability considerations

Before revenue can be recognized, there must be reasonable assurance that the seller will collect the payment for the goods or services provided. For example, the selling company needs to assess whether it is probable that the buying company/consumer can and will pay within the agreed-upon timeframe. If collectability is not reasonably assured, revenue recognition is generally deferred until the payment is received or collectability becomes more certain.

Refund liabilities

If a business has a history of refunds, returns, or allowances, these must be estimated and accounted for when recognizing revenue. The revenue recognized is typically the transaction price minus the estimated refund liabilities. This estimation is often based on historical data and must be updated each reporting period.

Sales with right of return

When goods are sold with a right of return, revenue is recognized only to the extent that it is probable those goods will not be returned. An allowance for estimated returns is generally deducted from the recognized revenue. Furthermore, a refund liability and an asset related to products expected to be returned must be recognized

Customer loyalty programs

Revenue from transactions that involve customer loyalty programs often needs to be allocated between the initial product or service sold and the loyalty points awarded. The revenue allocated to the loyalty points is deferred and recognized only when the points are redeemed or expire.

Special Cases in Revenue Recognition

There are special cases in revenue recognition that demand particular attention due to their unique characteristics. These instances often require specialized treatment to ensure accurate and compliant financial reporting. Here are some examples:

Long-term contracts

For long-term contracts like construction projects, the percentage-of-completion method is often used, allowing companies to recognize revenue as the work progresses. This is based on milestones or other measurable indicators. However, recognizing revenue too early or too late can significantly impact financial statements.

Licensing agreements

In SaaS or intellectual property licensing, the timing and amount of revenue recognition can depend on various factors, such as exclusivity, duration, and any performance obligations tied to the license.

Franchise sales

Revenue from franchise fees may be recognized upfront or over the life of the agreement, depending on whether ongoing services are being provided and how integral they are to the franchisee’s operations.

Consignment sales

In consignment, goods are placed with a third party to sell, but the consignor retains ownership until the sale occurs. Revenue is only recognized when the third party makes a sale, not when the goods are consigned.

Bill-and-hold arrangements

In bill-and-hold arrangements, a customer is billed for a product, but the seller retains physical possession until a later date. Strict criteria must be met for revenue to be recognized under this arrangement.

Revenue Recognition Challenges

It’s quite clear already that revenue recognition has relatively complex reporting and disclosure requirements that must be completed with a great deal of careful consideration. Understandably, this means there can be challenges. Knowing what to look for will be a tremendous help in minimizing errors.

Changing customer contracts

In contracts that are subject to modifications, such as the addition or removal of services or renegotiated prices, it becomes challenging to determine how these changes impact revenue recognition. There are two ways to recognize revenue around this:

  1. Cumulative Effect: If the modification is accounted for as if it were part of the original contract, there might be a cumulative effect that needs to be recognized immediately.
  2. Separate Contract: If the modification results in separate goods or services, it is considered a separate contract, and revenue is recognized independently of the original agreement.

Bundled goods and services

Many contracts involve the sale of multiple goods and services in a bundled package, sometimes at a discounted rate compared to buying them separately. In this case, businesses need to go back to the five-step revenue recognition process. Specifically, steps two and four:

  • Identify the performance obligations (step 1) – Identify the separate performance obligations within the bundle.
  • Transaction price allocation (step 4) – Once identified, the transaction price needs to be allocated to each performance obligation, usually based on its standalone selling price.

Variable considerations and constraints

Contracts often include terms that can vary the final transaction price, such as discounts, rebates, bonuses, or penalties. This is known as variable consideration. If this applies, companies must first estimate the amount of variable consideration to which they expect to be entitled. If it is highly probable that recognizing this estimated amount could result in a significant reversal in the future, then that amount is constrained and only included in the transaction price when it’s virtually certain not to be reversed.

Effects of Incorrect Revenue Recognition

The core principle of revenue recognition is to create a standard across financial and income statements accounting for industry-specific requirements and different business models. Incorrect revenue recognition throws off this standard and has far-reaching consequences both internally and externally.

Internal implications

Internally, incorrect revenue recognition impacts the accuracy of the financial statements and performance metrics. Inaccurate revenue recognition leads to financial statements that do not truly reflect the company’s financial position, impacting key ratios and metrics such as earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) and earnings per share (EPS). Incorrect timing of revenue recognition can also distort cash flow statements, affecting liquidity ratios and potentially raising concerns about the company’s solvency. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) will also be impacted in the cases above.

Legal and regulatory implications

In extreme cases, incorrect revenue recognition, especially if intentional, can lead to fraud charges and legal repercussions. But more likely, errors will cause audit complications, making them more time-consuming and costly, potentially necessitating a restatement of the company’s financials. And for companies subject to regulations like GAAP or IFRS, there may be penalties or sanctions for incorrect revenue recognition.

Investor trust and company valuation implications

Investors don’t take incorrect financial statements lightly. Errors in recognized revenue can create mistrust among investors, leading to stock price volatility for public companies. It may also affect a lender’s willingness to extend credit or renegotiate loan terms, which can hinder the company’s operational capabilities.

Strategies to Eliminate Revenue Recognition Errors

1. Introduce internal controls – Strengthening internal controls helps to detect errors or irregularities in revenue recognition.

2. Train and educate staff – Training accounting and finance staff will increase their awareness of the complexities of revenue recognition to minimize the risk of errors. Incentives could also be introduced to encourage extra attention paid to these reports.

3. Use technology – Some advanced accounting or billing software, like Stax Bill, specializes in revenue recognition, helping automate complex calculations to reduce human error.

4. Regularly audit and review – Regular audits and reviews ensure that businesses keep up with the new revenue recognition standards and take the best new guidance from internal and external auditors.

International Standards and Differences

The International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) and Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) serve as the primary accounting frameworks used internationally and in the United States, respectively. While both aim to provide transparency and comparability in the reporting of financial information, there are key differences in the approach, structure, and application of these standards.

IFRS vs. GAAP: Conceptual framework

1. IFRS: Generally more principles-based, IFRS often provides broad guidance and relies on the professional judgment of accountants for its application.

2. GAAP: Typically more rules-based, GAAP provides detailed prescriptions and conditions for various accounting scenarios, often leading to more complexity.

IFRS vs. GAAP: Revenue recognition

1. IFRS: IFRS 15 establishes a five-step model for recognizing revenue, emphasizing the transfer of control and focusing on performance obligations.

2. GAAP: Topic 606 under GAAP is substantially similar to IFRS 15, resulting from a convergence project. However, GAAP may have more industry-specific guidelines.

IFRS vs. GAAP: Presentation of financial statements

1. IFRS: Typically requires a statement of financial position, a statement of comprehensive income, and a statement of changes in equity, among others.

2. GAAP: Requires a balance sheet, income statement, statement of comprehensive income, statement of stockholders’ equity, and statement of cash flows.

Convergence with FASB’s ASC 606

It’s worth noting that IFRS 15 and FASB’s ASC 606 were part of a convergence project between IASB and FASB to harmonize revenue recognition criteria globally. Although not identical, the two standards are substantially similar, aiming to achieve the same core principle of recognizing revenue as value is transferred to the customer.

Just as GAAP has the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s (FASB) Accounting Standards Codification improving its standards, IFRS has the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) as its independent accounting standard-setting body.


Accurate revenue recognition is vital for presenting a true and fair view of a company’s financial position and performance. It directly impacts key financial metrics, influences managerial decision-making, and affects stakeholder confidence. Compliance with revenue recognition standards ensures the integrity and comparability of financial statements, which in turn affects a company’s ability to secure financing, manage risks, and uphold its reputation in the marketplace.

The landscape of revenue recognition is not static; it evolves in response to changes in business practices, economic conditions, and regulatory frameworks. Companies must remain up-to-date with the latest accounting standards and interpretations to navigate complex transactions effectively. Falling behind can expose a company to financial penalties, legal risks, and a loss of stakeholder trust, making continuous compliance not merely an accounting requirement but a strategic imperative.

Thankfully, compliance for subscription businesses is made easy with tools like Stax Bill that handle automated subscription and payment services, including ASC 606-compliant recurring revenue recognition. Stax Bill can help you work more efficiently, recover more revenue, and collect on more invoices. Schedule a demo today.

FAQs about Revenue Recognition

Q: What is the objective of revenue recognition?

The objective of revenue recognition is to accurately record when revenue is earned and realizable, ensuring that a company’s financial statements reflect its true financial performance. This principle provides a consistent and systematic approach to recognizing revenue, aligning it with the delivery of goods or services.

Q: How does revenue recognition affect a company’s profit?

Revenue recognition directly impacts a company’s reported profit. By determining when revenue is recognized, it influences the timing of reported income and expenses. This affects the profit reported in the financial statements for a specific period, ensuring that revenue is matched with the costs incurred to generate it.

Q: Why are there so many different revenue recognition methods?

Different revenue recognition methods exist because businesses operate in varied industries and circumstances, each requiring a unique approach to revenue recognition. These methods cater to the diversity in sales processes, types of transactions, and industry-specific practices, allowing for accurate and fair representation of financial performance.

Q: How does revenue recognition relate to cash flow?

Revenue recognition is part of accrual accounting and may not align with cash flow. It records revenue when earned, regardless of when cash is received. This can result in a discrepancy between the revenue reported and the actual cash flow, as payments may be received at different times.

Q: What happens if a company doesn’t follow the right revenue recognition methods?

If a company doesn’t adhere to the correct revenue recognition methods, it can lead to inaccurate financial reporting, misstating the company’s financial health. This can mislead investors, creditors, and other stakeholders, potentially leading to legal and regulatory consequences. It may also result in poor decision-making based on incorrect financial information.

Written by:

Serge Frigon
Serge Frigon
Director of Product, Stax Bill

Serge Frigon is Stax Bill’s Director of Product. He is passionate about improving billing processes for SaaS companies. With 20+ years in SaaS and billing software systems, Serge has a first-hand view of how important financial insights can be to the health of a company.