Introduction to Income Statement

The income statement is one of the major financial statements used by accountants and business owners. (The other major financial statements are the balance sheet, statement of cash flows, and the statement of stockholders' equity.) The income statement is sometimes referred to as the profit and loss statement (P&L), statement of operations, or statement of income. We will use income statement and profit and loss statement throughout this explanation.

The income statement is important because it shows the profitability of a company during the time interval specified in its heading. The period of time that the statement covers is chosen by the business and will vary. For example, the heading may state:

"For the Three Months Ended December 31, 2012" (The period of October 1 through December 31, 2012.)

"The Four Weeks Ended December 27, 2012" (The period of November 29 through December 27, 2012.)

"The Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 2013" (The period of July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013.)

Keep in mind that the income statement shows revenues, expenses, gains, and losses; it does not show cash receipts (money you receive) nor cash disbursements (money you pay out).

People pay attention to the profitability of a company for many reasons. For example, if a company was not able to operate profitably—the bottom line of the income statement indicates a net loss—a banker/lender/creditor may be hesitant to extend additional credit to the company. On the other hand, a company that has operated profitably—the bottom line of the income statement indicates a net income—demonstrated its ability to use borrowed and invested funds in a successful manner. A company's ability to operate profitably is important to current lenders and investors, potential lenders and investors, company management, competitors, government agencies, labor unions, and others.

The format of the income statement or the profit and loss statement will vary according to the complexity of the business activities. However, most companies will have the following elements in their income statements:

A. Revenues and Gains
1. Revenues from primary activities
2. Revenues or income from secondary activities
3. Gains (e.g., gain on the sale of long-term assets, gain on lawsuits)

B. Expenses and Losses
1. Expenses involved in primary activities
2. Expenses from secondary activities
3. Losses (e.g., loss on the sale of long-term assets, loss on lawsuits)

If the net amount of revenues and gains minus expenses and losses is positive, the bottom line of the profit and loss statement is labeled as net income. If the net amount (or bottom line) is negative, there is a net loss.

A. Revenues and Gains

1. Revenues from primary activities are often referred to as operating revenues. The primary activities of a retailer are purchasing merchandise and selling the merchandise. The primary activities of a manufacturer are producing the products and selling them. For retailers, manufacturers, wholesalers, and distributors the revenues resulting from their primary activities are referred to as sales revenues or sales. The primary activities of a company that provides services involve acquiring expertise and selling that expertise to clients. For companies providing services, the revenues from their primary services are referred to as service revenues or fees earned. (Some people use the word income interchangeably with revenues.)

It's critical that you don't confuse revenues with receipts. Under the accrual basis of accounting, service revenues and sales revenues are shown at the top of the income statement in the period they are earned or delivered, not in the period when the cash is collected. Put simply, revenues occur when money is earned, receipts occur when cash is received.

For example, if a retailer gives customers 30 days to pay, revenues occur (and are reported) when the merchandise is sold to the buyer, not when the cash is received 30 days later. If merchandise is sold in December, the sale is reported on the December income statement. When the retailer receives the check in January for the December sale, the retailer has a January receipt—not January revenues.

Similarly, if a consulting company asks clients to pay within 30 days of receiving their service, revenues occur (and are reported) when the service is performed (earned), not 30 days later when the consulting company receives the cash from the client.

If an attorney requires a client to prepay $1,000 before beginning to research the client's case, the attorney has a receipt, but does not have revenues until some of the research is done.

If a company sells an item to a buyer who immediately pays for it with cash, the company has both a receipt and revenues for that day—it has a cash receipt because it received cash; it has sales revenues because it sold merchandise.

By knowing the difference between receipts and revenues, we make certain that revenues from a transaction are reported only once—when the primary activities have been completed (and not necessarily when the cash is collected).

Let's reinforce the distinction between revenues and receipts with a few more examples. (Keep in mind that all of the examples below assume the accrual basis of accounting.)

  • A company borrows $10,000 from its bank by signing a promissory note due in 90 days. The company will have a receipt of $10,000 at the time of the loan, but it does not have revenues because it did not earn the money from performing a service or from a sale of merchandise.
  • If a company provided a $1,000 service on January 31 and gave the customer until March 10 to pay for the service, the company's January income statement will show revenues of $1,000. When the money is actually received in March, the March income statement will not show revenues for this transaction. (In March the company will report a receipt of cash and a reduction/collection of an accounts receivable.)
  • A company performs a $400 service on December 31 and receives the $400 on the very same day (December 31). This company will report $400 in revenues on December 31—not because the company had a cash receipt on December 31, but because the service was performed (earned) on that day.
  • On December 10, a new client asks your consulting company to provide a $2,500 service in January. You are uncertain as to whether or not this client is credit worthy, so to be on the safe side you ask for an immediate partial payment of $1,000 before you agree to schedule the work for January. Although your consulting company has a receipt of $1,000 in December, it does not have revenues in December. (In December your company will record a liability of $1,000.) Your consulting company will report the $1,000 of revenues when it performs $1,000 of services in January.

2. Revenues from secondary activities are often referred to as nonoperating revenues. These are the amounts a business earns outside of purchasing and selling goods and services. For example, when a retail business earns interest on some of its idle cash, or earns rent from some vacant space, these revenues result from an activity outside of buying and selling merchandise. As a result the revenues are reported on the income statement separate from its primary activity of sales or service revenues.

As is true with operating revenues, nonoperating revenues are reported on the profit and loss statement during the period when they are earned, not when the cash is collected.

Here's a Tip

Don't confuse revenues with receipts—


Revenues (operating and nonoperating) occur when a sale is made or when they are earned. Revenues are frequently earned and reported on the income statement prior to receiving the cash.


Receipts occur when cash is received/collected.

3. Gains such as the gain on the sale of long-term assets, or lawsuits result from a transaction that is outside of the primary activities of most businesses. A gain is reported on the income statement as the net of two amounts: the proceeds received from the sale of a long-term asset minus the amount listed for that item on the company's books (book value). A gain occurs when the proceeds are more than the book value.

Consider this example: Assume that a clothing retailer decides to dispose of the company's car and sells it for $6,000. The $6,000 received for the car (the proceeds from the disposal of the car) will not be included with sales revenues since the account Sales is used only for the sale of merchandise. Since this retailer is not in the business of buying and selling cars, the sale of the car is outside of the retailer's primary activities. Over the years, the cost of the car was being depreciated on the company's accounting records and as a result, the money received for the car ($6,000) was greater than the net amount shown for the car on the accounting records ($3,500). This means that the company must report a gain equal to the amount of the difference—in this case, the gain is reported as $2,500. This gain should not be reported as sales revenues, nor should it be shown as part of the merchandiser's primary activities. Instead, the gain will appear in a section on the income statement labeled as "nonoperating gains" or "other income". The gain is reported in the period when the disposal occurred.