What is a contra account?

Definition of Contra Account

A contra account is a general ledger account with a balance that is opposite of the normal balance for that account classification. The use of a contra account allows a company to report the original amount and also report a reduction so that the net amount will also be reported. The net amount is often referred to as the carrying amount or perhaps the net realizable amount.

Examples of Contra Accounts

To illustrate, let's use the contra asset account Allowance for Doubtful Accounts. Since it is a contra asset account, this allowance account must have a credit balance (which is contrary to the debit balances found in asset accounts). The Allowance for Doubtful Accounts is directly related to the asset account entitled Accounts Receivable. Therefore, if the Accounts Receivable has a debit balance of $40,000 and the allowance account has a credit balance of $2,000, the readers of the balance sheet will see that customers owe $40,000 for past purchases but the company does not expect to collect $2,000 of the $40,000. Therefore, the net amount of the accounts receivable that is expected to turn to cash is $38,000.

A second example of a contra asset account is Accumulated Depreciation. For instance, if a company has a plant asset such as Equipment with a debit balance of $92,000 and the account Accumulated Depreciation has a credit balance of $50,000, the carrying amount (or book value) of the equipment is $42,000.

The income statement account Sales Returns and Allowances is a contra revenue account that is associated with the revenue account Sales. If the balance in this contra account is a debit of $3,000 and the Sales account has the expected credit balance of $400,000, the company's net sales are $397,000. This use of Sales Returns and Allowances (instead of debiting Sales) enables management to see that its customers had a problem with $3,000 of the company's goods.

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