What is Unearned Revenue?

Unearned Revenue

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Unearned Revenue

Unearned revenue, also known as deferred revenue or unearned income, is a liability on a company’s balance sheet that represents funds received for goods or services that have not yet been delivered. Essentially, it’s money collected in advance of providing the service or delivering the goods. Because the company still owes the delivery of these goods or services, unearned revenue is considered a liability until it is “earned.”

How Does It Work?

Let’s say a software company sells an annual subscription to its service for $1,200, paid upfront. On the first day of the subscription, none of the service has been provided yet. Therefore, the entire $1,200 would be considered unearned revenue.

As the service is provided over time—usually recognized on a monthly basis—the company will reduce the unearned revenue and recognize it as earned revenue. In our example, $100 of revenue would be “earned” each month.

Accounting Treatment

When the initial payment is received:

  • Debit (increase) Cash (an asset account) by $1,200
  • Credit (increase) Unearned Revenue (a liability account) by $1,200

As the revenue is earned:

  • Debit (decrease) Unearned Revenue by $100 each month
  • Credit (increase) Revenue (an income statement account) by $100 each month

Why Is It Important?

  • Revenue Recognition Principle: According to the accrual basis of accounting, revenue must be recognized when it is earned, not necessarily when cash is received. Unearned revenue helps businesses adhere to this principle.
  • Liquidity: While the upfront payment boosts cash flow, the company has an obligation to deliver the promised goods or services, making it a liability.
  • Financial Analysis: Investors and analysts look at unearned revenue to get an idea of a company’s future earnings and obligations. A rising unearned revenue could mean growing sales but also increasing obligations.
  • Cash Management: High levels of unearned revenue can also help companies with their cash management, allowing them to invest in resources needed to fulfill future obligations.
  • Tax Implications: Typically, unearned revenue is not subject to income tax until it is recognized as earned revenue, although tax treatment can vary by jurisdiction.

Understanding unearned revenue is critical for accurate financial reporting and for the analysis of a company’s financial health and liquidity.

Example of Unearned Revenue

Let’s consider a hypothetical example involving a fitness center called “HealthyLife Gym” to illustrate the concept of unearned revenue.


  • HealthyLife Gym offers a one-year membership for $1,200.
  • A customer, Jane, decides to join and pays the full $1,200 upfront.

Accounting at Time of Payment:

  • When Jane’s payment is initially received, the entire $1,200 is considered unearned revenue because HealthyLife Gym has not yet provided any services.
  • On the balance sheet, HealthyLife Gym would make the following entries:
    • Debit Cash (Asset) $1,200
    • Credit Unearned Revenue (Liability) $1,200

Monthly Accounting:

  • Each month, HealthyLife Gym “earns” a portion of the membership fee as it provides services to Jane. The monthly earned revenue would be $1,200 / 12 = $100 per month.
  • At the end of each month, HealthyLife Gym would make the following accounting entries to recognize the earned revenue:
  • Debit Unearned Revenue (Liability) $100
  • Credit Revenue (Income Statement) $100

Balance Sheet and Income Statement Over Time:

At the start:

  • Cash on Balance Sheet: Increased by $1,200
  • Unearned Revenue on Balance Sheet: $1,200
  • Revenue on Income Statement: $0

After one month:

  • Unearned Revenue on Balance Sheet: $1,100 ($1,200 – $100)
  • Revenue on Income Statement for that month: $100

After six months:

  • Unearned Revenue on Balance Sheet: $600 ($1,200 – $600)
  • Revenue on Income Statement for those six months: $600

After twelve months:

  • Unearned Revenue on Balance Sheet: $0 (all has been earned)
  • Revenue on Income Statement for the year: $1,200


  • Liquidity: The upfront payment of $1,200 improves HealthyLife Gym’s cash position but also imposes an obligation to provide gym services for a year.
  • Revenue Recognition: The earned revenue gradually accumulates over the year, affecting the gym’s reported revenue each month.
  • Financial Analysis: A high level of unearned revenue could be a positive indicator of future earnings, but it also signals a commitment to provide services, which incurs costs.
  • Tax Implications: In many jurisdictions, HealthyLife Gym would not have to pay taxes on the unearned revenue until it is recognized as earned revenue.

Understanding unearned revenue helps HealthyLife Gym accurately report its financial position and manage its cash flows and resources to meet future obligations.

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