Actuals in Accounting: Definition, How It Works and Examples? (2023)

It should surprise no one that “actuals” are what really matters in business.They are the numbers reported in financial statements, tax returns and compliance documents.But when managers talk about actuals, they’re usually referring to the role they playin business analyses. Businesses need to plan, so they produce budgets and forecasts againstwhich actual results are later compared and analyzed, improving managers’ ability tounderstand what is going wrong or right with the business. Further, to paint the mostaccurate possible financial picture of the business at any point in time, accountants cannotalways wait for expected transactions to occur before recording the activity they represent.So, accountants make estimates, accruals and deferrals that must later be“trued-up” with actual results.

For all these reasons, recognizing actual revenue and costs is an essential part ofaccounting for any business. Using actuals to measure the accuracy of budgets, reviseforecasts and bring expectations into line with current operational or market realities canhelp a company analyze and adjust targets for sales, production or other parts of thebusiness. Accounting and financial planning departments use actuals to refine estimates ofbusiness costs. Variances revealed when actuals are compared to prior estimates are used topredict a business’s profitability and performance. And reconciling actual revenue andcosts against what had been anticipated can help businesses continuously monitor cash flows,set benchmarks and define goals.

What Are Actuals in Accounting?

The accounting definition of actuals is just that: the amount of money that was actuallyreceived from a customer or paid for something purchased by a business. For small businessesthat use cash-basis accounting, actuals are the only thing they ever record; for them,analyzing the differences between their actuals and their budgets and forecasts are the onlyuse of actuals. When contrasted with estimates, actuals depict the business’s currentfinancial position in a way that enables management to see what really happened versus whatwas expected. The larger the variance, the bigger the signal to dive in and make operationalchanges, as opposed to staying the course.

Most companies, however, use accrual-basis accounting. For them, variance analysis is just asimportant as it is for cash-basis companies, and in the same ways. But accrual-basisaccounting requires these companies to put estimates in their books at the moment revenue isearned or expenses are incurred, as placeholders for the future transaction in which thatrevenue is actually received or the expense is actually paid. When that occurs, additionalaccounting entries true-up the books, replacing the placeholders with the actuals.

Key Takeaways

  • Actuals in accounting are the real payments and revenue that are paid out or collectedby a business.
  • Companies compare actuals against forecasts and budgets to inform key decisions aboutthe efficiency, sustainability and profitability of their operations.
  • Using actuals as part of a monthly variance analysis enables stakeholders to identifyrisks to the business or to make changes in operations that help consistently refinedata inputs and improve predictions.
  • Actuals are what actually matters: They are the values reported in financial statements,tax filings and other compliance documents. So, it’s important to get them right.

Actuals in Accounting Explained

Tracking actual amounts for both revenue and expense is an essential basicaccounting task for any business. Monitoring actuals helps inform a variety ofbusiness decisions, such as sourcing, production, labor and pricing. For example, supplychain disruptions may lead to higher costs than expected for raw materials, resulting in anegative variance in product profit. To adjust for this cost, a company may decide to passthe increase on to its customers by raising prices or adjust its forecasts to reflect lowerprofitability in the future.

Companies use actuals to:

  • Adjust budgets going forward by comparing actuals against expectations.
  • Identify significant revenue or expense gaps and quickly make changes, if needed.
  • Analyze expenses and revenues and revise estimates to improve forecasting accuracy.
  • Report to stakeholders and pay taxes.

How Do Actuals Work?

Actuals work by informing company managers about what’s really happening at thetransactional level of their business. The actuals associated with transactions — thereceipt of money from a customer or payment of a bill to a supplier — are recorded atthe time the payment is sent or the revenue is received. This impacts cash-basis andaccrual-basis companies differently. The reason is that the exchange of money forgoods and services does not always happen at the time a service is rendered or the goods areacquired. In such situations, a company using accrual accountingrequires its bookkeepers to record estimates using accruals or deferrals. These estimatesare later “reversed” when the actuals occur, using journal entries that essentially cancel theestimates, replace them with the actuals and leave only the actuals on the books.

The process of accruals, deferrals and reversals (when actuals are recorded) is necessary tothe matching and revenue recognition principles inherent in U.S. Generally AcceptedAccounting Principles (GAAP). The matching principle requires that expenses be recognized inthe same period as the revenue they help generate. The revenue recognition principlerequires that revenue be recognized when it is earned — in other words, when abusiness performs the actions that entitle it to the revenue. For example, suppose anaccrual-basis company earns $1,000 in revenue from a customer in March and, therefore,recognizes it as first-quarter revenue. But the customer pays the $1,000 invoice in April.When the company records the actual April payment to its cash account, it also makes acorresponding negative entry of $1,000 against its accountsreceivable account. Thus, the net effect on the company’s books in April iszero ($1,000 – $1,000), leaving only the $1,000 in revenue originally recognized inMarch, the month in which it was earned.

It’s important to know that variances in anticipated costs or sales amounts can and dooccur. Analyzing a comparison of accruals and actuals can help a business understand itscash inflows and outflows and identify how the business is performing, compared to its plan,at any given point in time. For example, a portion of a parts order may no longer beavailable, making the supplier’s invoice lower than expected, or a customer emergencymay mean a technician’s travel expense becomes higher than planned. In these cases,the variances would be analyzed to determine how business and strategic decisions could beimpacted going forward. Capturingproject actuals accurately, and in a timely manner, is essential, and doing a deepdive into circumstances can inform future plans.

Actuals vs. Budget

A comparison of actual costs to a company’s budget is called variance analysis.Accounting and financial planning and analysis (FP&A) departments use actuals duringtheir variance analyses to continuously evaluate the performance of the business andinterpret the company’s results. Comparing actual revenue and expenses to the originalplan or project proposal can reveal shifts in sales or production; management can thendetermine whether course correction is needed. It can also be a heads-up that a business ison the verge of overspending. These types of analyses may be referred to as “Budget vs. Actual” or “Forecast vs.Actual” analyses.

Actuals are also useful as part of a rolling forecast. For example, a 12-month forecast mightbe prepared at the beginning of the calendar year. As each month’s expenses andrevenue actually happen, the forecast for that month is replaced by the actuals. Managementmay decide to review the full-year forecast at the end of March, evaluating the three monthsof actuals vis-à-vis the original forecast for those months, along with the plans forthe nine months left in the forecast. If the actuals are trending above or below theforecast, managers may decide to make corresponding operational changes or choose to staythe course. Companies use actuals reports to constantly monitor current conditions andrevise forecasts that were based on historical and other data, and they use varianceanalyses as the place to start a conversation about what is going right or wrong with thebusiness. Variance analyses can also help identify inadvertent mistakes or uncover potentialfraud andirregularities in financials or operations.

How to Read a Budget vs. Actuals Report

Reading a budget vs. actuals report is an essential skill for decision-makers trying toevaluate the position of their business against their original plans. Ideally run monthly,this variance analysis typically adheres to a standard set of inputs, which track actuals;the analysis then calculates the variance between the actuals and the budget in terms ofdollars and percentages, helping senior managers easily detect emerging positive or negativetrends. Budget vs. actual reports commonly start on the left with columns for actual andbudgeted amounts, then show the difference between the two, as represented in dollar valueand percent of budget.

In the simplified fictional report shown below, sales for ABC Company were expected to bringin $4,000 for its new product and require $3,500 in expenses. Actual sales of $5,000 wererecorded, along with higher expenses of $4,200. The budget vs. actual report reflects boththe $1,000 by which sales exceeded the budgeted amount and the $700 increase in expenses.Because the increase in sales value was greater than the positive variance in expenses,profit rose, too.

ABC Co. Budget vs. Actuals Report

ActualBudget$+/-% +/-

It is typical to reflect positive variances without parentheses and negative variances eitherwith a minus before the number or in parentheses. It’s important to understand thatnot all positive variances are favorable for a business, just as all negative variancesaren’t necessarily unfavorable. Context is always important, because a positivevariance may be caused by an unfavorable business situation and vice versa. For example, thepositive variance in the expense line for ABC Company, compared to its budgeted expenses,might be considered unfavorable at first — until the analyst learns it is actually dueto increased sales and results in higher profits. FP&A professionals use the budget vs.actuals report to dig deeper into the factors that might have caused the variances, and theycommunicate their findings with senior management so that action can be taken, if needed.

Actuals vs. Accruals

While actuals can be described as the money received for sales or the cash paid for expenses,accruals are a bookkeeping placeholder to recognize revenue earned or expenses incurred inthe correct fiscal period, regardless of when the cash payments are made. Expense accrualsgenerally occur when services are rendered but not yet paid for, or when supplies arepurchased on credit.

For example, a business may receive office supplies in January but not pay the bill until theinvoice arrives the following month. Under accrual-basis accounting, the expense is recordedas occurring in January, even though the payment will not be made until February. Similarly,a business may record sales orders fulfilled in March but purchased on credit, so theywon’t be billed for and collected until May. Replacing accruals with actuals in themonth the monies are actually received requires a reversal of journal entries.

Accrual-basisaccounting is the only method of accounting that is GAAP-compliant, and it is anecessity for public companies and those that seek bank loans. It’s more complicatedand labor-intensive than cash-basis accounting, potentially increasing the risk of mistakes.Creating accuratefinancial reports, preferably through an automated process, will improve the overallquality of a business’s accounting data, improve efficiency and, if something looksamiss, highlight issues more quickly.

Comparing Accruals vs. Actuals

AccrualsAn "accrual" is a record of a business's revenue made when it is earned(regardless of when the customer pays), or a record of an expense madewhen it is committed (regardless of when the expense is paid).A website records revenue earned as accounts receivable when banneradvertisements are displayed to site visitors. A computer manufacturerrecords expenses incurred when it accepts delivery of microchips from asupplier.
ActualsAn "actual" is a record of a business's revenue made when the cash isreceived from the customer, or a record of an expense made when the cashis paid to the supplier.A website records an increase in cash when an advertising customer paysits bill and reverses a prior accounts receivable accrual. A computermanufacturer debits its cash account when sending payment for previouslyreceived microchips and reverses a prior expense accrual.

Actuals Examples

Actuals are the real expenses incurred or revenues received in the operation of a business.Unlike estimates, actuals provide a true picture of costs and income.

Here’s an example. A clothing company may estimate that replacing a large stitchingmachine will cost $2,200, but the actual cost ends up being $3,400 due to unanticipatedspecial wiring that was required. The business could not have estimated the actual costuntil the expenses were incurred during the installation, and it will now see a negative, orunfavorable, variance when compared to the budgeted expenses for that period.

On the revenue side, an auto parts store may estimate selling 20,000 snow scrapers in March,based on last year’s figures. However, several late season storms result in the saleof 40,000 units. The business will see a positive, or favorable, variance from theforecasted revenue for that month.

In both examples, the tracking of actuals to budget will prompt questions about what causedthe variances. Minor variances are to be expected, but a major difference should be lookedat more closely by business leaders. Once the cause of the sales or spending variance isdetermined, forecasts can be modified and/or corrective actions taken to reduce the size ofthe gap in the future.

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Tracking actual expenses and revenue is a critical accounting practice that helps companiesgrasp the true impact of running their business. When matched against forecasted budgets,actuals help business leaders gain the data they need to make informed decisions about theirbusiness’s performance, while providing cash flow visibility. Analyzing thedifferences between budgeted and actual expenses and revenue allows stakeholders to makeinformed decisions about when to revise forecasts, how to improve efficiency and predictprofitability and, if needed, find ways to resolve problematic issues swiftly.

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Actuals in Accounting: Definition, How It Works and Examples? (1)

Actuals in Accounting FAQs

What types of variances can you analyze in a budget vs. actualreport?

Variances between budgeted and actual revenue/expenses are quickly identifiable in a budgetvs. actual report. At the highest level, managers should be examining variances in revenueand spending as compared to budget estimates. Key components of a business, such as revenuetrends, materials costs, labor or an unexpected or one-time purchase, could all causevariances that might require operational adjustments or a revised forecast. In a largersense, any line item in a business budget can be analyzed in a budget vs. actual report.

What is actualization in finance?

Actualization is the method of overwriting closed accounting periods or revising forecastswith actual asset, liability, equity, revenues and expenses. Variances provide insights intobusiness operations when directly compared to budgets or forecasts.

What are monthly actuals?

Monthly actuals are the realized expenses or revenues for a given month. As part of avariance analysis, monthly actuals highlight the difference between a benchmark, such as abudget or forecast, and actual spending or receipts. Monthly reviews can pinpoint actionablefinancial issues before they turn into larger problems.

What does actual mean in economics?

In economics, “actual” means current levels of output, compared to estimated orpotential output of a given economy. Similar to variance analysis in accounting, economistslook at the difference between potential output and actual output to see how resources arebeing utilized and whether an economy is operating at its full potential. The difference iscalled an output gap.

What are actuals in data?

Actuals in data are the inputs that reflect the real expenditures or revenues a companyrealized. Actuals are the transaction data used to compare against estimates as part of abudget or forecasting process. Having strong, historical financial data improves theaccuracy of future budgets.

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