What is a Chart of Accounts? A How-To with Examples


Nick Zaryzcki


Reviewed by


April 24, 2024

This article is Tax Professional approved


Every time you record a business transaction—a new bank loan, an invoice from one of your clients, a laptop for the office—you have to record it in the right account. But how do you know which account to record it in? The chart of accounts will tell you. Below, we’ll go over what the accounting chart of accounts is, what it looks like, and why it’s so important for your business.

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What is the chart of accounts?

A chart of accounts, or COA, is a list of all your company’s accounts, together in one place, that is a part of your business's general ledger. It provides you with a birds eye view of every area of your business that spends or makes money. The main account types include Revenue, Expenses, Assets, Liabilities, and Equity.

An easy way to explain this is to translate it into personal finance terms. When you log into your bank, typically you'll get a dashboard that lists the different accounts you have—checking, savings, a credit card—and the balances in each. It's a representation of your money and where it "lives."

The same is true of a business's chart of accounts. The difference is that most businesses will have many more types of accounts than your average individual, and so it will look more complex; however, the function and the concept are the same. Essentially, the chart of accounts should give anyone who is looking at it a rough idea of the nature of your business by listing all the accounts involved in your company’s day-to-day operations.

Chart of accounts sample

Here’s a sample COA for a fictional business: Doris Orthodontics.

Chart of Accounts

As you can see on the right, there are different financial statements that each account corresponds to: the balance sheet and the income statement. Here’s what that means.

The balance sheet accounts

We call these the “balance sheet” accounts because we need them to create a balance sheet for your business. The balance sheet is one of the most commonly used financial statements. There are three kinds of balance sheet accounts:

Asset accounts record any resources your company owns that provide value to your company. They can be physical assets like land, equipment and cash, or intangible things like patents, trademarks and software.

Liability accounts are a record of all the debts your company owes. Liability accounts usually have the word “payable” in their name—accounts payable, wages payable, invoices payable. “Unearned revenues” are another kind of liability account—usually cash payments that your company has received before services are delivered.

Equity accounts are a little more abstract. They represent what’s left of the business after you subtract all your company’s liabilities from its assets. They basically measure how valuable the company is to its owner or shareholders.

The income statement accounts

We use the income statement accounts to generate another important financial statement: the income statement.

Revenue accounts keep track of any income your business brings in from the sale of goods, services or rent.

Expense accounts are all of the money and resources you spend in the process of generating revenues, i.e. utilities, wages and rent.

The way that the balance sheet and income statement accounts interact with each other is complex, but one general rule to remember is this: revenues increase your company’s equity and asset accounts, while expenses decrease your assets and equity. (If you'd like more on these terms, this accounting dictionary can help.)

A note on reference numbers

You’ll notice that each account in the chart of accounts for Doris Orthodontics also has a five-digit reference number preceding it. The first digit in the account number refers to which of the five major account categories an individual account belongs to—“1” for asset accounts, “2” for liability accounts, “3” for equity accounts, etc.

Back when we did everything on paper, or if you're using a system like Excel for your bookkeeping and accounting, you used to have to pick and organize these numbers yourself. But because most accounting software these days will generate these for you automatically, you don’t have to worry about selecting reference numbers.

Why is the chart of accounts important?

Without a chart of accounts, it's impossible to know where your business's money is. The chart of accounts is like a map of your business and its various financial parts.

A well-designed chart of accounts should separate out all the company’s most important accounts, and make it easy to figure out which transactions get recorded in which account.

It should let you make better decisions, give you an accurate snapshot of your company’s financial health, help you create accurate financial statements, and make it easier to follow financial reporting standards.

How to adjust your chart of accounts

The rules for making tweaks to your chart of accounts are simple: feel free to add accounts at any time of the year, but wait until the end of the year to delete old accounts. If you delete an account in the middle of the year, it might mess up your books.

Let’s say that in the middle of the year Doris realizes her orthodontics business is spending a lot more money on plaster, because her new hire keeps getting the water to powder ratio wrong when mixing it.

Instead of recording it in the “Lab Supplies” expenses account, Doris might decide to create a new account for the plaster.

To do this, she would first add the new account—“Plaster”—to the chart of accounts.

She would then make an adjusting entry to move all of the plaster expenses she already had recorded in the “Lab Supplies” expenses account into the new “Plaster” expenses account.

If she had already spent $2,000 on plaster up to that point, the adjusting entry would look like this:

Account Debit Credit
Plaster $2,000
Lab Supplies $2,000

Note: Moving expenses for plaster from the Lab Supplies expenses account to the Plaster expenses account.

A chart of accounts is a critical tool for tracking your business's funds, especially as your company grows.

Futher reading: Debits and Credits: A Simple, Visual Guide

This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult his or her own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post. Bench assumes no liability for actions taken in reliance upon the information contained herein.
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