At some point during the life of your business, you'll likely have to write off an invoice for a customer who never makes payment. If you maintain the business's books and records in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, there are two methods for writing off part of an accounts receivable balance to choose from. Regardless of the method you choose, however, the impact on your company's balance sheet and income statement is ultimately the same.

Allowance Method

The allowance method, which generally requires more effort and journal entries than the alternative direct write-off method, allows you to estimate the amount of your company's accounts receivable, or AR, balance that you likely will write off. This estimate sits in an “allowance for doubtful accounts” account that is classified as a contra-asset to AR. For financial statement purposes, however, you write off the estimated allowance as a bad debt expense immediately – meaning it reduces the profit reported on the income statement despite there still being a chance that some of the balance will be collected. Under the allowance method, you don't reduce the AR balance until each customer account is actually written off.

Estimating Allowance Account

Companies commonly use either credit sales or the age of AR balances as the basis for their allowance estimates. The percentage you use will depend on the specific factors that affect your business, such as financial data from prior years. For example, if $100,000 of annual revenue relates to sales made on credit, the allowance estimate will equal the percentage chosen multiplied by the $100,000. Alternatively, you may find that applying different percentages to various portions of the AR balance based on the number of days payment is late is more accurate. For example, historical financial data may indicate that 10 percent of outstanding invoices that are less than 30 days past due will ultimately be written off, while 50 percent of invoices that are more than 120 days past due are never collected.

Allowance Method Entries

Once you finalize the allowance estimate, you need a debit entry to “Bad Debts Expense” so that the revenue reported on the income statement reflects the uncollectible amount. A corresponding credit entry to the allowance account is also necessary. Whenever you have sufficient information to draw the conclusion that a specific customer is unlikely to make payment, that is when you'll reduce the AR balance. Since you're using up some of the estimate, you make a debit entry to the allowance account in the amount of the customer's invoice. You then permanently reduce accounts receivable by the same amount with a credit entry.

Direct Write-Offs

The direct write-off method is simpler than the allowance method since it only requires one journal entry and doesn't utilize estimates. Essentially, you write off AR balances one customer account at a time – when it's pretty clear that it's unlikely the customer will ever pay what is owed. Suppose a client is more than three months past due paying a $3,000 invoice and you've been unable to contact her. In this case, only the following entry is necessary: Bad Debt Expense (Dr.) $3,000, Accounts Receivable (Cr.) $3,000.