One element of accounting that could be considered a real concern is bad debt… So, what is bad debt?

It’s also known as an uncollectible accounts expense, which represents money owed to a business by a customer or client that is unlikely to be repaid.

Left unchecked, this financial strain can significantly impact a company’s profitability and cash flow. Understanding what is bad debt and how to manage it effectively is crucial for any business.

What is a bad debt?

There are two key aspects to consider when defining bad debt. The primary factor differentiating bad debt from outstanding receivables is the probability of collecting the owed amount:

  • Likelihood of collection – An outstanding receivable may simply be overdue but still collectible with additional collection efforts. However, bad debt refers to receivables where all reasonable attempts to collect the debt have proven unsuccessful or are deemed futile to pursue further.
  • Timeframe – There is no universally accepted time frame for classifying a receivable as bad debt. However, some general guidelines exist. A receivable may be considered bad debt if it remains unpaid for an extended period, typically an amount of time exceeding 90 or 120 days past due.

However, the specific timeframe may vary depending on industry norms and the company’s credit policies.

Identifying bad debt

Recognising potential bad debt is crucial for businesses extending credit to customers – there are several warning signs to watch out for.

A customer’s past behaviour is a strong indicator: a history of late payments or defaults on previous invoices suggests a higher risk of future bad debt.  

Financial difficulties on the customer’s end can also raise red flags. If a customer is experiencing severe financial hardship or faces bankruptcy, collecting the owed amount becomes increasingly challenging.

Legal disputes further complicate matters. Ongoing disagreements with a customer regarding the service or product provided can delay or prevent payment collection altogether.

By being attentive to these indicators, businesses can take proactive steps to mitigate the risk of bad debt, such as requiring upfront payment or seeking additional guarantees from high-risk customers.

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Impact of bad debt

The presence of bad debt on a company’s financial statements can trigger a domino effect of negative consequences.

First and foremost, uncollected receivables translate directly into lost revenue. Imagine money owed by customers simply vanishing – this directly impacts the company’s bottom line, potentially turning a profitable quarter into a loss.

Furthermore, bad debt creates a cash flow strain. Cash flow refers to the movement of cash in and out of a business.

When receivables remain uncollected, the inflow of cash slows down, making it difficult for the company to meet its current financial obligations, such as paying employee salaries or covering supplier invoices.

This cash crunch can disrupt daily operations and hinder the company’s ability to invest in future growth opportunities.

Finally, a high level of bad debt can raise a red flag for potential lenders and investors.  It may signal lax credit policies or inadequate collection procedures, increasing the perceived risk associated with doing business with the company.

This can negatively impact the company’s creditworthiness and make it more difficult to secure loans or attract new investments, hindering its overall financial health. Therefore, effectively managing bad debt is crucial for maintaining a company’s financial stability and ensuring its long-term success.

If you need longer to pay a debt to HMRC, here is our guide on the time to pay (TTP) arrangement.

Strategies for managing bad debt

There are several strategies businesses can employ to reduce the impact of bad debt:

  • Credit risk assessment: Implement a robust credit risk assessment process to evaluate the creditworthiness of potential customers before extending credit. This can involve reviewing financial statements, credit reports, and references.
  • Clear credit policies: Establish clear and well-defined credit policies outlining payment terms, late fees, and collection procedures. Communicate these policies clearly to all customers.
  • Effective collection procedures: Develop a systematic approach for collecting outstanding receivables. This may involve sending reminder letters, making phone calls, and pursuing legal action as a last resort. Consider offering early payment discounts to incentivise timely payments.
  • Bad debt provision: Businesses can use a bad debt provision, also known as an allowance for doubtful accounts. This accounting practice involves estimating the amount of bad debt expected and setting aside a reserve to offset potential losses.

The accounting treatment for bad debt involves a two-step process reflected in the company’s financial statements.

Accounting for bad debt

Firstly, a bad debt provision, also known as an allowance for doubtful accounts, is established on the balance sheet. This contra asset account acts as a buffer against potential losses from uncollectible receivables.

Throughout the accounting period, businesses estimate the amount of bad debt they expect to incur and credit this allowance account. The corresponding debit is typically made to an expense account, reducing the company’s net income.

This proactive approach acknowledges the inherent risk of bad debt and ensures a more accurate portrayal of the company’s financial health.  

Secondly, when a specific receivable is deemed truly uncollectible, it is written off as bad debt. This action involves debiting the bad debt expense account, further reducing net income, and crediting the allowance for doubtful accounts.

Essentially, the previously established allowance absorbs the loss associated with the written-off receivable, providing a more realistic picture of the company’s financial performance. 

Final thoughts: What is bad debt?

Companies may be eligible to claim a tax deduction for bad debt expenses, essentially recouping some of the lost revenue through reduced tax liabilities or VAT relief on bad debt from the government. Just watch out for these classic small business tax mistakes to avoid.

However, claiming a deduction isn’t always straightforward. Tax regulations can consider factors like the type of debt, the effort made to collect it, and the specific accounting method used for bad debt – conditions apply.

To manage these complexities and ensure they are compliant with the relevant laws, businesses are advised to consult with a qualified accountant. 

An experienced accountant can provide tailored guidance on maximising the tax benefits associated with bad debt deductions, helping businesses reduce the overall financial impact of uncollectible receivables.

Bad debt is a reality for businesses that extend credit to customers. But by understanding its definition, the factors contributing to it, and implementing effective management strategies, businesses can minimise its impact on their financial health.

A proactive approach to credit risk assessment, clear credit policies, and efficient collection procedures can significantly reduce bad debt and ensure the long-term financial well-being of your company.

For other useful guides, take a look at our blog. Recently we covered common accounting errors and how to avoid them.

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