Depreciation is a term we hear about frequently, but don't really understand. However, it's an essential component of accounting. Depreciation is an expense that's recorded at the same time and in the same period as other accounts.
Long-term operating assets that are not held for sale in the course of business are called fixed assets. Fixed assets include buildings, machinery, office equipment, vehicles, computers and other equipment. It can also include items such as shelves and cabinets. Depreciation refers to spreading out the cost of a fixed asset over the years of its useful life to a business, instead of charging the entire cost to expense in the year the asset was purchased. That way, each year that the equipment or asset is used bears a share of the total cost. As an example, cars and trucks are typically depreciated over five years. The idea is to charge a fraction of the total cost to depreciation expense during each of the five years, rather than just the first year.
Depreciation applies only to fixed assets that you actually buy, not those you rent or lease. Depreciation is a real expense, but not necessarily a cash outlay expense in the year it's recorded. The cash outlay does actually occur when the fixed asset is acquired, but is recorded over a period of time.
Depreciation is different from other expenses. It is deducted from sales revenue to determine profit, but the depreciation expense recorded in a reporting period doesn't require any true cash outlay during that period. Depreciation expense is that portion of the total cost of a business's fixed assets that is allocated to the period to record the cost of using the assets during period. The higher the total cost of a business's fixed assets, then the higher its depreciation expense.
When an accountant measures profit on the accrual basis of accounting, he or she counts depreciation as an expense. Buildings, machinery, tools, vehicles and furniture all have a limited useful life. All fixed assets, except for actual land, have a limited lifetime of usefulness to a business. Depreciation is the method of accounting that allocates the total cost of fixed assets to each year of their use in helping the business generate revenue.
Part of the total sales revenue of a business includes recover of cost invested in its fixed assets. In a real sense a business sells some of its fixed assets in the sales prices that it charges it customers. For example, when you go to a grocery store, a small portion of the price you pay for eggs or bread goes toward the cost of the buildings, the machinery, bread ovens, etc. Each reporting period, a business recoups part of the cost invested in its fixed assets.
It's not enough for the accountant to add back depreciation for the year to bottom-line profit. The changes in other assets, as well as the changes in liabilities, also affect cash flow from profit. The competent accountant will factor in all the changes that determine cash flow from profit. Depreciation is only one of many adjustments to the net income of a business to determine cash flow from operating activities. Amortization of intangible assets is another expense that is recorded against a business's assets for year. It's different in that it doesn't require cash outlay in the year being charged with the expense. That occurred when the business invested in those tangible assets.
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