Deferred Revenue: A Hidden Liability in Accounting Explained


Customers who prepay for goods or services but have not yet received them are generating deferred income. It is recorded as a liability on a company’s balance sheet until the products or services are delivered, at which point it is recognized as earned revenue on the income statement. The practice of using deferred revenue aligns with accounting principles and promotes financial conservatism. If a company fails to deliver as planned, it may be required to reimburse the money to the customer.

Definition of deferred revenue in accounting

Deferred revenue, in accounting, refers to a liability recorded on a company’s balance sheet that represents the receipt of advance payment from customers for services or products that haven’t yet been rendered. It arises when a company receives payment before fulfilling its obligations to provide the corresponding products or services.

The amount received is initially recorded as a liability, indicating the company’s obligation to fulfill the customer’s order. As the goods or services are provided, the deferred revenue is gradually recognized as earned revenue on the company’s income statement. It is an important concept in accounting, as it ensures proper recognition and matching of revenues with the related expenses or efforts required to fulfill customer orders.

Understanding deferred revenue

If you have a buddy who likes to make cookies. One day, someone really wants your friend to make cookies for them. They’re so excited that they give your friend money in advance, even before the cookies are ready.

Now, your friend has received the money, but they haven’t made the cookies yet. Since they haven’t delivered the cookies, they can’t count that money as their own just yet. Instead, they have to keep track of it as something called deferred revenue.

Deferred revenue means that your friend has an obligation to deliver the cookies to the person who paid in advance. It’s like a special type of debt or IOU that your friend owes to the customer. As your friend bakes the cookies and delivers them, they can start counting the money they received as their own earnings.

At that point, the deferred revenue becomes regular revenue because your friend has fulfilled their promise and given the customer what they paid for. But what if something happens, and your friend can’t make the cookies or deliver them as planned?

In that case, your friend would have to give the money back to the customer because they couldn’t keep their end of the deal. So, deferred revenue is a way to keep track of money that a company has received in advance for something they haven’t delivered yet.

It’s like a promise to the customer that the company will provide what they paid for, and once they do, the money becomes the company’s income.

Why deferred revenue is a liability

Deferred revenue is considered a liability because it represents an obligation or a debt that the company owes to its customers. Payment in advance for products or services that have not yet been delivered creates a legal obligation for the corporation to deliver those items or render those services.

From an accounting perspective, liabilities are obligations that a company owes to external parties. In the case of deferred revenue, the company has received payment but has not yet delivered the corresponding products or services.

Therefore, the company is liable to provide the goods or services to the customers in the future. The advance payment will be considered a liability on the company’s balance sheet until the company has fulfilled its promise and delivered the goods or services.

It’s the money the business owes its clients until it delivers the promised goods or services. The liability is lowered and the revenue is recorded in the income statement once the goods or services have been provided.

Since deferred revenue indicates an obligation or debt due to customers by the corporation until the delivery of products or services, it is classified as a liability.

Example of Deferred Revenue

Let’s imagine a company called XYZ Fitness Center. They offer annual gym memberships to their customers. When a customer decides to sign up for a membership, they typically pay for the entire year upfront.

In this scenario, XYZ Fitness Center receives the payment from the customer, but they haven’t provided the full year’s worth of gym services yet.

The payment they received is considered deferred revenue because the company still owes the customer the gym services for the remaining months of the membership.

Here’s an example to illustrate it further:

Let’s say a customer named Sarah decides to join XYZ Fitness Center on January 1st. The annual membership fee is $600, and she pays the full amount upfront.

At the time of payment, XYZ Fitness Center would record the $600 as deferred revenue on their balance sheet because they still need to provide gym services to Sarah for the remaining 11 months of the year.

As the months go by, XYZ Fitness Center starts providing gym services to Sarah each month. At the end of each month, they recognize a portion of the deferred revenue as earned revenue.

For instance, at the end of January, XYZ Fitness Center would recognize $50 ($600 divided by 12 months) as earned revenue on their income statement. This means that they have fulfilled their obligation for one month of gym services.

They continue recognizing $50 of earned revenue each subsequent month until the end of the annual membership period.

By the end of December, all $600 of deferred revenue will have been recognized as earned revenue, as XYZ Fitness Center has fulfilled their obligation and provided a full year of gym services to Sarah.

So, in this example, the deferred revenue for XYZ Fitness Center represents the advance payment they received from Sarah for her annual membership before providing the full year’s worth of gym services.

Examples of companies that practice deferred revenue

Several companies across various industries practice deferred revenue. Here are a few examples:

  • Software companies: Companies that provide software licenses often utilize deferred revenue. When customers purchase software licenses upfront, the revenue is recognized gradually over the license’s duration. Examples include Microsoft, Adobe, and Salesforce.
  • Subscription-based services: Companies offering subscription-based services, such as streaming platforms like Netflix and Spotify, typically recognize revenue over the subscription period. Customers pay in advance for access to content or services that will be provided over time.
  • Airlines: Airlines often sell flight tickets in advance, and until the flights are taken, the revenue is considered deferred. As passengers complete their journeys, the airline recognizes the revenue from the tickets.
  • Construction and real estate:Construction companies and real estate developers may receive down payments or prepayments from customers before the completion of a project. The revenue from these projects is recognized progressively as the work is completed or the property is delivered.
  • Telecom companies:Telecom companies offering long-term contracts for services like mobile phone plans or internet services may practice deferred revenue. The revenue is recognized over the contract period as the services are provided to customers.



Deferred revenue plays a crucial role in accounting as it represents a liability for a company. It arises when a company receives advance payments from customers for goods or services that are yet to be delivered. By recording the advance payment as a liability, the company acknowledges its obligation to fulfill the customer’s order in the future.

This accounting practice ensures that revenue is properly recognized and matched with the corresponding expenses or efforts required to fulfill customer orders. As the goods or services are provided, the deferred revenue gradually transforms into earned revenue, which is then recognized on the company’s income statement. The classification of deferred revenue as a liability underscores the company’s responsibility to deliver on its promises and highlights the importance of financial transparency and accountability in accounting practices.


Key takeaways

  • On a company’s balance sheet, deferred revenue is a liability that signifies the advance payment made by customers for goods or services that are yet to be provided.
  • As the goods or services are delivered to the customers, deferred revenue is acknowledged as earned revenue on the income statement.
  • The deferred revenue account follows conservative GAAP principles.
  • In the event that the goods or services are not delivered according to the original plan, the company may be required to reimburse the money to its customer.
View Article Sources
  1. Deferred revenues and the matching of revenues and expenses – Rutger university
  2. Accounting for accruals and deferrals -UIL university
  3. Deferred revenues – Harvard university