Accounts Payable

What is Accounts Payable?

Definition: Accounts payable, also called trade payables, is a short-term liability account used to record debts from purchasing goods or services on credit. Primarily this account is used to record inventory purchases from vendors and other trade debts, but it is also used for supply, equipment, and service purchases. Other expenses like taxes are often included in the account payable account balance.

Accounts payable (AP) is an account within the general ledger that represents a company’s obligation to pay off a short-term debt to its creditors or suppliers. Another common usage of “AP” refers to the business department or division that is responsible for making payments owed by the company to suppliers and other creditors.

Accounts payable is a current liability account in which a company records the amounts it owes to suppliers or vendors for goods or services that it received on credit.

What Does Accounts Payable Mean?

What is the definition of accounts payable? Inside the AP ledger, each creditor is listed separately with its current balance. An accounts payable detailed aging report lists all of the current creditors with their account balances listed in amounts due or overdue in days. For example, the most common aging reports list account balances in 0-90 days, 91-180 days, and 181+ days. This shows the amounts that are outstanding for these time frames.

An accounts payable is recorded in the Account Payable sub-ledger at the time an invoice is vouched for payment. Vouchered, or vouched, means that an invoice is approved for payment and has been recorded in the General Ledger or AP subledger as an outstanding, or open, liability because it has not been paid. Payables are often categorized as Trade Payables, payables for the purchase of physical goods that are recorded in Inventory, and Expense Payables, payables for the purchase of goods or services that are expensed. Common examples of Expense Payables are advertising, travel, entertainment, office supplies and utilities. AP is a form of credit that suppliers offer to their customers by allowing them to pay for a product or service after it has already been received. Suppliers offer various payment terms for an invoice. Payment terms may include the offer of a cash discount for paying an invoice within a defined number of days. For example, 2%, Net 30 terms mean that the payer will deduct 2% from the invoice if payment is made within 30 days. If the payment is made on Day 31 then the full amount is paid. This is also referred to as 2/10 Net 30.

In households, accounts payable are ordinarily bills from the electric company, telephone company, cable television or satellite dish service, newspaper subscription, and other such regular services. Householders usually track and pay on a monthly basis by hand using cheques, credit cards or internet banking. In a business, there is usually a much broader range of services in the AP file, and accountants or bookkeepers usually use accounting software to track the flow of money into this liability account when they receive invoices and out of it when they make payments. Increasingly, large firms are using specialized Accounts Payable automation solutions (commonly called ePayables) to automate the paper and manual elements of processing an organization’s invoices.

Commonly, a supplier will ship a product, issue an invoice, and collect payment later. This is a cash conversion cycle, or a period of time during which the supplier has already paid for raw materials but hasn’t been paid in return by the final customer.

When the invoice is received by the purchaser, it is matched to the packing slip and purchase order, and if all is in order, the invoice is paid. This is referred to as the three-way match. The three-way match can slow down the payment process, so the method may be modified. For example, three-way matching may be limited solely to large-value invoices, or the matching is automatically approved if the received quantity is within a certain percentage of the amount authorized in the purchase order. Invoice processing automation software handles the matching process differently depending upon the business rules put in place during the creation of the workflow process. The simplest case is the two way matching between the invoice itself and the purchase order.


Tim’s Tool Company purchases hammers on credit for $100 from a vendor on January 1. This $100 would show up on Tim’s 0-90 day aging report because the debt is less than 90 days old. Let’s assume it’s April and Tim still hasn’t paid the $100 to his vendor. Tim’s aging report would then move the $100 to the 91-180 day column because now the debt is over 90 days old. In essence, the aging report is a way for companies to track how long accounts have been outstanding and their balances. When Tim finally pays the vendor, the $100 balance is removed from the A/P account and the aging report.

Since A/P is a current liability account, it maintains a credit balance and is reported on the current liabilities section of the balance sheet. Account payables are usually listed first in the liabilities section because they are the most current. Since these are trade debts, they are usually repaid in 90 days unlike short-term notes payable that could be outstanding for the entire year.

Recording Accounts Payable (AP)

Proper double entry bookkeeping requires that there must always be an offsetting debit and credit for all entries made into the general ledger. To record accounts payable, the accountant credits accounts payable when the bill or invoice is received. The debit offset for this entry is typically to an expense account for the good or service that was purchased on credit. The debit could also be to an asset account if the item purchased was a capitalizable asset. When the bill is paid, the accountant debits accounts payable to decrease the liability balance. The offsetting credit is made to the cash account, which also decreases the cash balance.

For example, imagine a business gets a $500 invoice for office supplies. When the AP department receives the invoice, it records a $500 credit in accounts payable and a $500 debit to office supply expense. The $500 debit to office supply expense flows through to the income statement at this point, so the company has recorded the purchase transaction even though cash has not been paid out. This is in line with accrual accounting, where expenses are recognized when incurred rather than when cash changes hands. The company then pays the bill, and the accountant enters a $500 credit to the cash account and a debit for $500 to accounts payable.

A company may have many open payments due to vendors at any one time. All outstanding payments due to vendors are recorded in accounts payable. As a result, if anyone looks at the balance in accounts payable, they will see the total amount the business owes all of its vendors and short-term lenders. This total amount appears on the balance sheet. For example, if the business above also received an invoice for lawn care services in the amount of $50, the total of both entries in accounts payable would equal $550 prior to the company paying off those debts.

Accounts Payable vs Trade Payables

Although some people use the phrases “accounts payable” and “trade payables” interchangeably, the phrases refer to similar but slightly different situations. Trade payables constitute the money a company owes its vendors for inventory-related goods, such as business supplies or materials that are part of the inventory. Accounts payable include all of the company’s short-term debts or obligations.

For example, if a restaurant owes money to a food or beverage company, those items are part of the inventory, and thus part of its trade payables. Meanwhile, obligations to other companies, such as the company that cleans the restaurant’s staff uniforms, falls into the accounts payable category. Both of these categories fall under the broader accounts payable category, and many companies combine both under the term accounts payable.

Accounts Payable vs Accounts Receivable

Accounts receivable and accounts payable are essentially opposites. Accounts payable is the money a company owes its vendors, while accounts receivable is the money that is owed to the company, typically by customers. When one company transacts with another on credit, one will record an entry to accounts payable on their books while the other records an entry to accounts receivable.

What Is the Accounts Payable Process?

The accounts payable department will have a set of procedures to follow before making a vendor payment. Set guidelines are essential because of the value and volume of transactions during any period of time.

The process involves:

  • Receiving the bill: If goods were purchased, the bill helps trace the quantity of what was received. The validity of the bill can be known during this time too.
  • Review bill details: Ensure that the bill includes vendor name, authorization, date and verified and matching requirements to the purchase order.
  • Updating records once the bill is received: Ledger accounts need to be updated based on the received bills and an expense entry is usually required. Managerial approval might be required at this stage with the approval hierarchy attached to the bill value.
  • Making timely payment: All payments should be processed before or at their due date on a bill, as agreed upon between a vendor and a purchasing company. Required documents need to be prepared and verified. Details entered on the cheque, vendor bank account details, payment vouchers, the original bill and purchase order need to be scrutinized. A managerial authorization might be required at this point too.

To make sure a company’s cash and assets are safe, the accounts payable process should have internal controls to:

  • prevent paying a fraudulent invoice
  • prevent paying an inaccurate invoice
  • prevent paying a vendor invoice twice
  • be certain that all vendor invoices are accounted for

Summary Definition

Define Accounts Payable: AP means a trade debt that one company owes another for purchasing inventory, materials, or other goods on account without paying from them before their delivery.