What is the Month-End Close Process?
Jun 23, 2020 | By Blake Oliver
The month-end close is a process to verify and adjust account balances at period end to produce reports representative of a company's true financial position to inform management, investors, lenders, and regulatory agencies.
Doesn’t it seem odd that an activity that many CPAs spend a big chunk of their lives on – the month end close process – isn’t really explained in accounting courses?
Sure, there’s something in your financial accounting text on cut-off and matching, but there’s nothing to prepare you for this frenzy of long hours, intense collaboration, frustrating bottlenecks, and tedious manual reconciliations. And until you get to the controller’s position, or maybe the CFO spot, you really don’t get a holistic view of what closing the books means.
Where the month-end close process starts
The General Ledger is where it all starts. During the month, clerks, bookkeepers, and staff accountants record debits and credits as bills are paid and payments are received. Thanks to cloud-based accounting software, bank feeds and automation, this tedious work is starting to be done automatically. The result is the Trial Balance, a listing of all the bank accounts and their balances at the end of the period.
But every month, every quarter, and every year, we need to report financial information to stakeholders such as banks and investors. That’s over on the right.
To get from the GL and TB to financial reporting, we need to close the books. This means adjusting account balances from cash basis to accrual basis and presenting our results according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).
- Cash basis – this accounting method records income and expense based on cash flow coming in and cash flow going out. Timing differences in payments can distort the economic reality of transactions, making results look better or worse than they really are.
- Accrual basis – transactions are recorded in the period in which they occur, regardless of the timing of payments. This evens things out, but still makes it difficult to compare results between periods and between companies.
- GAAP – Generally Accepted Accounting Principles is a set of consistent rules for accurate, consistent, and comparable financial information. It is mandatory for public companies.
The month-end close process can be chaotic, messy, and complex
Once all of the cash transactions have been recorded, the accounting team steps in. The month-end close process can be chaotic, messy, and complex, with information from multiple systems and activities that needs to be consolidated, reconciled, and adjusted. It’s a process that requires close collaboration and sequential completion of specific tasks by each team member.
Account balances have to be reconciled to verify that all transactions for the period are recorded in the correct accounts and in the correct amounts. And we also need to draw a firm line between this period and the next so there’s a definite cutoff for each period’s activities.
The matching principle states that expenses need to be recorded in the same period as the related revenue. Some expenses are paid out after the period that they relate to, so we need to accrue for those.
For example, let’s say that SoFast, a software company, pays sales commissions the month after they’re earned. This means that the cash-basis commissions paid out in July were actually earned in June. On an accrual basis, those commissions need to be accrued as commissions payable at the end of June because they come from sales that happened in June.
Under pre-ASC 606 revenue recognition standards, those commissions are expensed as they’re incurred. But with the new standards, those commissions are amortized over the life of the contract with the customer, which may even include renewals.
If a company has subsidiaries or international operations, activities from those separate pieces of the business need to be consolidated, with intercompany transactions eliminated. The end result should reflect only the transactions that the entire company has with the outside world.
With technology, CPAs can speed up this end of month closing process and start on some tasks before the period ends. This helps reduce the work that needs to be done once the period ends.
Besides the high volume of work to get done, part of the pain of the close comes from managing the process and the data. Reconciliations, checklists, documents, and schedules might be scattered across your network, and it’s hard to see who’s done what, and whether any of the numbers have changed as adjustments are made.
The ideal month-end close process is to reconcile as many accounts as possible every month
High-risk accounts are reconciled more frequently. These are the accounts that have a high volume of transactions, so they have a high risk of being off by a significant amount. These include cash flow, accounts receivable, accounts payable and inventory. Cash might even be reconciled daily. With daily reconciliation, this is normally assigned to one person as their first task of the day.
The ideal month-end close process is to reconcile as many accounts as possible every month, but this may not be feasible. Each account takes time, and there’s always a tension between getting the close done fast, and getting all the numbers right.
Sometimes an estimate will be just fine for the end of the month, but those tiny variances can snowball until they get really big, and then it’s really tough to tease out what makes up that variance. Memories fade, and it’s hard to remember what happened a few months ago.
Then at quarter end, a few more accounts might need reconciliation. Public companies have quarterly SEC reporting, so they need to be sure their numbers are solid every three months.
At year end, in addition to the tasks for month and quarter, there’s even more pressure to get it done right and done fast. You have to make sure everything is buttoned up and you’re ready for the higher-stakes annual reporting and corresponding audit.
Flux Analysis helps controllers spot problems early on
Besides all the reconciliations and adjustments, a crucial step in ensuring the ongoing health of your company is looking at changes over time in the numbers. Some of those small changes are early warning signs that there’s trouble ahead. Maybe there’s fraud, maybe labor costs suddenly spiked, or maybe someone simply forgot to book a monthly accrual. By identifying those signs early, you can fix things before they become major problems.
But doing a thorough job of flux analysis means hours and hours of tedious manual data entry in gargantuan linked spreadsheets. It means aggregating data from multiple sources and then spending even more time figuring out which fluctuations matter, and what’s behind them. It’s no wonder that in the pressure to close quickly, flux analysis drops off the list of top priorities. And because it’s so time-consuming, you might not get the answers you need until it’s too late to take action.
But what if there were a tool that automated the data collection and calculated the variances that really matter? Better still, what if that tool did this automatically and dynamically so that you could respond in real time to what’s happening now? Having your finger firmly on the pulse of your company is a must in today’s always on, 24/7 global economy.
Enter our new Flux Analysis tool. Flux Analysis uses the data you’re already using to close the books so you can see dynamic fluctuations between the current and prior period.
A built-in notes function lets you easily document your findings right there, in real time, keeping everything in one place for easy reference. Accounting department members can comment on variances on the account or category level for all users to see. This increases transparency and lends more visibility to the financial information as a whole.
With this new tool, flux analysis is faster and easier, giving you the information you need so you can act on issues before they become problems.
Public companies have additional SEC reporting to comply with
Now with the accounts reconciled and verified, it’s time for reporting. For small businesses, cash basis reporting is probably adequate, so they can skip the adjustments to accrual basis. And their year-end financials will likely serve as the basis for their tax return.
But for other companies, reporting is crucial. Different stakeholders and interested parties have different requirements. Banks and investors want to see GAAP basis financials, especially for the startups they’re funding. Public companies have additional SEC reporting to comply with, and commonly one person is assigned to that work. And then there’s the tax return to worry about as well.
An extra step before these balance sheet reports go to outside parties is the audit. Auditors examine the financials and the supporting documentation to make sure the close was done right, and to ensure the financial statements are presented in accordance with GAAP. Those pesky auditors always seem to ask for that one email or invoice you can’t find. And you can depend on them to point out that your Excel masterpiece no longer ties to the GL.
Where FloQast fits in to the month-end close process
We help companies manage the month-end close process between the GL and reporting. Our approach blends technology, collaboration, strategic planning, and tactical implementation. Using FloQast's accounting software, companies close the books by an average of three days faster, more accurately, and with everything in place, so you can prepare to be audit ready.
Now at FloQast, we don’t do reporting, but we partner with Corporate Performance Management (CPM) developers such as Host Analytics to give you everything you need to go from the GL to your reporting.
Our holistic approach to the month-end close process means we look at the big picture, so that we’re continually working with our customers and partners to improve the process. FloQast is easy to set up and easy to use. The pain of the month-end close becomes a distant memory.
FloQast provides a platform that brings it all together
- Trial Balance data from your accounting system or ERP is automatically matched to your Excel workbooks for streamlined reconciliations.
- Supporting documentation is just a click away, making it easy to find for your accounting department and your auditors.
- A central close checklist lets accounting team members see what needs to be done, and what the status of each task is.
- Review notes keep documentation and communication between team members organized and easy to refer to.
- Real-time analysis to influence leadership's decision making.
- Everything is tied out and audit ready.
You do want your life back again, don’t you?
Help with reconciliations is where we really shine. Put an end to multiple versions of spreadsheets so you know the one you’re looking at is the right one. Get alerted automatically if a journal entry throws a reconciliation out of whack. FloQast is so easy, many of our customers find they can reconcile more of their account balances in the same or less time each month. That makes quarter-end and year-end a piece of cake.