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Accounting Concepts: The Developer's Essential Guide

Kritika Yerrapotu, Ria Garg

August 10, 2022

You have a technical background. Unfortunately, it’s time to get a financial one.

As a developer, being able to understand accounting terminology is critical to building out integrations within your product. But we’ll be frank: accounting as a field is confusing as is. Add in different accounting providers and APIs that use varying objects and fields, and you have a recipe for headache.  

Welcome, then, to the common reference that helps you navigate the world of Accounting APIs. 

The guide below does more than clarify key accounting terminology: it provides context on the data models that represent these terms. Using Merge’s Accounting Unified API as a standard, we’ll elaborate on definitions of each object and relevant fields.

Understanding the Basics of Accounting APIs

Accounting terms connect in related systems through three interrelated data models: Reference Objects, Transaction Objects, and Report Objects. 

Together, References, Transactions, and Reports create an accounting system that can efficiently and effectively track a company’s finances. 

  • References classify the parties and goods involved in a transaction such as accounts, contacts, or items by indicating who is selling or buying a product and what the product is.
  • Transactions record money movement, such as journal entries or invoices and often include data fields for References to show the major parties involved in the transaction.
  • Report objects, such as a balance sheet, examine all the transactions of a company, classify those transactions into relevant categories, such as assets or liabilities, and can be used to draw conclusions about the company’s financial health.

Reference Objects

Accounts

Accounts refer to what companies use to track transactions. They can be both bank accounts or a ledger (also called a chart of accounts). Across accounting APIs, the term “account” is standard: what differs are the fields included within the object.

Key Fields:

  • classification: the account’s broadest grouping. This can be either ASSET, EQUITY, EXPENSE, LIABILITY, or REVENUE. In cases where class type is not listed, the original value from the source API will be passed through.
  • type: the account’s type is a narrower and more specific group within the account’s classification. For example, an account may be classified as a LIABILITY, but have the “current liability” type of CURRLIAB.
  • status: the state of the account, which can be ACTIVE, PENDING, or INACTIVE. For example, an account with frequent transactions would be ACTIVE, or an account that recently had a transaction would immediately be listed as PENDING. If the status is not listed, the original value from the source API will be passed through. 

See our official accounting documentation for accounts here.

Contacts

The contact object refers to either a supplier or a customer. Among different Accounting APIs, “contacts” can be called “entities”.

Key Fields:

  • is_customer: the boolean value to signify that the contact is or is not a customer (the contact purchasing the item).
  • is_supplier: the boolean value to signify that the contact is or is not a supplier (the contact offering the item). A supplier can also be known as a “vendor.”
  • status: the state of the contact, which can be ACTIVE, ARCHIVED, or the original value from the source API.

See our official accounting documentation for contacts here.

Items

Items are the goods involved in a transaction. The item object details what the product or service is, its price, and the buyer’s and seller’s account.

Key Fields:

  • purchase_account: references a general ledger account used to record the purchases made by the account holder.
  • purchase_price: the price the item will be purchased at from the buyer.
  • sales_account: references a general ledger account used to record the sales made by the account holder.

See our official accounting documentation for items here.

Payment

The payment object represents general payments made towards a specific transaction. A transaction object can include payment objects as part of the transaction.

  • contact: the supplier involved in the payment.
  • account: the customer’s account in which the payment is made.
  • total_amount: the total amount of money being paid to the supplier after taxes.

See our official accounting documentation for payments here.

Transactions

Transactions are any record of money movement that directly affect the financial status or statements of a business. 

Transactions fall into one of two categories: Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable

  • Accounts receivable indicate that the holder (to whom the account belongs) is owed something.
  • Accounts payable indicate that the holder (to whom the account belongs) owes something.

Account receivables and account payables are accounts on a company’s general ledger. A general ledger is a set of numbered accounts used to keep track of transactions. The numbering scheme for general ledger (“G/L”) is illustrated below.

The following are common fields used in several of the transactions objects:

  • contact: the contact to whom the transaction belongs to.
  • total_amount: the total amount being paid after taxes.
  • memo: an internal note used by the business to clarify the purpose of the transaction.
  • transaction_date: the date the transaction was made.
  • number: the transaction’s number used for identifying purposes.

Invoice

An invoice is a request for payment. It is an accounts receivable transaction that exists on the vendor's side as a record of a transaction between a buyer and seller. An invoice can outline the terms of a transaction, including payments, the customers involved, the service or goods, and the price. An invoice’s type is accounts_receivable.

Bill

A bill is a request for payment that exists on the customer side. It carries the same information as the invoice object, but customers use the term “bill” for when they owe money to a business. Bills are an accounts payable transaction, because the holder owes money to a business. In an Accounting Unified API, a bill is an invoice with its type set to accounts_payable.

  • InvoiceLineItem object
  • ~line_items: a single entry within an invoice or bill dedicated to one item that is purchased. An invoice or bill can have multiple line items for each item being purchased.
  • payments: an array of Payment object IDs.
  • sub_total: the total amount being paid before taxes.
  • total_discount: the total discounts applied to the total cost
  • total_tax_amount: the total amount being paid in taxes.
  • type: whether the invoice is an accounts receivable or accounts payable. If it is accounts_payable, then it is a bill.

See our official accounting documentation for invoices and bills here.

Journal Entries

Journal entries are records of business transactions kept for bookkeeping purposes. A journal entry includes the amount of money moved, where the money went, and where it is from. Each row (referred to as a “line”) in an entry is classified as either debit or credit. Together, the debit and credit of each entry must sum to zero.

Key Fields:

  • JournalLine[] Object 
  • ~lines: a single entry within a journal entry detailing cash flowing into (“debit”) or out of (“credit”) a business. A journal entry can have multiple lines for each instance of cash flow.
  • net_amount: the value of the line item including taxes and other fees. 
  • payments: an array of payment object IDs.

See our official accounting documentation for journal entries here.

Purchase Order

A purchase order is a formal record of request for a product or service between a buyer and a seller. This is typically used in cases of a bulk order. A purchase order includes information about the item being purchased, the customer and vendor, and in some cases, delivery information. 

As an example, the customer would issue a purchase order to the vendor indicating the item, amount needed, and price they intend to pay. The vendor would then send an invoice to the customer to complete the purchase.

Key Fields:

  • customer: the party making the purchase order.
  • PurchaseOrderLineItem[] object 
  • ~line_item: a single entry in a purchase order dedicated to a specific item purchased.
  • ~description: a description of the item purchased.
  • status: the state of the purchase order. Can be one of the following: DRAFT, SUBMITTED, AUTHORIZED, BILLED, DELETE.
  • vendor: the party fulfilling the purchase order.

See our official accounting documentation for purchase orders here.

Credit Notes

Credit notes are an accounts payable transaction used when a vendor offers a gift or refund to a customer. This record exists on the vendor side, and outlines how the customer is owed credit. A credit note will contain information on the amount of credit owed, the customer, and the account.

Key Fields:

  • CreditNoteLineItem[] object
  • ~line_items: a single entry in a credit note dedicated to a specific item that is owed to the customer.
  • ~description: the description of the item that is owed.
  • payments: an array of payment object IDs.
  • remaining_credit: the amount of value remaining in the credit note that the customer can use.
  • status: the state of the credit note, which can be SUBMITTED, AUTHORIZED, PAID. In cases where there is no clear mapping, the original value is passed through.

See our official accounting documentation for credit notes here.

Vendor Credit

Vendor credit is an accounts receivable transaction used to show that a customer is owed a gift or refund. It holds the same information as a credit note, but is held by the customer rather than the vendor. This record exists on the customer side, and outlines the amount of credit owed to the customer, the vendor that owes credit, and the account.

Key Field:

  • VendorCreditLine[] object
  • ~lines: a single entry in a vendor credit dedicated to a specific type of credit owed to the customer, such as a refund or gifted credit. A vendor credit object can have multiple lines for each type of credit owed to the customer.
  • ~description: the description of the credit that is owed.
  • net_amount: the full value of the credit.
  • vendor: the vendor that owes the gift or refund to the customer.

See our official accounting documentation for vendor credit here.

Expenses:

These represent a purchase made from a vendor which can be made with a check, credit card, or cash. Each expense object is dedicated to a grouping of expenses, with each expense recorded in an ExpenseLine object. For example, an expense object can be for “new employee supplies” with an ExpenseLine object for a “MacBook Pro”.

Key Fields:

  • ExpenseLine[] object
  • ~lines: a single entry in the expense object dedicated to a specific expense the company made. The expense object can have multiple lines for each item that was purchased.
  • ~description: the description of the item that was purchased by the company.

See our official accounting documentation for expenses here.

Transactions (Object)

Since there are several different types of transactions covered across various accounting APIs, an Accounting Unified API uses a general transaction object to cover any transaction type that does not already have a dedicated object. The transaction object does not cover expenses, credit notes, vendor credit, invoices, purchase orders, and journal entries. The type of transaction is determined by the transaction_type field. 

This object can be used with the Netsuite, Quickbooks, and Xero APIs, which all support a variety of transaction types. 

Key Fields:

  • GeneralTransactionLineItem[] object
  • ~LineItems: a single entry dedicated to the specific item in the transaction. A transaction object can have multiple LineItems for each item involved in the transaction.
  • transaction_type: the type of transaction, which can be any transaction object that is not already included in Merge’s common model.

See our official accounting documentation for transactions here.

Reports

Reports are a way to measure the financial health of a company by tracking cash inflow and outflow along with account statuses over time. The three main types of reports are Balance Sheets, Profit and Loss (P&L, or Income Statements) and Cash Flow statements. Quickbooks and Xero support these reports within their APIs, however Netsuite only supports these reports in its UI. You cannot pull reports from the Netsuite API programmatically.

Balance Sheet

A balance sheet shows a company’s assets, liabilities, and equity. Assets should be equal to liabilities and equity combined. Balance sheets are pulled at the end of every quarter, month, and year. They show the company’s financial health at a specific point in time.

  • date: the date the balance sheet was created
  • assets: 
  • ~ReportItem Object
  • ~~value: the dollar value of the asset.
  • ~~sub_items: ReportItem objects within the asset’s main ReportItem Object, to further organize the company’s assets.
  • liabilities:
  • ~ReportItem Object
  • ~~value: the dollar value of the liability.
  • ~~sub_items: ReportItem objects within the liability’s main ReportItem Object, to further organize the company’s liabilities.
  • equity:
  • ~ReportItem Object
  • ~~value: the dollar value of the equity.
  • ~~sub_items: ReportItem objects within the equity’s main ReportItem Object, to further organize the company’s equity.

See our official accounting documentation for balance sheets here.

Income Statement (also known as Profit and Loss):

In our common model, Profit and Loss or Income Statements are found in the income statement object. This report shows a company’s income, the cost of sales, operating expenses, and non-operating expenses. Other important values included are gross profit, gross operating profit, and net income. Income statements represent a period of time, such as a quarter or month.

Key Fields:

  • gross_profit: the income minus the cost of sales.
  • net_income: the gross profit minus the total expenses.
  • net_operating_income: the income minus the operating expenses.
  • income:
  • ~ReportItem object
  • ~~value: the dollar value of the income.
  • ~~sub_items: ReportItem objects within the income’s main ReportItem Object, to further organize the company’s income.
  • cost_of_sales: 
  • ~ReportItem object
  • ~~value: the dollar value of the cost of sales.
  • ~~sub_items: ReportItem objects within the cost of sales’ main ReportItem Object, to further organize the company’s cost of sales.
  • operating_expenses: 
  • ~ReportItem object
  • ~~value: the dollar value of the operating expenses.
  • ~~sub_items: ReportItem objects within the operating expenses’ main ReportItem Object, to further organize the company’s operating expenses.
  • non_operating_expenses: 
  • ~ReportItem object
  • ~~value: the dollar value of the non-operating expenses.
  • ~~sub_items: ReportItem objects within the non-operating expenses’ main ReportItem Object, to further organize the company’s non-operating expenses.

See our official accounting documentation for income statements here.

Cash Flow Statement:

A cash flow statement shows three types of activities: 

  • Operating activities: cash generated from a company’s product or service.
  • Investing activities: cash from company’s investments, including the purchasing or selling of assets and loans made to vendors.
  • Financing activities: costs that include debt, equity, and dividends with shareholders and investors.

A cash flow statement also includes the value of cash at the beginning of the period and end of the period. These reports are typically pulled monthly, quarterly, and annually.

Key Fields:

  • operating_activities: 
  • ~ReportItem object
  • ~~value: the dollar value of the operating activities.
  • ~~sub_items: ReportItem objects within the operating activities’ main ReportItem Object, to further organize the company’s operating activities.
  • investing_activities:
  • ~ReportItem object
  • ~~value: the dollar value of the investing activities.
  • ~~sub_items: ReportItem objects within the investing activities’ main ReportItem Object, to further organize the company’s investing activities.
  • financing_activities:
  • ~ReportItem object
  • ~~value: the dollar value of the financing activities.
  • ~~sub_items: ReportItem objects within the financing activities’ main ReportItem Object, to further organize the company’s financing activities.

See our official accounting documentation for cash flow statements here.

Remote Fields

remote_data: To offer the most comprehensive yet transferable model, an Account Unified API maps the most common and widely-used fields. For some fields that are unique to certain APIs, our common model includes remote_data which copies the object’s fields and data exactly as it appears in the API it is called from. Essentially, you can access any endpoint in any source API through remote_data. Learn more about how to use remote_data here.

remote_created_at: when this object was created by the third party

remote_updated_at: when the third party updated this object’s information.

remote_was_deleted: Indicates whether or not this object has been deleted by third party webhooks.

remote_id: The third-party API ID for the matching object.

Additional Objects

CompanyInfo: This object represents general company information. This includes tax numbers, company website URLs, addresses, phone numbers, and fiscal year start and end dates.

Address: This object represents the address of a contact, including the city, country, state, street, and zip code.

AccountingPhoneNumber: This object represents the phone number of a contact.

Getting Started with an Accounting Unified API

Having a thorough understanding of accounting terminology can help you discern what information and which integrations you may need for your product. 

If you’re still on the fence about how an Accounting Unified API can help you, read about the benefits of an Accounting Unified API here.

To scope your use case with the information you have learned here, head to our accounting documentation.

And finally, for special inquiries or to see our API in action, talk to a sales representative here.

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