What is Accounts Payable?

Accounts payable (AP) represents the amount a company owes to its vendors and supplies for goods that have not been paid for, recorded as a liability on the company's financial statement.

Simply put, accounts payable is the department that ensures your bills (i.e. invoices) are paid in full and on-time.

Unlike notes payable, which arise from formal legal agreements, accounts payable originates from routine business transactions with suppliers. Specifically, accounts payable is the debts that a company owes to its suppliers and partners. These debts must be paid in full within a given period to avoid default.

Accounts payable (AP) is an essential component of a business's financial operations. When a company receives goods or services from its vendors without immediate payment, the amount owed is recorded under accounts payable. This liability signifies that the company has an obligation to settle the debt within a stipulated period, usually short-term, to avoid default or additional charges.

Why accounts payable matters

Accounts payable is not just a routine financial obligation; it's a critical component of a company's financial and operational health. Managing accounts payable effectively is essential for the following reasons:

Cash flow management

One of the primary pillars of a business's financial health is its cash flow. By regularly updating and settling accounts payable, companies can maintain a predictable and healthy cash flow. This ensures that there are always sufficient funds available for reinvestment, expansion, or to address any unforeseen financial challenges.

Supplier relationships

In the business world, trust and reliability are invaluable. Making timely payments is a testament to a company's reliability, which can significantly strengthen relationships with suppliers. Over time, this trust can lead to better terms, discounts, and even priority treatment during high-demand periods or when supplies are limited.

Financial reporting

Financial statements are a reflection of a company's economic stability and growth potential. Accurate accounts payable records are essential to ensure that these statements provide a true and transparent picture of the company's financial position. Inaccuracies or discrepancies in AP can lead to misleading financial reports, which can have serious implications, especially for publicly traded companies.

Risk management

Delays or inconsistencies in settling accounts payable can result in penalties, interest charges, and even legal actions. By managing AP effectively, companies can mitigate these risks, ensuring smooth operations and safeguarding their reputation.

Operational efficiency

A streamlined accounts payable process can lead to operational efficiencies. It reduces the time and resources spent on invoice processing, dispute resolutions, and payment reconciliations, allowing staff to focus on more strategic tasks.

While accounts payable might seem like a routine back-office function, its efficient management is intertwined with a company's success and growth trajectory.

Accounts payable best practices

Effective management of accounts payable is not just about paying bills on time; it's about optimizing the entire AP process to ensure financial stability, operational efficiency, and strong vendor relationships. Adopting best practices in AP management is essential for businesses aiming to stay competitive and maintain a healthy cash flow. Here are some recommended practices and why they are crucial:

  • Regularly Reviewing and Reconciling Accounts Payable Ledgers: Regular audits and reconciliations of the AP ledger ensure that all transactions are accounted for and that there are no discrepancies. This practice helps in identifying any potential errors or fraudulent activities early on, ensuring the company's financial statements are accurate and trustworthy.
  • Setting Up Clear and Efficient Approval Workflows: A well-defined approval process ensures that invoices are verified and validated before payment, reducing the risk of overpayments or paying fraudulent invoices. It also ensures that payments are made in a timely manner, avoiding late fees or strained supplier relationships.
  • Leveraging Technology for Automation and Error Reduction: Manual processes are prone to errors and can be time-consuming. By adopting AP automation solutions, businesses can streamline the invoice-to-payment process, reduce manual errors, and gain real-time insights into their payable status. This not only saves time and resources but also enhances the accuracy and efficiency of the AP process.
  • Building Strong Relationships with Suppliers: A mutually beneficial relationship with suppliers goes beyond timely payments. By maintaining open communication, negotiating better terms, and possibly availing early payment discounts, businesses can optimize their cash flow and potentially reduce costs. Strong supplier relationships also ensure priority during supply shortages and can lead to more favorable terms in future negotiations.

Incorporating these best practices into the AP process is not just a recommendation; it's a necessity for businesses that aim for growth, sustainability, and a competitive edge in the market.

Common pitfalls in accounts payable

Efficiently managing accounts payable is crucial, but it's not without its challenges. Even minor oversights in the AP process can lead to significant financial repercussions. Being aware of these common pitfalls is the first step in preventing them.

Relying heavily on manual processes increases the risk of human errors such as duplicate payments, missed invoices, or incorrect data entry. These errors can lead to financial discrepancies, affecting the accuracy of financial statements and potentially leading to losses.

Consistently late payments can erode trust with suppliers. This not only strains the business relationship but can also result in late fees, higher interest rates, or even supply disruptions.

Many suppliers offer discounts for early payments as an incentive for timely settlements. By overlooking these opportunities, businesses can miss out on substantial savings over time, which can accumulate to significant amounts annually. This not only impacts the company's immediate cash flow but also its overall profitability in the long run.

Without a well-defined approval process, invoices can get lost in the shuffle, leading to delayed payments. This lack of clarity can also result in unauthorized expenditures or missed budgetary controls.

Time management is the foundation of creating an effective business. Accounts Payable departments are among the most burdened, as too much time is spent on manual tasks. Recent studies have estimated that 25% of the average workweek is devoted to manual tasks.

25% of a standard 40-hour work week, roughly equates to 10 total weekly hours per employee spent on manual tasks. With an average of 48 weeks working weeks per year accounting for holidays, that's 480 hours of wasted time! That's equal to 12 weeks, or three months.

In the Ardent Partner State of ePayables 2022 the average cost to process an invoice is 10.18, actually up from the previous year's report of 9.25. It's not a good sign to see the trend in the wrong direction.

The cost above is only in terms of money, it's essential not to discount the time employees spend writing, mailing, collecting and reconciling checks.

A department weighed down with paper is one that can't operate in an optimal manner. Stacks of paper invoices and checks are a daunting sight that often represents a vulnerability for fraud and misplaced documents.

Per a study OnPay Solutions, now part of Medius, partnered with PYMNTS.com on — paper-based invoices are the most-cited source of AP friction. Research shows they cost companies an average of $173,340 per year and 125 hours per week.

By being proactive and addressing these common challenges, businesses can optimize their AP process, ensuring smoother operations and better financial health.

Examples of accounts payable

There are hundreds of different types of payables that a business may have on its balance sheet under current liabilities. Often, these are short-term financial obligations which the company will pay quickly in order to balance their books. Here are a handful of accounts payable examples to give you an idea of why a business may owe money to partners and vendors.

Raw materials/fuel

When a manufacturing company invests in raw materials, the items are bought on credit because they haven’t yet earned the cash needed to purchase production materials outright. This is accounts payable, and will normally have a credit period of 30 days or more.

Transportation and logistics

When a company needs to transport raw materials or goods which it has produced, it’s common practice to rely on transportation providers as part of an accounts payable credit agreement, with businesses paying for the cost of logistics later down the line.


When a business partners with another company to fill in skill and workforce gaps, this is regularly done via accounts payable. The subcontracting work will take place on the basis that the company will pay the other for the work at a specified time in the future.


The leasing of equipment is commonly paid for by accounts payable. When a business requires a piece of equipment on an ad hoc basis, they’re provided with it on the condition that they pay within a set period.

The accounts payable process: A brief overview

Understanding the accounts payable process is fundamental for any business aiming to maintain a healthy cash flow, build strong supplier relationships, and ensure accurate financial reporting. A streamlined and efficient AP process can lead to timely payments, reduced errors, and potential cost savings. A clear grasp of this process also allows businesses to identify areas for improvement, leverage automation opportunities, and optimize their overall procurement strategy.

The basic steps of the accounts payable process include:

  1. Invoice Receipt: Receiving the supplier's invoice, either electronically or in paper form.
  2. Invoice Review: Checking the invoice for accuracy and ensuring all details match the purchase order.
  3. Approval Workflow: Routing the invoice to the appropriate department or individual for approval.
  4. Payment Authorization: Once approved, the invoice is queued for payment.
  5. Payment Execution: Making the payment to the supplier via the preferred method (e.g., bank transfer, check).
  6. Recording & Reconciliation: Updating the accounts payable ledger and reconciling with bank statements.
  7. Archiving: Storing the invoice and payment details for future reference and audit purposes.

In general, U.S. businesses are still reliant on paper. Paper invoices and checks have continued to linger in American businesses because they're familiar and easy to use.

Forward-thinking companies are the exception to the rule — they've introduced accounts payable (AP) automation in order to transform paper into electronic payments and streamline their payment processes.

Learn more on accounts payable automation.

Dive deeper into the intricacies of each step with our in-depth guide on the accounts payable process. Unlock insights and best practices to elevate your accounts payable operations!

woman working at desk with invoices

Is accounts payable a credit or debit?

In accounting terms, accounts payable is recorded as a credit. This represents a company's obligation to pay off a short-term debt to its creditors or suppliers. When a business receives an invoice, it books the amount as a credit in the accounts payable category, indicating an increase in its liabilities.

Accounts payable vs. accounts receivable

Accounts payable is the money a business owes to its suppliers for goods or services received but not yet paid for, while accounts receivable represents the money owed to a business by its customers for goods or services provided on credit.

Example of accounts payable & accounts receivable

Imagine a restaurant that orders fresh produce from a supplier but hasn't paid the invoice yet. The amount they owe to the supplier is recorded under accounts payable.

Conversely, if that same restaurant caters an event and the client hasn't paid the bill yet, the amount the client owes to the restaurant is recorded under accounts receivable.

In essence, accounts payable represents money that is anticipated to go out, while accounts receivable signifies money a company expects to bring in.

Recording accounts payable

Recording accounts payable accurately is essential to ensure a company's financial statements provide a true representation of its financial obligations. Properly logging these liabilities ensures that businesses can manage their cash flow effectively, meet their financial commitments, and maintain trust with their suppliers. 

Accounts payable, like other financial transactions, is recorded using the double-entry bookkeeping system. The double-entry bookkeeping system is universally employed for this purpose because it provides a comprehensive and balanced view of a company's financial transactions. In this system, every transaction affects at least two accounts, ensuring that the accounting equation stays balanced, that is, assets = liabilities + equity.

This means for every transaction, two entries are made:

A debit in one account.
A credit in another account.

For accounts payable, the credit entry is made in the AP account, and a corresponding debit entry is usually made in an expense or asset account, depending on the nature of the purchase.

Accounts payable vs. trade payables

While "accounts payable" and "trade payables" are terms that are often used interchangeably, they have distinct differences that businesses should be aware of to ensure precise bookkeeping.

Accounts Payable

Accounts Payable refers to the money owed by a company to its suppliers for goods or services received. It encompasses all the short-term liabilities of a business, regardless of the nature of the purchase.

Trade Payables

Trade Payables, on the other hand, are a subset of accounts payable and specifically refer to the amounts a company owes to suppliers for goods and raw materials that are directly related to the production of goods and services they offer. For instance, a car manufacturer might have trade payables related to the purchase of steel, tires, and other materials used in the production of cars.

The primary difference between the two is their scope. While accounts payable covers all short-term debts, trade payables are strictly related to the core operations of the business.

Accounts payable turnover ratio

Accounts payable turnover ratio assesses how efficiently a company pays off its suppliers. A higher ratio indicates that a company is paying off its suppliers at a faster rate, suggesting efficient management of payables, while a lower ratio may indicate potential cash flow issues or a company's decision to hold onto cash for other operational needs Organizations use the Accounts Payable Turnover Ratio to gain insights into their short-term liquidity and operational efficiency. By monitoring this ratio, businesses can determine if they are taking too long to pay off their debts, which could strain supplier relationships, or if they are paying them off too quickly, which might indicate an inefficient use of cash. It's a valuable tool for internal analysis and can also be used by external stakeholders, such as investors or creditors, to assess a company's financial health and management effectiveness.

How to calculate accounts payable turnover ratio

Accounts payable turnover ratio is calculated by dividing the total purchases by the average accounts payable during a specific period.

Accounts Payable Turnover Ratio= Cost of Goods Sold / Average Accounts Payable

Imagine Company XYZ had total purchases of $500,000 during the year. At the beginning of the year, their accounts payable was $40,000, and by the end of the year, it was $60,000. To find the average accounts payable for the year, we would take the sum of the beginning and ending balances and divide by two: ($40,000 + $60,000) ÷ 2 = $50,000.

Now, to calculate the Accounts Payable Turnover Ratio, we would divide the total purchases by the average accounts payable:

Accounts Payable Turnover Ratio = Total Purchases / Average Accounts Payable

Accounts Payable Turnover Ratio = $500,000 / $50,000

Accounts Payable Turnover Ratio = 10

This means Company XYZ pays off its suppliers 10 times a year, or approximately every 36.5 days (365 days ÷ 10). If this ratio is higher than the industry average, it might indicate that Company XYZ is paying its suppliers more quickly than its competitors. However, a lower ratio might suggest that the company takes longer to pay its bills, which could be a sign of cash flow issues or a strategic decision to delay payments.

Accounts payable audits

Accounts payable audits are systematic examinations and verifications of a company's accounts payable records and processes. These audits ensure that the accounts payable transactions are accurately recorded and that the company's internal controls are effective in preventing errors, fraud, and other discrepancies. Conducting regular AP audits is essential for maintaining the financial integrity of an organization.

Why should you audit accounts payable?

  • Error detection: Audits can uncover unintentional mistakes, such as duplicate payments, overpayments, or payments made to incorrect vendors. Identifying and rectifying these errors can result in significant cost savings.
  • Fraud prevention: By examining transaction histories and patterns, auditors can detect suspicious activities that might indicate fraudulent behavior, such as fake vendor setups or unauthorized payments.
  • Enhanced internal controls: An AP audit can highlight weaknesses in the company's internal control systems, prompting improvements that reduce the risk of future errors or fraud.
  • Regulatory compliance: Regular audits ensure that the company is adhering to industry regulations and standards, reducing the risk of legal and financial penalties.
  • Improved supplier relationships: By ensuring that payments are accurate and timely, audits can enhance the company's reputation with its suppliers, leading to better terms and stronger partnerships.

How to audit accounts payable

  1. Select a sample: Auditors typically begin by selecting a random sample of accounts payable transactions from a specific period.

  2. Review documentation: For each transaction in the sample, auditors review supporting documentation, such as purchase orders, invoices, and payment records, to ensure accuracy and completeness.

  3. Verify transactions: Auditors cross-check the sampled transactions against the general ledger and bank statements to ensure they were correctly recorded and reconciled.

  4. Assess internal controls: The audit process evaluates the effectiveness of the company's internal controls, such as approval workflows, segregation of duties, and access controls to the AP system.

  5. Identify discrepancies: Any discrepancies or irregularities identified during the audit are documented and investigated further.

  6. Report findings: At the end of the audit, findings are compiled into a report that highlights areas of concern, recommends corrective actions, and suggests improvements to the AP process.

Regularly conducting accounts payable audits is a proactive approach to maintaining financial accuracy, ensuring regulatory compliance, and safeguarding the company's assets.

Accounts payable job description, responsibilities & skills

Behind the intricate web of financial transactions and record-keeping lies a dedicated team of professionals who ensure that the accounts payable process runs smoothly. These individuals, often referred to as Accounts Payable Clerks or AP Specialists, play a pivotal role in maintaining the financial integrity of an organization. Their meticulous attention to detail, combined with a deep understanding of financial principles, makes them indispensable to the accounts payable function.

Roles and responsibilities of an AP clerk:

Invoice processing

Reviewing, verifying, and processing invoices and billing statements for payment, ensuring accuracy and adherence to company policies.

Payment scheduling

Setting up payment schedules, ensuring that all payments are made in a timely manner to avoid late fees and maintain good relationships with vendors.


Regularly reconciling the accounts payable ledger to ensure that all payments are correctly accounted for and that all financial data is consistent.

Vendor communication

Acting as the primary point of contact for vendors, addressing any inquiries or discrepancies related to payments.

Record maintenance

Keeping detailed records of all transactions, including invoices, payment receipts, and any other relevant documentation.


Preparing monthly, quarterly, and annual financial reports related to accounts payable for review by financial managers or accountants.

The role of an AP Clerk is multifaceted, requiring a combination of technical knowledge, interpersonal skills, and a keen analytical mind. These professionals are the backbone of the accounts payable process, ensuring that every financial transaction is executed with precision and integrity.

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FAQs about accounts payable

Accounts payable represents a company's obligation to pay off short-term debts to its suppliers or creditors. Its primary purpose is to manage and settle these obligations, ensuring that invoices are paid accurately and on time.

While both relate to money that a company owes, accounts payable refers to the actual bills from vendors that need to be paid. In contrast, expenses represent costs incurred by the business, which may or may not have been invoiced yet.

The accounts payable turnover ratio measures how quickly a company pays off its suppliers. A higher ratio indicates prompt payments, while a lower ratio may suggest potential cash flow issues. It's crucial for assessing a company's liquidity and its ability to manage short-term obligations.

Late payments can lead to several negative consequences, including potential late fees, interest charges, strained vendor relationships, and a damaged credit reputation.

AP automation streamlines the invoice processing workflow, reduces manual errors, enhances visibility into spend, and can lead to faster approval and payment cycles. It also allows businesses to capture early payment discounts and improve supplier relationships.

Risks include fraudulent activities, manual errors, missed payments, non-compliance with company or regulatory policies, and potential damage to supplier relationships.

Many companies utilize AP software solutions that centralize invoice management, automate workflows, and integrate with other financial systems to efficiently handle large volumes of invoices.

Key skills include attention to detail, proficiency with accounting software, effective communication, analytical thinking, and understanding of financial regulations and procedures.

Accounts payable directly affects a company's cash outflows. Efficient AP management ensures that cash is used effectively, balancing timely payments to suppliers with the company's cash reserves and incoming cash flows.

Accounts payable refers to actual bills from vendors awaiting payment. In contrast, accrued liabilities are estimated expenses recognized before the company receives the actual invoice.

Accounts payable is also commonly referred to as "AP" or "trade creditors."

Examples include invoices for goods or services received, utility bills, rent payments, and any other short-term debts owed to suppliers or vendors.

Accounts payable (AP) represents money a business owes to its suppliers, while accounts receivable (AR) signifies money owed to the business by its customers. In essence, AP is money expected to go out, and AR is money expected to come in.

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