Credit card reconciliation: a guide to more efficient bookkeeping
Every successful company needs clean books. Good accounting is not only crucial for a thriving business - it’s also a legal requirement. But it can also be the source of confusion, and eats up precious company time.
And one common task brings misery to finance teams every month: reconciling credit cards.
In this article, we first look at how credit card reconciliation works, and why it’s so important for good bookkeeping.
Then we address some of the key issues with the standard reconciliation process. Finally, we offer you a simple, elegant solution to fix these issues for good.
What is credit card reconciliation?
Credit card reconciliation is the system accountants use to make sure that transactions in a credit card statement match those on the company’s general ledger. For effective and accurate bookkeeping, businesses need to know that every transaction did in fact take place, and is what it says it is.
Most simply, accountants compare company credit card statements against the general ledger. If every payment in the ledger matches one in the statement, the ledger is accurate and the books can be closed.
If parts of the ledger don’t match what’s on the credit card statement, the financial controller then needs to find out who made the supposed payments, and what has caused this discrepancy.
The financial close process typically occurs monthly, with larger closing exercises happening at the end of each quarter, and the end of the financial year.
Income vs expenses
Credit card reconciliation actually impacts two aspects of the business: income and expenses. If your business accepts credit card payments from customers, you need to match amounts received in your bank account against statements from your payments processor (Paypal or Stripe, for example).
In this post, we’re talking only about the expenses side of the equation: transactions made by your team to purchase goods or services.
The principles are actually fairly similar, but we want to focus on the challenges around company credit cards.
Why is reconciliation important?
A company’s general ledger lists every transaction that occurred during a given period. Accountants use the general ledger alongside balance sheets and income statements to show how financially healthy the company is.
But, in theory, an accountant could list any payment for any amount in the ledger, just to make the books appear in good shape. Or, in less devious cases, the ledger could simply contain mistakes.
Payment reconciliation uses further documentary evidence to prove that the general ledger is accurate. Accountants use bank statements, receipts, and credit card statements to verify that each transaction is what it claims to be.
This is even more important during an audit. The tax office or a third party auditor needs to see proof that every payment truly took place. Without that proof, you may fail an audit and either miss out on new investment, or face legal trouble.
Why reconciling credit cards can be hard
In a perfect world, general ledger accounts and credit card statements would match 100% of the time. The accountant or controller would simply scan through both, see that everything lines up, and close the books. Or better yet, accounting automation software would do it for them.
Sadly, life isn’t always this easy. Here are some of the key causes of headaches.
Shared company cards
The most basic issue with company credit cards is the way they’re typically deployed. In most growing companies, they’re passed around on a fairly casual basis.
Which leads to a couple of key issues:
If receipts are missing, it’s hard to know who to chase; and
If actual payments are incorrect, you also don’t know who to turn to.
This isn’t an issue if everyone has their own company card. Which sounds like complete madness, but we’ll explain how it’s possible (and why it’s your best bet) in the next section).
Relying on physical paper is usually a red flag. For credit cards, it’s one extra (essential) document that can easily get lost by team members while out and about. Most users keep them in their wallets for a month or two, and then hopefully submit them to finance in one big mess.
At which point, you have to hope they match the card statement and invoice. Because if there are issues, they’re much harder to resolve a month after the fact.
Diverse data points
Separate payment methods mean separate data sources. Which means more places for controllers to look when identifying problems.
Take software subscriptions, for example. You get an invoice from the supplier, which goes into your accounts payable system. The payment comes via the credit card, with a receipt to match (again, from the supplier). And then you have your credit card statement which shows that payment went out.
All three of these documents should (in theory) match. But when one is off - or goes missing - the finance team has to go into detective mode.
Unclear statement dates
This is one of the quirks of classic banking that we should have solved by now. Typically, you close the books at the end of a given period - usually the month. But credit card statements are often issued some time after the end of each month. Which pushes the whole reconciliation process back, and forces you to wait to close the books.
And this statement won’t necessarily contain one neat month either. It could cover several months, five weeks - whatever.
The trouble here is that you rely on key documents from a third party - your credit card provider. And for some reason, banks and card providers have simply never improved this process for customers.
So those were the downsides of a system you’re probably living with today. Here’s how to level-up.
Easy credit card reconciliation
This is kind of a “hack.” Because the best way to overcome tricky credit card reconciliation is to avoid credit cards altogether.
That doesn’t mean doubling down on expense claims or doing everything by wire transfer. Instead, you want something that works just like a credit card, but is actually built for finance teams modern companies.
Instead, we recommend employee debit cards. Here are 4 quick reasons why:
1. One card per user
The shared company credit card is not only inefficient, it’s a fraud risk. Too many users make it almost impossible to know exactly who’s spending what.
So the obvious answer is for every user to have their own card. Only that’s pretty risky too - if everyone has access to credit, you can easily find yourself with a hefty bill at the end of the month.
Employee debit cards like these are assigned to individual users, with individual limits. Managers (or just the CFO, if you prefer) can approve specific purchases and change limits for individuals or teams as a whole.
Every single payment is logged in real time, and you always know who’s spending.
2. Capture receipts by mobile phone
We’ve already seen how credit card receipts can wreak havoc at closing time. This is partially because they’re submitted so long after the transaction. And partially because they’re paper.
Modern employee cards come with a mobile app that lets team members snap a photo of the receipt at the point of purchase. You have the document long before it can get lost or damaged.
And if they forget, they can be notified by Slack, email, or through the app itself. This has led to 98% of receipts being collected for most users.
3. Real-time card statements
We saw above how frustrating it can be to work off delayed credit card statements. Instead, you can have all card spend in one dashboard, up to date, and available any time you want it.
You see who made and approved each payment, the supplier, the receipt, and even the rationale given by the spender. The idea of “chasing down” mystery payments is almost completely forgotten.
4. Automated reconciliation
Paper should be gone from your finance processes. And modern debit cards make this possible. Payment details are submitted digitally, as are receipts and other important documents. Which means no boring data entry for the finance team.
But the even bigger result is that you can actually automate the reconciliation process almost entirely. Spend management software itemizes and categorizes spend, and a simple export sends it to your accounting tools.
There’s no need to go through spreadsheets line by line, or to hold a paper card statement next to your computer screen. Software matches card payments against the ledger, highlights duplicates and inconsistencies, and saves days of work in the process.
Kiss reconciliation woes behind
We’ve seen how credit card reconciliation can be a burden for finance teams. But in truth, the real causes are old fashioned tools, rather than the processes themselves.
Banks don’t give you the flexible, easy-to-use cards you’re used to at home. They still love to send paper documents and unpredictable status updates.
Which means that all your modern automation software will always be a step behind.
Switch to employee debit cards, which were created with these challenges in mind. You’ll hardly believe you went so long without them.