Journal Entry Basics

Journal entries are probably the most important part of any financial accounting class. They are the language of accounting.

JE 1

This is a journal entry. It describes a transaction. The entry above tells us that on January 17, the company purchased land worth $100,000 and a building worth $225,000. The company put down $125,000 cash and took out a note with the bank for $200,000. Once you understand how journal entries are constructed, you will be able to read and write them yourself.

Debits and Credits

Debits and credits are the heart of the journal entry because they tell us if we are acquiring something or giving something up. Depending on the type of account, it will increase or decrease when it is debited or credited.

Remember the accounting equation? Assets = Liabilities + Equity. Just as we need to keep the accounting equation in balance, we must keep our debits and credit in balance. Each journal entry must contain equal debits and credits. Notice the entry above: $325,000 in debits and $325,000 in credits. In order for that to occur, each journal entry must have at least two accounts. You can never have a one line journal entry because it would not balance.

In accounting, we frequently refer to the normal balance in the account. The normal balance is a positive balance or what would need to be done to increase the balance.

JE 2

Because the accounting equation tells us that assets must equal liabilities and equity, it makes sense that the normal balance for assets is a debit and the normal balance for liabilities and equity is a credit. Remember that normal balance means positive or increasing balance. What do you do to decrease the balance of an asset? If a debit increases the balance, than a credit to the account would decrease the balance. As we saw in the example entry above when we wanted to decrease cash, we credited the account.

What about revenue and expenses? Why is revenue’s normal balance a credit while expense’s is a debit? First, let’s discuss the relation these two accounts have to equity. Retained Earnings is a major component of equity. What causes retained earnings to increase? Profit. What causes profit to increase? Revenue. If revenue increases equity, then it should act the same way that equity does. Therefore, revenue has a credit balance. Since expenses decrease profit and equity, it makes sense that the normal balance is a debit.

If you still are not sure, put revenue or expenses in a journal entry with cash. Most people who study accounting quickly learn how cash behaves in most situations. If you know how cash will behave, you can figure out the other account. When a company does work and gets paid, cash increases so we debit cash. The other account, revenue, would be the credit. When a company pays for its rent, cash decreases so we credit Cash. To balance the entry, we debit Rent Expense.

Steps for Completing Journal Entries

  1. Read the transaction to get a feel for what is happening. Do you understand what happened? Try to put it into your own words.
  2. Identify the accounts you will put in your journal entry. Identify the type of account for each account used.
  3. For each account, determine if the balance is increasing or decreasing. Then determine if that increase or decrease is a debit or credit.
  4. Determine the amount that each account is changing.



On January 4, Lisa decides to start a bookkeeping business and invests $10,000 cash and $5,000 worth of computer equipment in exchange for stock in the company.

  1. The company received cash and computer equipment in exchange for stock.
  2. Cash (asset), Computer Equipment (asset) and Common Stock (equity).
  3. Cash – increasing, debit. Computer Equipment – increasing, debit. Common Stock – Increasing, credit.
  4. Cash – $10,000. Computer Equipment – $5,000. Common Stock – $15,000

Je 3


This may seem like a lot of steps but when you are first learning how to do journal entries, it really helps to go through each of the steps as you write the entry. You don’t need to write out the answers to each of the steps as I did above, but you should do it mentally as you figure out the entry. I have had many students who will put the abbreviation for the account type next to the account name.

JE 4

If you are going to do that, I recommend using Eq for equity and Ex for expense.

When learning to do journal entries, take your time and go through the steps. Make sure to learn the accounts and what type each account is. You may want to make flash cards with the name of the account on one side and the type of account on the other. You should also learn when to use a particular account, for example, when to use Unearned Revenue instead of Revenue or Prepaid Insurance rather than Insurance Expense.

This may seem difficult at first, but if you learn the terminology and practice, you will get better at it. For most students, a lightbulb goes off in their minds somewhere in the first six weeks of the course; everything clicks and they no longer need to use the steps above. Until you have your lightbulb moment, make sure to use the steps outlined above.

Related Videos:

Basic Journal Entries Part 1

Basic Journal Entries Part 2

About the Author Kristin

Kristin is a Certified Public Accountant with 15 years of experience working with small business owners in all aspects of business building. In 2006, she obtained her MS in Accounting and Taxation and was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma two months later. Instead of focusing on the fear and anger, she started her accounting and consulting firm. In the last 10 years, she has worked with clients all over the country and now sees her diagnosis as an opportunity that opened doors to a fulfilling life. Kristin is also the creator of Accounting In Focus, a website for students taking accounting courses. Since 2014, she has helped over one million students succeed in their accounting classes.

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  • V says:

    Equity would be $15,000 in the example shown, right? If not, why would equity increase by $10K more than the invested assets?

  • Kathlyn says:

    I agree. It looks like an error.

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