Software Subscription Revenue Recognition: A Complete Guide

Subscription Revenue Recognition

Businesses that offer subscription- or license-based solutions operate under a different financial model than those selling one-time goods or services. Instead of a straightforward, single-use exchange, subscription revenue typically arrives up-front for services to be rendered in the future. In this post we’ll help you dive into accounting for software subscriptions.

Subscription revenue recognition takes those up-front payments and recognizes them during the subscription period. For example, if a client pays a business $12,000 for an annual subscription, the subscription revenue recognition could be $1,000 per month.

What is Subscription Revenue?

Subscription revenue refers to the money a company earns from providing its products or services on a recurring basis, typically through a subscription model. This model involves customers paying a regular fee, often monthly or annually, to access and use a company’s offerings. For example, streaming services like Netflix, software companies like Microsoft 365, and meal kit delivery services like Blue Apron all generate subscription revenue. This steady income stream provides financial stability for companies and allows them to plan for the future, invest in product development, and deliver ongoing value to their subscribers.

Subscription revenue is a reliable source of income because it creates a predictable and consistent cash flow. It’s particularly popular in industries such as technology, media, and e-commerce, where customers appreciate the convenience and ongoing access to services without the need for continuous one-time purchases. Companies with subscription models work to retain their subscribers by delivering high-quality experiences and content, ultimately ensuring that revenue continues to flow in as long as customers remain subscribed.

Subscription revenue often comes with greater customer retention, especially if subscribers have to opt out of continuing their subscription. Clients can also predict their cost over the term of the plan and budget accordingly.  The revenue recognized by the company should match the performance obligations – the services the company agrees to provide to the client in exchange for the subscription amount.


What is Revenue Recognition Principle?

Subscription revenue recognition is a smaller part of revenue recognition in general. Revenue recognition is the act of recording income when the revenue-generating process is completed, or the revenue is earned. This is in opposition to recording it when the payment is received.

As you can see, in a subscription based environment, this changes revenue recording from capturing the up-front lump sum to considering the subscription term as a vital part of accounting. Accrued revenue and deferred revenue are two separate things, with subscription services matching the company’s performance obligation. A company can accrue revenue for performance obligations it has provided, but not yet billed for. A company should defer subscription revenue for cash it has received, but not yet performed all its obligations.

Why is Revenue Recognition Needed?

Revenue recognition ensures that accounting books are up to date and accurate in real-time. Profit and loss margins reflect the revenue that has been properly recognized and accrued, as those performance obligations are met.

Revenue recognition also connects real revenue and expenses at the same time, giving companies a better idea of their financial health and which subscriptions or activities are profitable.

Why is Revenue Recognition Important for Subscription Billing?

Revenue recognition is essential for subscription billing because it ensures transparency and accuracy in a company’s financial reporting. When businesses offer subscription-based services, they receive payments from customers over a specified period, often months or years. Proper revenue recognition allows companies to recognize and record these payments in a way that reflects the actual value of the services provided over time.

Here’s why it’s so crucial:

When Subscription Revenue Should be Recognized

When Should Revenue be Recorded?

Subscription revenue should be recognized on an accrual basis. That means that revenue is recorded and recognized when the value is earned, not when cash or other payments are ‘in hand.’ Products and services are rendered at various times, over different periods of times in a subscription model, which can make recognition complex.

Can you Recognize Revenue Before Billing?

If customers are paying up-front for long subscription terms, such as annual plans, it is generally unwise to recognize that revenue before the services are provided. Using our $12,000 per year example, the bill reflects an entire year’s worth of performance obligations. Each month, $1,000 would move from deferred revenue into recognized revenue, regardless of the original $12,000 bill.

If billing matches the service period (such as a monthly contract for monthly services), the situation may be different, and revenue could be recognized more quickly. However, implicit obligations such as customer support or installation help, and sales incentives (like promotional periods) may need to be amortized over the life of the contract.

Can Revenue be Recognized Before Delivery?

The CARES Act removed some of the limitations around how far back recent tax years’ net operating losses could be applied to prior years. If your company had profitable years that were followed by years of loss, talk to your tax accountant to see if you have any remaining net operating losses that can now be applied to earlier years to receive a tax refund.

Can You Recognize Revenue When You Invoice?

Because revenue is not accrued until the subscription service is provided to the client, it remains deferred during invoicing. Subscription revenue does not become accrued or recognized revenue until the client receives their subscription services during the subscription period (i.e., weekly, monthly, or quarterly).

How Do You Journalize Deferred Revenue?

Journalizing deferred revenue involves recording the receipt of advance payments for goods or services that will be delivered in the future. To do this, you create a journal entry by debiting the cash or accounts receivable account to recognize the payment received, and then you credit the deferred revenue account to show the obligation to provide the goods or services later. As time progresses and you fulfill the obligation, you gradually reduce the deferred revenue account with a debit and increase the revenue account with a credit, reflecting the recognition of earned revenue in your financial records. This process ensures accurate and transparent accounting for deferred revenue transactions.

How to Recognize Revenue in My Subscription Business

How to Record Subscriptions in Accounting

Using subscription revenue recognition, the up-front payment for a subscription service is usually attributed to a deferred revenue account or listing. Each subscription billing period comes about and the performance obligation is met. Then, that time frame’s portion of the up-front fee can transfer over and be recorded to accrued or recognized revenue.

What Are the COGS for a Subscription Business

What Costs of Goods Sold for Service Businesses Are

Cost of goods sold, or COGS, are the direct costs of selling, packaging, and otherwise delivering a product. In a traditional retail business, for example, the materials, packaging, and delivery costs of selling a coffee mug are COGS. COGS let businesses know how much revenue is left to deal with other costs. Similarly, COS or Cost of Service are the direct costs incurred related to providing the subscription service.

In a Subscription as a Service (SaaS) business, without a tangible object being sold, is a little harder to figure out. The most straightforward way to look at it is to consider your expenses and determine which are critical to being able to offer the service to your clients. Without paying those bills, you would not have a subscription service, thus they are COGS. For some businesses, this could include the hosting fees for the customer platform, ongoing customer support for existing customers, or merchant processing fees for accepting credit card payments. However, expenses related to R&D, engineering, sales, or other non-direct expenses would likely not be considered as SaaS COGS.

Are Payment Processing Fees COGS?

Some companies include payment processing fees in their COGS for SaaS, while others consider these fees an operating expense. Whichever your business chooses, the key is to keep the designation consistent across all transactions.

What Expenses are Included in COGS for SaaS?

Anything that is critical to providing a subscription service is included. That could be hosting fees, licensing fees, personnel costs for people directly supporting the product, and the like. Any expenses that directly support the subscription service should also be counted. This could include merchant fees, hosting, portions of salaries and benefits, and costs of the software and tools used.

What is Not Included in COGS?

Leave out anything that does not critically support the subscription. For example, sales commissions, up-selling costs, product development costs, and software that your business uses for operations should be left out of COGS and filed into a different category.

What is Revenue Recognition ASC 606?

What is Revenue Recognition ASC 606?

Accounting Standards Codification 606 is a revenue recognition standard created to help businesses recognize revenue more consistently by eliminating variations between businesses. This way, companies can be compared more readily without variations impacting how finances are viewed.

How ASC 606 is Implemented

ASC follows a five-step model. First a customer contract is identified and must meet ASC 606 criteria. Then, ASC 606 sets out how performance obligations in the contract are identified and handled. Step three is to determine the transaction price, before moving to step four, allocating the transaction price across the company’s various performance obligations. Finally, revenue is recognized when the performance obligation is met, in the final step.

Who Does ASC 606 Apply To?

ASC 606 applies to public, private, and non-profit entities. It includes service companies, such as SaaS businesses.

How to Recognize Revenue Under ASC 606

Under ASC 606 revenue is recognized as each performance obligation is completed for the customer, which may happen over a period. If a performance obligation is satisfied over time, revenue is recognized as it becomes enforceable against the customer even when the entire agreement is not complete.


In conclusion, understanding software subscription revenue recognition is crucial for businesses in today’s rapidly evolving tech landscape. By following the guidelines outlined in this comprehensive guide, companies can not only ensure compliance with accounting standards but also make informed decisions about their financial health and future growth strategies. It’s essential to stay up-to-date with the latest regulations and best practices in revenue recognition to maintain transparency, build trust with stakeholders, and drive sustainable success in the software industry. As the landscape continues to evolve, staying informed and proactive will be key to achieving long-term financial stability and success.

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