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How to prepare a statement of retained earnings for your business

A statement of retained earnings, or a retained earnings statement, is a short but crucial financial statement. It’s an overview of changes in the amount of retained earnings during a given accounting period. Broadly, a company’s retained earnings are the profits left over after paying out dividends to shareholders. 

If there are retained earnings, owners might use all of this capital to reinvest in the business and grow faster. Others might split the gains, or distribute the surplus to investors. 

Businesses usually publish a retained earnings statement on a quarterly and yearly basis. However, you can post one at any time. Startups, for example, might issue them more often. That’s because these statements hold essential information for business investors and lenders. 

In this article, we’ll provide the retained earnings formula and explain how to prepare a statement of retained earnings. You’ll also learn some ways to use retained earnings. Finally, we’ll explain what these statements communicate in the business world.  

What are retained earnings? 

Retained earnings are income that a company has generated during its history and kept rather than paying dividends. This balance is generated using a combination of financial statements, which we’ll review later. 

Retained earnings are reported in a couple of different places. Generally, they’re added to the bottom of a balance sheet within the shareholders’ equity section. This is done at the end of the accounting cycle, which could be monthly, quarterly, or longer. Here are the two main ways retained earnings are published:

  • Listed on a balance sheet under the shareholders’ equity or owner’s equity section, one of the three main sections on a balance sheet. (Assets and liabilities are the other two sections.) 
  • Published as a standalone summary report known as a statement of retained earnings as needed.

Retained earnings vs. owner’s equity

Retained earnings specifically apply to corporations because this business structure is set up to have shareholders. If you own a sole proprietorship, you’ll create a statement of owner’s equity instead of a statement of retained earnings.

Before we go any further, this is a good spot to talk about your small business accounting. If you haven’t already, you need to set up an accounting system. To calculate retained earnings, generate other financial statements, and prepare the report, you need accurate financial data. Without it, you’ll make costly mistakes and invite an IRS audit, fines, or penalties. Read our guide on how to set up new business accounting

How to calculate retained earnings 

To find retained earnings, you add the past period’s retained earnings to net income (or loss) and then subtract dividend payouts. Here is the retained earnings formula:

Retained Earnings = Beginning Period Retained Earnings + Net Income (or Loss) – Cash Dividends – Stock Dividends

If you’re calculating retained earnings for the first time, your beginning balance is zero. Net income is found on your company’s profit and loss statement (also called an income statement). You’ll refer to the balance sheet to find cash dividends and stock dividends on your balance sheet. 

A retained earnings balance isn’t always a positive number. This happens if the current period’s net loss is greater than the beginning period balance. Or, if you pay out more dividends than retained earnings, you’ll see a negative balance.

Ways to use retained earnings

You can take your retained earnings in many different directions. You might invest these net profits into new revenue-generating activities, or use them as working capital. You could purchase new business assets, like equipment, machinery, property, or vehicles. You might also set these earnings aside to pay off debt obligations. Here are some other examples:

  • Launch a new product line or service: Startup founders inevitably reach a point when they must either expand their product line and audience, or risk shrinking. Retained earnings present an opportunity to develop that second successful product
  • Expand your business: Hire more staff, open a new location, upgrade your office location, or otherwise expand your operations.
  • Pay off debts, loans, or other forms of credit: Get ahead on your small business debt payments.
  • Pay out dividends to shareholders: If your business can afford it, paybacks are attractive to current and prospective investors.

How to prepare a statement of retained earnings in 5 steps

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A statement of retained earnings can be a standalone document or appended to the balance sheet at the end of each accounting period. Like other financial statements, a retained earnings statement is structured as an equation. 

It leads with the retained earnings reported at the beginning of the period. Then, it lists balance adjustments based on changes in net income, cash dividends, and stock dividends. It ends with the new retained earnings balance for the accounting period. This closing balance will be the beginning balance for the next reporting cycle.

Follow these steps to prepare a statement of retained earnings. (Note: You or your accountant needs to have your firm’s balance sheet and income statement on hand.)

1. Add the heading

At the top, add a three-line heading. The first line contains your business name. The second line is the document title, such as "Statement of Retained Earnings." The third line indicates the accounting period for the report. For example, "For the Year 2019" or "For the Quarter Ended March 31, 2019."

2. Record the previous year’s balance 

This is the first line item. If you've prepared this statement before, you'll carry over the last period’s beginning balance. If this is your first statement of retained earnings, your starting balance is zero. 

Let's say your retained earnings last year was $12,000. This is what the first line would look like:

Beginning Retained Earnings Balance: $12,000

3. Add net income

Find net income on your income statement. If it's a net loss, subtract it from the beginning balance. In this example, we'll say your business earned $10,000. 

Beginning Retained Earnings Balance:  $12,000

Plus: Net Income                                       $10,000

4. Subtract any dividends paid out to shareholders

If your company has a dividend policy and you paid out dividends in that accounting period, subtract that number from net income. If not, subtract $0. 

Beginning Retained Earnings Balance:  $12,000

Plus: Net Income                                       $10,000

Minus: Dividends                                       ($5,000)

Note: Dividends are treated as a debit, or reduction, whether or not they’re paid out.

5. Calculate the total retained earnings

After subtracting the amount of dividends, you'll arrive at the ending retained earnings balance for this accounting period. This is the amount you'll post to the retained earnings account on your next balance sheet. 

Beginning Retained Earnings Balance:  $12,000

Plus: Net Income                                       $10,000

Minus: Dividends                                       ($5,000)

Ending Retained Earnings Balance:       $17,000

If you are your own bookkeeper or accountant, always double-check these figures with a financial advisor.

Why a statement of retained earnings is important for new businesses

A statement of retained earnings is highly sought after by two main groups: investors and lenders. Most startups depend on funding from both these sources to hit aggressive growth goals, expand quickly, and build business credit

First, investors want to see an increasing number of dividends or a rising share price. Although they’re shareholders, they’re a few steps removed from the business. A retained earnings statement is one concrete way to determine if they’re getting their return on investment. By comparing retained earnings balances over time, investors can better predict future dividend payments and improvements to share price. 

Second, lenders and creditors are continually looking for evidence that a business will be able to settle debts and make credit repayments. Business owners need to establish positive relationships with both these groups to get off the ground and keep growing.

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