Dealing with Bad Debts: Tips for Small Business Owners

dealing with bad debts

In the world of business, the financial health of an organisation is of paramount importance. One term that often raises concerns amongst small business owners is bad debts. A bad debt, quite simply, is an amount receivable that a business is owed but is unlikely to be paid. This typically happens when a customer who has bought goods or services on credit is unable to fulfil their repayment obligation, usually due to insolvency. In such cases, businesses may need to resort to taking out loans or even mortgage their assets to cover the losses incurred from bad debts.

The impact of bad debts on small businesses can be substantial. When a business provides goods or services on credit, it records an account receivable. This is essentially an asset; a promise that money will come into the business at a later date. When that promise is broken and a bad debt occurs, the anticipated income becomes an expense, affecting the company’s bottom line.

Furthermore, bad debts can lead to significant cash flow issues for small businesses. Cash that was expected and perhaps earmarked for reinvestment, salaries, or to pay suppliers may not materialise, leading to financial strain.

As you delve into this article, you will gain insights into bad debts, how they can be managed, and the vital role of provision strategies and bad debt relief in safeguarding your business.

Quick Links

Understanding Bad Debts

To navigate the challenging waters of financial accounting and business finance, it’s essential to have a deep understanding of bad debts, how they occur, and the concepts that surround them. This includes managing receivables, loans, and ensuring timely repayment.

As we have already mentioned, bad debt refers to the amount that a company has recorded as receivable but has subsequently found uncollectable, typically due to the debtor’s insolvency. However, sometimes a bad debt can arise from disputes over the supply of goods or services, a customer’s dissatisfaction, or a simple inability to trace a debtor.

Relating closely to the concept of bad debt is ‘bad debt provision’ or ‘allowance for doubtful accounts’. This is an estimated amount set aside by the company, which essentially acts as a buffer for future bad debts. This estimate is based on historical experience, current economic conditions, and other relevant data. Accounting for bad debt provision is an essential part of the financial accounting process, allowing businesses to show a more accurate picture of their financial health.

Now, it’s worth distinguishing between ‘good debt’ and ‘bad debt’. Despite its ominous name, not all debt is detrimental to your business. Good debt is an amount that a business owes, which is manageable within the company’s cash flow and is expected to generate income or profit in the future. For instance, a loan taken to expand operations or purchase necessary equipment could be considered good debt because these actions are likely to increase future earnings.

Bad debt, on the other hand, represents credit extended to customers who fail to make the necessary payments. Unlike good debt, bad debt offers no return and can cause significant harm to a company’s bottom line and cash flow.

In the following sections, we will further explore how to manage bad debts and implement effective strategies to mitigate their impact on your company.

Bad Debt Provision and Its Role

The notion of bad debt provision, or allowance for doubtful accounts, is a crucial part of any company’s accounting practices. In essence, it’s a contra-asset account on a company’s balance sheet that reduces the total amount of outstanding receivables to a sum that the company realistically expects to collect.

When a company offers credit to its customers, there’s always an inherent risk that some customers may fail to pay. This situation, if not handled correctly, can become a significant threat to the company’s financial health. That’s where the bad debt provision comes in.

In financial accounting, bad debt expenses are recognised through the provision for doubtful debts. This provision is an estimate based on the company’s historical experience of bad debts, current customer creditworthiness, and general economic conditions. The aim is to align with the principle of conservatism in accounting, ensuring potential losses are accounted for as soon as they are foreseen.

Essentially, bad debt provisions allow companies to anticipate potential uncollectable receivables and adjust their financial statements accordingly. For instance, a company might consider its past experience of customer defaults, the financial condition of its customers, and the state of the economy when determining its bad debt provision.

The importance of having a robust bad debt provision strategy can’t be understated. A well-thought-out strategy helps businesses manage their cash flows more effectively and provides a more accurate picture of their expected income. The key is to strike a balance, making sure the provision isn’t too large, tying up cash unnecessarily, or too small, leading to a sudden hit to the income statement if debts aren’t paid.

To devise an effective bad debt provision strategy, businesses must continually assess and adjust their provisions. This task involves scrutinising their customer base, staying on top of economic trends, and applying the lessons learned from their past experiences with bad debts.

In the next section, we will take a closer look at the concept of bad debt relief and how it can help businesses mitigate the impact of bad debts.

Freephone including all mobiles

How Bad Debts Affect Your Business

Bad debts can significantly impact a company’s financial health. When a customer defaults on a payment, it’s not only the sale that’s lost, but the opportunity to use that income elsewhere in the business. The negative ripple effect that bad debts can have on a company’s cash flow, revenue, capital, and net sales can be substantial.

Cash Flow

One of the first and most apparent impacts of bad debts is on a company’s cash flow. When a customer fails to pay an invoice, it’s an immediate reduction in cash inflow, which can in turn affect the company’s ability to pay its own bills, invest in growth or return money to shareholders.


Revenue, the total amount of income generated by the sale of goods and services, is also directly impacted by bad debts. Bad debts are, in essence, sales that have not materialised into cash inflow. The more the bad debts, the greater the reduction in actual revenue.


Capital represents the assets that a business has to invest in its growth. Bad debts reduce the amount of available capital because the money tied up in unpaid invoices can’t be used for other investments. Moreover, significant bad debts may also hurt a company’s ability to raise additional capital, as lenders and investors may see the business as a risky proposition.

Net Sales

Net sales, the company’s total revenue minus any returns or allowances, will decrease as a result of bad debts. This decrease might paint an inaccurate picture of the company’s market performance and could potentially lead to inappropriate strategic decisions.

Impact on Financial Statements

Bad debts also distort a company’s financial statements. On the balance sheet, accounts receivable will be overstated if bad debts aren’t accounted for correctly, which can lead to an overstatement of assets and hence owner’s equity. On the income statement, revenues will be overstated, and expenses understated, leading to an overstatement of net income.

Bad debts are an unfortunate part of doing business, but understanding their effects can help in creating effective strategies to manage and mitigate their impacts. In the next section, we will discuss how to apply bad debt relief, a crucial mechanism to recover some losses from bad debts.

Trustpilot reviews, image of trustpilot logo

Free Advice

Low Cost Liquidations

Nationwide Service

Preventive Measures and Dealing with Bad Debts

Prevention is often better than cure, and this saying applies just as well to bad debts. Mitigating the risk of bad debts involves adopting a proactive approach, implementing rigorous customer screening processes, setting clear credit terms, and more. Additionally, companies need strategies to deal with bad debts when they occur, using methods such as direct write-off and allowance methods. It’s also crucial to consider the role of historical data in estimating doubtful accounts and understanding the matching principle in accounting.

Proactive Approach: Before extending credit to customers, companies should screen them to evaluate their creditworthiness. This process could involve checking their credit history, financial health, and reputation. Clear credit terms should be set and communicated to the customers from the outset, reducing the chances of late or defaulted payments.

Dealing with Bad Debts: Despite the best precautions, some bad debts are inevitable. When they occur, companies can use one of two main methods to account for them: the direct write-off method or the allowance method.

Direct Write-off Method

Under this method, bad debts are written off as an expense as soon as it becomes clear that an invoice will not be paid. Although this method is straightforward, it does not comply with the matching principle of accounting (more on that later).

Allowance Method

This approach involves estimating the amount of bad debts based on past experiences and creating a ‘contra-asset’ account – allowance for doubtful accounts – to offset accounts receivable. This method aligns with the matching principle since expenses are matched with the revenues they helped to earn.

Role of Historical Experience

Historical data can provide valuable insights into estimating doubtful accounts. By looking at the percentage of receivables that turned into bad debts in the past, companies can make an educated guess about future bad debts. This percentage can then be applied to the current total receivables to estimate the allowance for doubtful accounts.

Matching Principle in Accounting

The matching principle is a fundamental concept in accounting that dictates that expenses should be matched with the revenues they helped to generate within the same accounting period. For example, the cost of goods sold should be matched with the revenue from the sale of those goods. In terms of bad debts, the matching principle favours the allowance method since it allows for the estimate and recognition of bad debts in the same period as the related credit sales.

Claiming Bad Debt Relief

Bad debt relief can be a lifeline for businesses grappling with the loss from bad debts, particularly in relation to Value Added Tax (VAT). In the United Kingdom, bad debt relief allows businesses to claim back the VAT paid to HMRC on the supplies they haven’t received payment for, which have consequently become bad debts.

Bad Debt Relief and VAT

When a business supplies goods or services to a customer, it charges VAT on the transaction, which it then must pay to HMRC. If the customer doesn’t pay for these supplies, the business faces a double loss: the price of the supplies and the VAT it has already paid. Bad debt relief provides a way for businesses to claim back this VAT element, mitigating some of the losses.

Making a Bad Debt Relief Claim

To make a claim, you must include the VAT you wish to reclaim in your VAT return. The claim should be made in the ‘VAT on sales and other outputs’ box of the return (usually box 1). The total value of the sale (excluding VAT) should also be included in the ‘total value of sales and all other outputs excluding any VAT’ box (usually box 6).

Requirements and Conditions for Claiming

However, businesses can’t simply claim bad debt relief whenever they have a bad debt. Certain conditions must be met:

  1. You must have supplied the goods or services and accounted for the VAT, and paid this VAT to HMRC.
  2. The debt must be over six months old (from the relevant date) but less than four years and six months.
  3. You must have written off the debt in your accounts, transferring it from your ‘trade debtors’ to a ‘bad debt’ account.
  4. The customer must not have paid you, and you must not have sold the debt (unless to a factoring company).
  5. The value of the supply must not be more than the customary selling price.

It is essential to keep records of bad debt relief claims, including details of the supplies, customers, and any repayments. Always consult with a finance professional when dealing with VAT and bad debt relief to ensure compliance with all the requirements and conditions.

Next, we will explore how insolvency practitioners can help businesses in a financial crisis and delve into the various types of liquidation.

Please note: The above guidance is based on the VAT rules in the United Kingdom.

When Things Get Tough: Considering Liquidation

There may come a time when, despite all efforts to prevent and recover bad debts, the financial strain becomes too much. In such instances, liquidation can be a viable path to mitigate the ongoing damage and prepare for a fresh start.

There are several types of liquidation, each with different implications and processes. The choice depends on various factors, such as the financial condition of the company, the directors’ decision, or a court order.

Compulsory Liquidation

This occurs when a company is ordered by the court to cease operations and sell its assets. The court makes this order following a petition usually from creditors, but it could also be the company or its directors. More information can be found here.

Creditors Voluntary Liquidation (CVL)

CVL is initiated by the directors when they recognise that the company is insolvent and cannot pay its debts as they fall due. This decision is usually taken to prevent further losses to creditors. Learn more about it here.

Members Voluntary Liquidation (MVL)

An MVL is a procedure used by a solvent company for restructuring or winding up operations in a tax-efficient manner. You can explore more about MVL here.

Dealing with insolvency and liquidation is a complex process. Professional guidance from insolvency practitioners can be invaluable. Company Doctor is a nationwide insolvency practitioner that can assist with Creditors Voluntary Liquidations and other insolvency procedures. They can guide you through the process, ensuring that all legal obligations are met, and potentially easing some of the burdens you’re facing.

To discuss your situation, contact Company Doctor at 0800 169 1536. Their team is ready to provide the advice and support you need in these challenging times.

In the following section, we will address some common questions related to bad debts and how they affect small businesses.

Let Company Doctor Help

Don’t let bad debts cripple your small business. Managing such challenges requires specialised knowledge and a strategic approach, and that’s where Company Doctor comes into play.

As insolvency practitioners operating nationwide, we have the expertise to guide you through the stormy seas of financial distress. Whether it’s navigating through a Creditors Voluntary Liquidation, comprehending the intricacies of bad debt provision, or devising strategies to deal with doubtful accounts, we’re here to support you.

Remember, facing financial difficulties is not the end of your business journey, but a hurdle to overcome. The key to resilience is acting promptly and making informed decisions. Every day counts when you’re dealing with insolvency, so don’t hesitate to seek help.

Contact us today on 0800 169 1536 or visit our website to learn more about how we can assist you. Let us help you turn your bad debts into an opportunity for a fresh start.


What is bad debt?

Bad debt refers to the amount owed to a business by a debtor who is unlikely to pay. This typically happens when the debtor goes into bankruptcy or when the cost of pursuing the collection is more than the debt itself.

What is a bad debt provision?

A bad debt provision, also known as an allowance for doubtful accounts, is an estimated amount set aside by businesses to cover potential losses from customers who fail to make payments on their credit accounts.

How is bad debt provision calculated?

The calculation method may vary, but it often involves analysing historical data on credit sales and collections. Businesses usually apply a percentage of the total receivables or sales, which they expect not to collect based on their historical experience.

What is bad debt relief?

Bad debt relief is a provision that allows businesses to claim back the VAT they have paid to HMRC on sales invoices which have not been paid by the customer.

How can I claim bad debt relief?

To claim bad debt relief, you need to meet several conditions. The debt must be over six months old from the due date but less than four and a half years old. You must have supplied the goods or services, accounted for the VAT, and paid the VAT to HMRC, among other requirements. The claim is then made on your VAT return.

When should I consider liquidation for my business?

Liquidation should be considered when your business is insolvent, meaning it cannot pay its debts when they fall due, or its liabilities exceed its assets. This is a serious situation and you should immediately seek advice from a professional, like an insolvency practitioner.

How can Company Doctor help my business with bad debts?

At Company Doctor, we offer expert advice and guidance on various solutions, including Creditors Voluntary Liquidation, if your company is struggling with bad debts. Our insolvency practitioners operate nationwide, offering a range of services tailored to help your business recover and thrive.


The primary sources for this article are listed below. – Liquidate Your Company

Details of our standards for producing accurate, unbiased content can be found in our editorial policy here.

Scroll to Top