What’s the difference between an invoice and a receipt?

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Getting to grips with invoices and receipts is an important part of running your small business. Although the two documents are often considered to be the same, understanding the fundamental differences between them will help you to maintain accurate and healthy financial records and practices. 

Simply put, an invoice is a request issued by a vendor when there’s an exchange of goods or services for payment. 

A receipt acknowledges that the agreed payment has been made and acts as the customer’s proof of purchase. 

By not registering the differences between the two documents, it could be much harder to organise your business finances effectively and adhere to proper rules and guidelines.  

In this guide, we’ll share everything you need to know about invoices and receipts in regards to your small business. You’ll find out the similarities, differences, how to format each and why it’s important to keep clear records of both documents. 

Top Tip: Before diving into the differences between an invoice and a receipt, it’s important to understand the complexities and rules surrounding invoices; specifically how to create an invoice, what should be included in it, how to ensure that it’s paid on time and how to avoid common invoicing mistakes. Invoices are an important part of everyday business operations and finances, so learning the ins and outs of them will help you to keep your business finances healthy. To learn more, read our guide to raising invoices and getting them paid.

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What are the differences between invoices and receipts?

Invoices and receipts are essential accounting documents for maintaining business records. They are useful to both buyers and vendors when there’s a transaction involving an exchange of goods or services for payment. 

The two documents provide details on the amounts owed and paid for the exchange of goods and services. Invoices and receipts usually include the vendor and customer information as well as the total amount due. 

Since they share many similarities it’s understandable why they’re often considered interchangeable. However, operating as if invoices and receipts are the same can land your business in trouble when it comes to filing your taxes or claiming expenses, as we’ll explain throughout this article.

Invoices and receipts shouldn’t be confused with a purchase order either. A purchase order is essentially a document issued by the buyer to the vendor or client describing the requested goods or services along with quantities and agreed-upon prices. 

Top Tip: To dive into the differences between an invoice and a purchase order in more detail, including why certain companies may need both documents in business dealings, read our guide to purchase orders vs invoices: what’s the difference?

Let’s examine the key differences between invoices and receipts in more detail: 

  • Since an invoice is a payment request, it’s always issued before payment is made. Given that receipts acknowledge payment, they’re provided after the payment. 

  • While an invoice is a legally-binding document that advises the buyer of the total amount due, a receipt is a legal document that proves that payment has been made and can act as a proof of ownership. 

  • An invoice is a commercial document that typically lists the goods and services for which payment is due. Expect to see details like product quantities or hours of service. A receipt shows how much has been paid and the payment method but may not include the same level of detail as an invoice. 

  • Invoices always go directly to the consumer who has to make a payment whereas a receipt may go to either the customer or a third party since it’s just proof of payment. 

  • Businesses use invoices to track the sale of products and services while a receipt’s primary purpose is to serve as proof of the amount a buyer has paid for the goods or services. 

Top Tip: Creating a consistent and accurate invoicing system is an essential part of small business accounting. When your business’s accounting processes are streamlined, you’ll find it much easier to plan for your business’s growth and development. Learn more about how to streamline your business’s accounting processes in our complete guide to small business accounting

How are invoices and receipts written differently? 

Understanding how invoices and receipts are written as well as formatted helps to highlight their differences. 

Formatting invoices: 

  • Invoices include details about both the seller and the buyer. Most follow a common formatting pattern with the vendor’s details in one of the top corners of the page. You’ll usually find the business’s name, trading address and phone number. The same details are provided for the customer on the opposite side of the page. 

  • Providing invoice numbers at the top of the page makes it easier to identify invoices and payments with your accounting team. 

  • Invoices give specific details on the products or services bought. There should be a name and description along with the rate and the quantity purchased. 

  • There are usually other details like payment terms, discounts for cash payment, the date of the invoice, payment due date, acceptable payment methods, VAT (if you’re VAT registered) and more.  

Here is an example of what a formatted invoice looks like.

an example of an invoice layout

Formatting receipts: 

  • Receipts usually include the business name and contact information at the top of the page. 

  • While it’s necessary to provide the name and price of the product or services paid and the date of payment, there may not be as many details regarding discounts, descriptions or unit prices unless an itemised receipt is specifically requested. 

  • Most receipts are printed, for example when you pay at a cash register or scan your credit card and receive a printed paper receipt—though as the world moves online it’s common to get a digital receipt emailed instead. 

  • It’s important not to include too many customer details on the receipt to prevent identity theft since many people throw away their receipts or leave them behind. 

Here’s an example of what a formatted receipt looks like. 

an example of what a receipt should include

When to use invoices and receipts

Given their different uses and purposes, it’s important to know the various circumstances in which it’s appropriate to send an invoice or a receipt, or both, and what that looks like in practice.

When to use invoices

If you run an online business or take orders over the phone, it’s good practice to send customers either a digital or paper invoice at the time of order that they can refer back to anytime.

The document acts as a proof of order and clearly shows what is owed. Invoices are generally sent to customers in this way when a company provides products or services before the payment due date. 

It’s up to your business to determine how long a customer has to pay for a product or service. Some businesses require payment upon receipt of the invoice whereas others may allow for payment to be made within 30 or 60 days of the invoice date. 

Payment due dates are completely dependent on your unique preferences and circumstances, so your decision should take into account what works best for both your business and your customers. 

It’s crucial to make the invoice payment date as clear as possible so the customer is well informed and expectations of payment are appropriately set. 

Tool Tip: Late payments can cause significant stress and contribute to cash flow problems. Tide’s invoice matching feature makes it easier than ever to track when payments are made by allowing you to match invoices to their relevant payment transaction. Learn more about this powerful and free invoicing matching feature today. 

Businesses of all sizes, sectors and industries use invoices. For example, restaurants use invoices when you ask for the bill and they bring a breakdown of what was spent. E-commerce sellers use invoices to confirm the goods and amount sold before requesting payment and freelancers use invoices when they request payment after a project is delivered. 

When to use receipts

Consumers often need receipts when it comes to proving certain expenses were in fact made. They may need this information when aiming to deduct purchases from their tax return or to get a reimbursement from their employer (more on this later). 

Receipts are also necessary when consumers need to return an item for a valid reason. For example, the item may be faulty or simply not what they thought they were buying. 

Most businesses set their own rules for what is considered a valid reason for the return, as well as whether or not a receipt is required to complete the return. The details of a return policy are usually displayed directly on the receipt, including how many days consumers have to make returns or exchanges following the purchase date. 

Without a receipt, retailers often only give exchanges or credit to choose another item. That said, if your business makes sales online, through mail or on the telephone, it is required that you provide refunds even if the goods aren’t faulty. 

Brick and mortar businesses often choose to provide a refund and exchange policy to improve customer satisfaction. Companies that choose to offer returns and exchanges must provide a receipt to customers as part of this process. 

Once payment has been made, it’s best practice to immediately follow up with a receipt whether the transaction has taken place in person, online or over the phone. You should always make two copies of the receipt, one for your customer and one for your business records. 

Whether it’s a supermarket, street vendor or online clothes shop, consumers expect businesses to provide receipts at the point of sale. 

Why are invoices and receipts important in business? 

Both invoices and receipts are vital for good business record keeping. However, they’re important for slightly different reasons. 

Tracking sales and revenue

Keeping hold of invoices enables you to record your business’s sales. This can come in handy when you’re tracking, reporting and forecasting monthly, quarterly, or yearly sales. 

Invoices are also a necessary tool when it comes to tracking your income and revenue. You’ll need to have a record of all of your income and expenditures when you sit down to file your taxes, and healthy record-keeping makes that process significantly easier. 

These days, many small business owners choose to store their invoices online so they can keep and view all of their invoices in one place.  

Top Tip: Using online invoicing software can make it much easier to track invoice payments and improve your cashflow. Invoicing software also allows you to automate tasks that will free up your valuable time, such as setting recurring invoices and sending out automatic payment reminders to clients. Learn more about the benefits of invoicing software in our guide to the 11 best invoicing software solutions for your small business.

Restocking your inventory

Invoices are also useful for suppliers in terms of enabling the delivery of goods, helping you to track the goods and services sold and restocking your inventory. 

Detailed invoices will show you exactly what you ordered and when, making it a key record to refer back to when it comes to restocking goods and materials. If you make duplicate recurring orders each month, ordering more inventory will be as simple as changing the invoice number and date. 

Managing employee expenses

Receipts are crucial when it comes to helping businesses keep their internal accounting processes streamlined, especially when it comes to employee expenses. 

For example, if your employees often travel for work purposes and make reimbursable payments, you’ll need a copy of their receipts to verify their spending and create an expense report. 

Top Tip: Keeping track of employee expenses via a streamlined system is key to saving time and money and avoiding potential employee fraud. A methodological expense policy and expense management software can help you to effectively manage this process. To learn more, read our guide to how to manage employee expenses.

Staying prepared in the event of a tax audit 

Maintaining a record and up to date summary of all sales invoices and receipts is crucial in the event of a tax audit. 

Both documents will help you to file your taxes correctly, ensure the right amount is paid and avoid a time-consuming tax audit. Without invoices and receipts, you may be liable to penalties and fines if you are audited. 

For example, as a limited company director, you can be fined £3,000 by HMRC or disqualified as a company director if you do not keep accurate accounting records. If you cannot find certain records, or if they get lost or stolen, you must do your best to recreate them. This is why keeping multiple copies of your invoices and receipts, and storing them digitally is so important. 

Maintaining a proper system for tracking your business’s invoices and receipts will save you time and money in the long run.

Top Tip: The best way to track your business expenses is to open a separate business current account. This way, you won’t get confused between your personal and business finances and it will be much easier to keep a pulse on your business transactions. Learn more about the types of business expenses, the importance of tracking them and specifically how to track them in our guide on how to keep track of expenses. 

Avoiding lawsuits

Invoices help protect small businesses from pricing disagreements and lawsuits. A sales invoice demonstrates that a good or service was sold at a certain time for an agreed-upon price. 

Invoices with both the vendor and consumer’s signature are particularly useful since they show an agreement between both parties. 

If there’s no invoice, it’s harder to prove that the sale took place seeing as there’s no documented record. Without a record, small businesses leave themselves open to pricing disputes. 

Claiming expenses 

Keeping invoices and receipts safe and accessible is also critical when it comes to claiming for expenses. Any business expenses such as insurance, software, payroll and utilities that are tax-deductible need to be proved with supporting documentation. 

You’ll need all relevant invoices and sales receipts to claim any business expenses from your tax return and you need to keep an accurate and auditable record of all of your expenses for up to six years.

Top Tip: Most business expenses are deducted from your income before they’re subject to VAT (if you’re VAT registered) and other taxes. Taking advantage of these allowable expenses can help you save money that you can invest back into your business. Dive into specifically what expenses your business can claim and how to claim them in our guide to what business expenses are and how small businesses can manage them.

Fueling business development

Businesses that closely track all sales invoices and receipts can use this aggregate data to better understand their target market

Buying behaviour provides key insights such as what products or services are selling well or poorly, in what quantity they’re being bought, at what time of the day or week they perform the best, and so on. 

This data can help sales and marketing teams learn patterns of behaviour that they can capitalise on to boost future sales. For example, if there is a seasonal uptick in sales of certain products, your team can run campaigns to motivate and incentivise certain buying behaviours.

Using invoices in this way is particularly effective if they’re stored digitally so all the information is easily accessible in one place. 

Wrapping up

Understanding the main differences between invoices and receipts will help you to stay organised, provide peace of mind for your customers, streamline your accounting processes, claim allowable expenses when you file your taxes, avoid lawsuits or audits and much more. 

All of this will lead to you being able to run your business more effectively, thus freeing up your time to focus on growing and developing your business to reach your goals. 

With Tide, you can send personalised invoices to your customers directly from our user-friendly app. With all of your invoices stored in one place, it will be easier than ever to avoid late payments, automate tasks and keep a pulse on your business’s financial health. To get started, open a business current account today and register your business for free

Photo by Vlada Karpovich, published on Pexels

Shahree Zin

Partnerships Executive and small business accounting advocate

Tide Team

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