by Rebeca N. Marquez, MBA
So there I was, an experienced accountant with her Bachelors degree, sitting in Accounting 101 with my fellow MBA classmates of assorted academic backgrounds. My class of sixty-five students was busy reviewing work problems with the Teacher’s Assistant, a Ph.D. candidate at our school. He was struggling to answer the class’s daunting questions about debits and credits. How do you know what to debit and why does an expense get a credit, anyway?
Accounting, like any foreign language, has its own jargon and, in my experience, school teachers usually provide acronyms or mnemonics to facilitate learning that language. So when I saw our TA failing to communicate the lesson, I raised my hand and asked him, “Do you have a mnemonic we could use to help us know the difference?” He curtly replied, “No, there is none. You just have to learn it by rote memorization.” That was not the answer I was expecting; I assumed he knew a mnemonic and had just forgotten to tell us. When he said there wasn’t one, I was dumbfounded. “Well, I do,” I blurted, “I know a mnemonic, that is.” The TA looked at me with equal surprise and said, “Oh! You do? Well, please, do share it with us!”
In that moment, as I walked to the front of the class, all I felt was pure confusion. How could you go through an entire academic career, make it to the Ph.D. level, and not know a mnemonic device for debits and credits? It’s the most confounding lesson to learn in Accounting and how else would you keep it all straight? What, with rote memorization?!
That train of thought quickly vanished as I turned around to face a hundred and thirty expectant eyes staring at me and all that I was about to reveal with my mysterious mnemonic. Couple that with a dreadful feeling of upstaging your Ph.D. instructor, whom you assume is “on high,” and I thought I was for sure doomed to be a pariah from the start of my MBA career. I searched for a friendly face to help relieve my anxiety, but found only two giddy classmates to my far left seemingly elated by my off-routine interruption. “Sigh,” I thought, “you’re in it now, Rebeca, go big or go home.” So, with all the animation I could muster, I told my story.
“You know those muscle guys at the gym?” I pointed to two muscular-looking students in the room. “There’s one exercise called the preacher curl that works the biceps.” I demonstrated. “Well, sometimes the exercise is called “dead curls” because your arms feel dead and limp as noodles after doing it. So, “Dead Crls”– without the “u” – is our mnemonic.”
I walked to the chalk board. “Write “D-E-A-D” vertically, and “C-R-L-S” next to it, also vertically. You now have two columns. The first letter in each column is the column heading: “D” for debits and “C” for credits, like a “t-account.” Underneath the first heading, Debits, you have E-A-D, for expenses, assets, & dividends. Underneath the second heading, Credits, you have R-L-S, for revenues, liabilities, & shareholders’ equity.” I paused for effect and proceeded when eye contact resumed.
“Expenses, assets, & dividends all increase on the Debit side. Revenues, liabilities, & shareholders’ equity all increase on the Credit side.” I paused again. “If these three on the left increase on the Debit side, they must therefore decrease on the Credit side. And if these three on the right increase on the Credit side, they must therefore…” I gesture for the class to answer: “…decrease on the Debit side!”
“And there you have your mnemonic structure for remembering the difference between debits & credits,” I said. Avid applause ensued.
Aside from losing my competitive advantage in the class grading curve, those two giddy classmates immediately confirmed that I had provided exactly what the class was looking for and assured me that I’d filled a need, which our poor Ph.D. candidate wasn’t equipped to satisfy. Later that week, I was pleasantly surprised to see almost every study room’s white board scrawled with the words “DEAD CRLS.”
This experience shattered a preconception I was hardly aware of still holding on to. I realized that I revered my instructors, much like a child, presuming they knew best simply because of their position and status. But unlike a child, I now had knowledge and experience of my own. Since that day, I’ve learned to question authority without remorse, and that important titles scarcely connote infallibility. Upon reflection, I wonder if the gym’s bicep machine had any visits from my not-so-muscular classmates trying to prove me wrong. I hope they questioned the basis for my mnemonic. I would have loved to see someone cradling their biceps and groaning about their “dead curls.”
Rebeca N. Marquez holds an MBA degree and is a business consultant in the Greater Seattle, WA area. She specializes in entrepreneurial startups, company profitability, marketing, and finance. See more at her website and click here to see her articles, marquezbusinessconsulting.com/articles.