Owner's Equity vs. Retained Earnings: What's the Difference?

It's more than just how they're taxed

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Owner's equity refers to the total value of the company that's held in the hands of owners, including founders, partners, and stockholders. Retained earnings refer to the company's net income or loss over the lifetime of the enterprise (subtracting any dividends paid to investors).

What's the Difference Between Owner's Equity and Retained Earnings?

Owner's Equity Retained Earnings
The total value of owner ownership Net income or loss for the company
Primarily used with sole proprietorships Primarily used with corporations

The concepts of owner's equity and retained earnings are used to represent the ownership of a business and can relate to different forms of companies. Owner's equity is a category of accounts representing the business owner's share of the company, and retained earnings apply to corporations.

Owner's equity refers to the assets minus the liabilities of the company. All owners share this equity. Owner's equity belongs entirely to the business owner in a simple business like a sole proprietorship because this form of business has just a single owner. It belongs to owners of partnerships and LLCs as agreed to by the owners.


For example, a partnership of two people might split the ownership 50/50 or in other percentages as stated in the partnership agreement.

Three categories on a balance sheet represent the business's financial position from an accounting standpoint: assetsliabilities, and owner's equity. Under each category are different accounts, like "cash" for assets, "supplies" for assets, and liabilities for things like taxes, a mortgage, or other debts. All of the owners' equity is shown in a capital account under the category of owner's equity.

Retained earnings are corporate income or profit that is not paid out as dividends. That is, it's money that's retained or kept in the company's accounts.

An easy way to understand retained earnings is that it's the same concept as owner's equity except it applies to a corporation rather than a sole proprietorship or other business types. Net earnings are cumulative income or loss since the business started that hasn't been distributed to the shareholders in the form of dividends. The statement of retained earnings shows whether the company had more net income than the dividends it declared.


The earnings of a corporation are kept or retained and are not paid out directly to the owners. In contrast, earnings are immediately available to the business owner in a sole proprietorship unless the owner elects to keep the money in the business.

Which Is Right for You?

All business types (sole proprietorships, partnerships, and corporations) use owner's equity, but only sole proprietorships name the balance sheet account "owner's equity."

Partners use the term "partners' equity." Partner ownership works in a similar way to ownership of a sole proprietorship. The partners each contribute specific amounts to the business at the beginning or when they join. Each partner receives a share of the business profits or takes a business loss in proportion to that partner's share as determined in their partnership agreement. Partners can take money out of the partnership from their distributive share account.

Owners of limited liability companies (LLCs) also have capital accounts and owner's equity. The owners take money out of the business as a draw from their capital accounts.

Corporations will use retained earnings.


Remember that owner's equity is a category. The account for a sole proprietor is a capital account showing the net amount of equity from owner investments. This account also reflects the net income or net loss at the end of a period. 

How To Calculate Owner's Equity or Retained Earnings

The basic accounting equation for this data point is "Assets = Liabilities + Owner's Equity." In other words, the value of a business's assets is equal to what the business owes to others (liabilities) plus what the owners own (owner's equity).


To think about the equation in terms of owner's equity, you can flip it around: "Owner's Equity = Assets – Liabilities."

Owner's equity can increase or decrease in four ways.

  1. It increases when an owner invests in the business. It is called a capital contribution because the owner is putting capital (money or property) into the business equation.
  2. It can increase when the company has a profit (when income is greater than expenses). The profits go into the company for use to pay down debt and to increase owner's equity.
  3. It can decrease if the owner takes money out of the business, by taking a draw, for example.
  4. It can also decrease if the expenses are greater than income (the business has a loss).

Example of Calculating Owner's Equity

Let's say that a business opens its doors with $1,000 in assets, including cash, supplies, and some equipment. The business owner put in $200 of her own money, and she borrowed the other $800 from her local bank. So the initial accounting equation would look like this: 

(Assets) $1,000 = (Liabilities) $800 + (Owner's Equity) $200

It could also look like this: 

(Owner's equity) $200 = (Assets) $1,000 – (Liabilities) $800 

Now let's say that at the end of the first year, the business shows a profit of $500. This increases the owner's equity and the cash available to the business by that amount. The profit is calculated on the business's income statement, which lists revenue or income and expenses.

Now the equation is:

(Owner's Equity) $700 = (Assets) $1,500 – (Liabilities) $800

But what if the owner took out $300 from the business as a draw during the year? The draw reduces the owner's capital account and owner's equity, so now the equation is:

(Owner's Equity) $400 = (Assets) $1,200 – (Liabilities) $800


For retained earnings with a corporation, the equation ultimately measures the same thing, but with a slightly different equation: "Corporate net earnings = cumulative net income – cumulative losses – dividends declared."

The Bottom Line

Owner's equity and retained earnings are largely synonymous in many circumstances, but there are key differences in exactly how they're calculated. Many small businesses with just a few owners will prefer to use owner's equity. Retained earnings are more useful for analyzing the financial strength of a corporation.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do you calculate owner's equity?

To calculate owner's equity, subtract the company's liabilities from its assets. This gives you the total value of the company that is shared by all owners.

How do you find retained earnings on the balance sheet?

Retained earnings don't always appear on the balance sheet. When it does, it typically falls under the owner's equity section.

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  1. TD Bank. "Owner's Equity Statements: Definition, Analysis and How To Create One."

  2. Mitchell Franklin et al. "Principles of Accounting, Volume 1: Financial Accounting," Pages 79, 890. OpenStax, 2019.

  3. Mitchell Franklin et al. "Principles of Accounting, Volume 1: Financial Accounting," Pages 932-936. OpenStax, 2019.

  4. Julie Dahlquist, Rainford Knight. "Principles of Finance: 5.2 The Balance Sheet." OpenStax, 2022.

  5. Julie Dahlquist, Rainford Knight. "Principles of Finance: 5.4 The Statement of Owner’s Equity." OpenStax, 2022.

  6. Julie Dahlquist, Rainford Knight. "Principles of Finance: 5.3 The Relationship Between the Balance Sheet and the Income Statement." OpenStax, 2022.

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