A good cash flow analysis might be the most important single piece of a business plan. All the strategy, tactics, and ongoing business activities mean nothing if there isn’t enough money to pay the bills.
That’s what a cash flow projection is about—predicting your money needs in advance.
By cash, we mean money you can spend. Cash includes your checking account, savings, and liquid securities like money market funds. It is not just coins and bills.
Make no mistake: Profits aren’t the same as cash.
Profitable companies can run out of cash if they don’t know their numbers and manage the cash as well as the profits.
When your business spends money on inventory, debt repayment, new equipment, and other assets (to name a few examples), that money goes out of your bank account but doesn’t show up on your profit and loss statement. When your business makes a sale to a customer on account, that amount adds to sales in your profit and loss statement, but it sits in assets as accounts receivable until the customer pays.
The projected cash flow is what links the other two of the three essential projections, the projected profit and loss and projected balance sheet, together. The cash flow completes the system. It reconciles the profit and loss with the balance sheet.
There are several legitimate ways to do a cash flow plan. We have the direct cash flow method here, but there is also one called “sources and uses,” or the “indirect cash flow method,” that can be just as accurate.
Unfortunately, experts can be annoying. Sometimes it seems like as soon as you use one method, somebody who is supposed to know tells you you’ve done it wrong. Often that means that expert doesn’t know enough to realize there is more than one way to do it.
And—an important note for our LivePlan users—LivePlan also does both, direct and indirect, behind the scenes, and checks them, one against the other. The spreadsheet-intensive views here are not needed with LivePlan, but your projected cash flow is based on these same calculations. And of course, it is extremely sensitive to key cash flow factors including sales on credit, collections, inventory turnover, inventory financing, and payments. Most of what this article explains in detail here, for spreadsheet users, LivePlan does automatically as a result of your cash flow assumptions (more on this below).
Sample direct cash flow calculation
I include it here to show how estimated receipts from accounts receivable (termed received from AR) link to sales and the balance of accounts receivable.
Likewise, your payments of accounts payable have to link to the balances of payables and the costs and expenses that created the payables. Vital as this is to business survival, it is not nearly as intuitive as the sales forecast, personnel plan, or income statement.
Estimating the flow of receivables
The first two rows of Garrett’s cash flow projection above depend on detailed estimates of money coming in as his customers on account pay their invoices. His estimate depends on his guess based on the assumption that only 10 percent of his sales are on credit (on account), and that his customers pay their invoices in about one month on average.
That estimate looks like this:
In this case, the sales on credit are 10 percent of the estimated total sales in the sales forecast, $26,630. That’s the result of Garrett’s assumption, based on the nature of his business. And the money involved comes in one month later.
This worksheet projects the accounts receivable value in Garrett’s projected balance sheet, as well as the received from AR value in the projected cash flow. The receivables analysis depends on information in the profit and loss projection, plus an assumption about sales on credit, and another on waiting time before payment. And it affects the projected balance and the projected cash flow, as shown in the next illustration.
Estimating the impact of inventory
Inventory also affects cash flow. The cost of inventory that shows up in the projected profit and loss is related to the timing of sales. The actual cash flow implications of inventory depend on when new inventory is purchased, as shown here:
As with accounts receivable in the previous illustration, the inventory analysis depends on information from the sales forecast, and it sends information to both the projected balance sheet (ending inventory) and the projected cash flow (inventory purchase).
Estimating the impact of payables
Most businesses wait a month or so before they pay invoices for goods and services received from other businesses. That means we can save on our cash flow by holding back some money and paying it later. With proper accrual accounting, that money is recorded on the balance sheet as accounts payable.
Estimating accounts payable takes a careful combination of calculations and assumptions. First, we have to collect the full amount of payments. Then we account for payments made immediately, not held in accounts payable. After that, we estimate how long, on average, we hold payments. That analysis is shown below:
In this case, it is assumed that the store will pay its bills about a month after it receives them.
The indirect method
The indirect method is as valid as the direct and should reach the same results.
Where the direct method looks at sources and uses of cash, the indirect method starts with net income and adds back items like depreciation that affect net income but don’t affect the cash balance. For more on the indirect method, read The Indirect Cash Flow Method: How to Use It and Why It Matters.
The LivePlan method
LivePlan calculates your cash flow using your inputs for sales, costs, expenses, financing, inventory, sales on credit, and payments.
One of the key views in LivePlan is the cash flow assumptions view, as shown below, which highlights key cash flow assumptions in an interactive view that you can use to test the results of key assumptions:
You can see in this illustration how those assumptions match the discussion above, about key factors in cash flow.
The LivePlan output to cash flow is a direct cash flow table, as shown here below:
Cash flow is about management
Remember: You should be able to project cash flow using competent educated guesses based on an understanding of the flow in your business of sales, sales on credit, receivables, inventory, and payables.
These are useful projections. But, real management is minding the projections every month with plan versus actual analysis so you can catch changes in time to manage them.
For more on small business financials, check out these resources:
- The Key Elements of the Financial Plan
- How to Do a Sales Forecast
- How to Build a Profit and Loss Statement (Income Statement)
- Building Your Balance Sheet
- The Difference Between Cash and Profits
- Profit and Loss Template [Free Download]
- Balance Sheet Template [Free Download]