What Is Cash Flow?

Have you ever sat by the ocean and watched the tide ebb and flow for hours? If so, you probably know a lot about water flow. As a business owner, though, you should be more focused on cash flow. What is cash flow? We’re glad you asked!

Aptly named, cash flow is the money that flows in and out of your business. Cash flow is the sustainer of life for your business. Without positive cash flow, your business is in serious trouble.

In this article, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about what cash flow is and how it works, the difference between positive and negative cash flow, and how cash flow affects your business.

Cash Flow Definition

Cash flow is the money that comes into and goes out of your business. It is also one of the key indicators of how financially healthy your business is. You may hear people use the terms cash inflow and cash outflow. That may sound complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple:

  • Cash Inflow: Cash that comes into your business (ex. sales, interest earned, etc.).
  • Cash Outflow: Cash that leaves your business (ex. employee paychecks, inventory purchases, etc.).

Cash Flow VS Profit

It’s incredibly important to know the difference between cash flow and profit. A business making a large profit can still go bankrupt if it doesn’t have a strong cash flow. Here’s why.

In accrual accounting, income is recorded when products or services are agreed upon, not when they are paid for. Say you send an invoice of $200 to a customer. Your income account will go up by $200, yes. But your cash accounts don’t go up just because your income or profit accounts have. You still have to wait for your customer to pay their invoice, which sometimes can take months. (Invoices that are not yet received are called “accounts receivable.”)

So if you really want to know how much money your business has on hand, you have to look at your cash flow, not your profit.

Positive VS Negative Cash Flow

Businesses can either have a positive or negative cash flow.

  • Positive Cash Flow: When your business earns more than it spends during a certain period.
  • Negative Cash Flow: When your business spends more than it earns during a certain period.

A positive cash flow indicates that your business is healthy and you have enough cash to pay your employees, cover your business operating expenses, and maybe even expand your business. A negative cash flow indicates that you may have trouble paying for your business expenses and turning a profit.

Generally, positive cash flow is best. However, shy away from automatically assuming that a positive cash flow is good and a negative cash flow is bad. It’s important to know why your cash flow is positive or negative.

In the same way that profit doesn’t always equal cash flow, a positive cash flow doesn’t always imply profit.

For example, say you run a craft store that earns half its income selling supplies and the other half teaching sewing classes. If interest in sewing dies down, you may decide to focus on retail and liquidate (or sell) all of the sewing machines you bought. When you sell your machines, you will see a positive cash flow, but you won’t be earning the other half of your income anymore.

This is just one example of why it’s important to analyze your cash flow so you can truly understand the financial state of your business.

What Is Operating Cash Flow?

Cash flow can be calculated in several different ways. Each way gives you a different insight into your business’s cash flow. One of the most common cash flow calculations you’ll see is operating cash flow.

On the cash flow statement (a report of your business’s cash flow status), there are three different sections:

  • Cash flow of operating activities
  • Cash flow of investment activities
  • Cash flow of financial activities

Cash flow of operating activities and operating cash flow are one and the same. Operating cash flow shows you how much cash you’ve made from your business operations. It’s calculated by subtracting business expenses like payroll and inventory from income generated through sales that have been paid in cash.

What Is Net Cash Flow?

Net cash flow, or total cash flow, is the difference between a business’s cash inflows and cash outflows. Net cash flow is calculated on the cash flow statement by adding the cash flow of operating activities, investment activities, and financial activities together.

What Is Free Cash Flow?

Free cash flow refers to the cash that is actually available to use. Free cash flow shows all of the cash left over after paying for a business’s capital expenditures (capital expenditures are the expenses spent on purchasing or maintaining a company’s assets like buildings or equipment).

When you hear people (especially lenders) talk about free cash flow, you may hear the terms unlevered free cash flow and levered free cash flow.

  • Unlevered Free Cash Flow: Unlevered free cash flow is the free cash flow available before a company pays its debts, interest, and other financial obligations.
  • Levered Free Cash Flow: Levered free cash flow is the free cash flow available after a company pays its debts, interest, and other financial obligations.

Direct VS Indirect Method Cash Flow

There are two different ways of calculating cash flow and presenting the cash flow statement.

Remember how earlier we said that the cash flow statement is divided into three sections: cash flow of operation activities, cash flow of investment activities, and cash flow of financial activities?

The difference between the indirect and direct method is how the operating cash flow appears on the cash flow statement.

  • Direct Method: The direct cash flow method breaks down specific cash inflows and outflows and shows you the cash receipts from customers, cash paid to vendors and suppliers, cash collected from customers, interest earnings, dividends received, paid income tax, and paid interest. Adding these totals together is how the operating cash flow is calculated.
  • Indirect Method: Instead of tracking each type of business operation cash flow, the indirect cash flow method is calculated by taking the net income from a company’s income statement and adjusting the earnings before interest tax (EBIT). It sounds confusing until you remember the difference between cash flow and profit. The net income shows your overall profit — we need to adjust it to show cash flow by subtracting accounts receivable (or invoices that haven’t been paid yet).

While the direct method of calculating cash flow is more detailed, the indirect method is far easier to calculate and more widely used by businesses. The good news? If you’re using accounting software, it does all of the behind the scenes work for you. You’ll just see the total operating cash flow on your cash flow statement.

Don’t have good accounting software yet? Our comprehensive accounting software reviews cover QuickBooks products, Xero, Freshbooks, Sage, and more of the top cloud-based and locally-installed accounting solutions on the market today. If you want a quick peek at the top contenders, check out our accounting software comparison chart.

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Why Cash Flow Is Important

As we mentioned earlier, cash flow is the sustainer of business. Positive cash flow allows you to:

  • Pay your employees
  • Pay rent
  • Purchase inventory
  • Purchase new equipment
  • Grow your business

Essentially, positive cash flow means you can run your business successfully. If you lack cash flow, you will have a hard time operating your business and paying your business expenses on time.

If you consistently have a negative cash flow, you may even be forced to declare bankruptcy. According to the SBA (Small Business Administration), lack of positive cash flow is one of the biggest reasons that businesses fail.

Additionally, both potential lenders and investors take your business’s cash flow into consideration.

Before approving you for a loan, lenders want to see that you have a consistent positive cash flow and that you have the money to make regular payments on a loan.

Potential investors also want to see positive cash flow, which indicates that your company is financially stable and that they are likely to receive shareholder payments if they support your company.

Final Thoughts

You may have come into this article assuming that focusing on profit is the best thing you can do for your business. In the end, however, it all comes down to cash flow.

Without an understanding of cash flow, you won’t be able to run a business successfully. Nor will you be able to apply for funding from potential lenders to grow your business in the future. Pay attention to the cash flow reports in your accounting software, and you’ll be well on your way to maintaining positive cash flow and increasing overall profitability.

After analyzing your business’s finances, you may determine that you need a working capital loan or a line of credit to help you maintain positive cash flow. Read through our detailed small business loan reviews or view our business loan comparison chart to find a lender that works for you. If your business depends on invoices, invoice factoring might be more your speed. With invoice factoring, it’s possible to get cash for your invoices right away. Learn more in the Basic Introduction to Invoice Factoring and/or check out two of our favorite invoice factors: BlueVine and Fundbox.

For more information on accounting concepts and strategies, our accounting and bookkeeping blog is a good place to start. We cover everything from double-entry accounting to small business taxes. We also guide you through how to choose small business accounting software. What’s more, our comprehensive accounting software reviews cover QuickBooks products, Xero, Freshbooks, Sage, and more of the top cloud-based and locally-installed accounting solutions on the market today. For a bird’s eye view of the top contenders, check out our accounting software comparison chart.

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