Business Owners Need to Understand the Difference Between Cash Flows and Profits
Cash flows and profits are financial metrics that are crucial to business success. And people, especially those new to finance and accounting, can confuse the two terms. But cash flow and profit are not synonymous.
You must understand the difference between these terms to run your business successfully. You can jeopardize the financial health of your business if you constantly mix up cash flow with profit.
If you are an investor, understanding cash flows and profits can make it easy to spot a good investment. As a business owner, you can skillfully make crucial decisions and identify growth opportunities.
Let’s find out everything you need to know about cash flows and profits, how they are different, and how they can affect your business.
What is Profit?
Profit is what remains after subtracting all the expenses from revenue. If you are making a profit you are making more money than you need to run your business.
Like cash flow, profit can also be positive or negative. To help you calculate your profit, you need to figure out your total revenues, costs, and total expenses. These three numbers determine whether there is net profit or net loss. (By costs we mean costs of goods sold, or costs of sales. If you don’t know what those are, don’t worry, you can just consider them another expense.)
Subtract your costs and expenses from your revenues. If your profit turns out to be a negative number, your business has sustained a loss. This situation means you are spending more than you are gaining. If the number is positive, you are netting a profit.
There are three different forms of profit.
Gross profit is your revenue minus the cost of products sold, also known as COGS.
Operating profit is the net profit generated from your core business operations. It does not include deductions from interest and taxes.
Net profit is the amount left after subtracting all operating costs, interests, and tax expenses over a given period. It is the result of deducting your total expenses from your total revenue.
Given this equation, you can deduce that your product price and the costs it takes to produce it are two important components involved in determining your gross profit.
How you manage your expenses has a considerable impact on the outcome of your business. Evaluate your expenses if your net profit isn’t big enough, or worse, you’re not netting a profit. From there, you can improve your company’s profitability.
Proper pricing could also help increase your profit. You can switch vendors or reduce your employee salary to control your costs, but it is the price that you have total control over. The bigger the difference between your product price and the cost of production, the bigger your gross profit. Find the highest possible price that will not scare off your customers.
What is Cash Flow?
Running a successful business requires you to follow numerous rules. But if there is one rule you must stick to, it would be to never run out of cash. It is extremely important to maintain an adequate cash balance, but unfortunately, many business owners and managers ignore this issue until it is too late.
Cash flow is the net balance of cash going in and out of your business at a given point in time. It can either be positive or negative. Negative cash flows means that your business has more money going out than going in. Positive cash flows suggest that you have more money coming in than going out. Positive cash flow gives you the ability to pay loans, pay expenses, and have a buffer in case of financial challenges in the future.
It is necessary to manage cash flow for daily operating costs, purchases, salaries, and tax payments. You must control cash that moves in and out of your business and know how well your cash balance stands against cash demands. (The statement of cash flows is the financial statement that provides info on the cash that is coming in and out and what it is being used for.)
It’s never safe to assume that cash will always be available as long as you are making a profit. If you don’t monitor and control your cash flow, you may find yourself in a serious bind.
This is one of the reasons why many product-based startups face money issues. A business that sells products has to spend cash first, whether for buying the product or for getting raw materials. Even if the product has the potential to bring in enormous profits, if the startup does not have enough cash, it will not survive.
It can be confusing when you are running out of cash, yet your startup is making money. Experienced business owners will tell you that it’s possible to be making strong profits yet not have enough cash.
This scenario happens because each sale adds to your revenues, and therefore profits (see above); however, sales don’t translate into cash flows until you get paid. So, if you are making sales like crazy and creating products like crazy to satisfy the demand but not getting paid quickly enough you may run out of cash and not be able to pay things like rent and salaries. That is a big problem, to say the least.
With this in mind, “Don’t focus on sales,” is sound advice. Sales are important, but cash is king.
But it’s important to remember that cash flows don’t just come from sales. Cash flows can come from various sources. If you get a loan, that is a source of cash flows. If you sell a piece of equipment, that is a source of cash flows. If you finally get paid on a sale you made a year ago, that is a source of cash flows. If you sell equity to some new investors, wait for it, that is a source of cash flows.
So, in summary, cash flows and profits are not the same thing. Profits are what is left over after you deduct all of your expenses / costs from your revenue, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to cash. Cash flows are a separate phenomenon independent from profits, and represent the actual net amount of cash in and out of the business. To run a successful business you must mind both. (Want to learn more? Check out our handy definitions page here.)
If you want to understand accounting, or business in general, then one of the first things that you must learn is how to read financial statements. The financial statements provide summary data (accumulated through day-to-day bookkeeping and accounting) that can tell you a great deal about a company’s financial well-being and the nature of its operations.
For public companies, the financial statements are available to the public in their annual and quarterly reports, also known as 10-Ks and 10-Qs. For private businesses, the financial statements aren’t usually available to the public, but they can be seen in internal documents, internal accounting software, and often-times tax returns. (Strictly speaking that can be said for public companies as well, but the important point is that private companies don’t have formal 10-Ks and 10-Qs that you can find on the web.)
Quick Tip:A great way to learn more about financial statements is to review some real-world examples. If you want to see some 10-Ks from public traded companies check out the SEC’s EDGAR portal where you can search for a public company’s official financial filings. There is a lot of information in an annual or quarterly report (10-K or 10-Q), but if you go through it closely you should be able to find the financial reports – or just check the table of contents if you want to save some time.
So, what are these mysterious financial reports? The three primary statements are the Income Statement (also known as a Statement of Profit and Loss), the Balance Sheet, and the Statement of Cash Flows. (Some public companies may also use a Statement of Changes of Equity, but that is beyond the scope of discussion here.) When reviewed in conjunction, these reports can give a remarkably holistic view of a company, regardless of its size or what it does. In fact, you can learn quite a bit about a company just looking at one or two of these reports, in particular the income statement and the balance sheet.
We will go through each of the documents in turn – so strap on your accounting hat and get ready for some financial statements.
The Income Statement
The income statement, also known as the statement of profit and loss or simply the P&L, is surely the most well-known financial statement. If you want to check out a company’s profitability, or how much revenue it has, or how many expenses it has, then the income statement is what you want. The concept is really quite simple: it starts with the revenue at the top, then begins deducting expenses until you end up with net income, or net loss, which is the amount of money gained or lost after accounting for all of the expenses.
The income statement is made up of flow variables, which is a fancy way of saying that an income statement expresses activity through time, for example a month, or a quarter, or a year. So, when you read an income statement, it is always important to check what the time frame is. (Needless to say, the income statement on an annual report should be for a year and on a quarterly report should be for a quarter.)
As you can see, an income statement may include some strange vocabulary that you may not be used to. To help with this we’ve put together some definitions which should help to keep things clear – but don’t get too bogged down on any one line item, the most important thing to remember is the basic concept. That is, you start with revenue and then begin pulling out the expenses one by one until you get to your net income, also known as profit.
Cost of Goods Sold (COGS)
You may see COGS listed as an expense just under revenue at the top of an income statement. COGS is an expenses category that some businesses use to describe the internal cost of items they sell. If you buy and then resell shoes, for example, then the cost of buying your shoes is your cost of goods sold, which of course must be deducted from your revenue when trying to determine your profit.
SG&A (Selling, General, & Administrative)
As noted above, SG&A stands for selling, general, and administrative expenses. This can be quite a broad category of expenses, depending on how many unique line items you want on your income statement. It can include anything that would be considered a general or administrative expense like employee salaries, rent, or the cost of office materials and supplies, as well as selling costs like commissions.
If a company uses COGS, then it will add a subtotal for gross profit which represents the profit after deducting COGS, but before deducting the remaining expenses. This is known as gross profit accounting. (Take look at this article from Investopedia for a bit more info on the difference between gross profit and net income, an important topic.)
EBITDA stands for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. This represents a subtotal describing profits before deducting the aforementioned amounts and can be useful when undertaking financial analysis or analyzing a company in a bit more detail.
This is the same as EBITDA but with the depreciation (D) and amortization (A) deducted.
Depreciation & Amortization
These are slightly more advanced accounting concepts that represent the amounts deducted as a consideration of the value lost via the depreciation of your equipment or any intangible assets (for example trademarks) that you might own. Unlike most of the expenses on the income statement, these are non-cash expenses, that is, they don’t represent actual cash being lost. We’ll learn a bit more about this concept when we discuss the statement of cash flows later in the article.
Net Income / Net Earnings / Profit
Three ways of saying the same thing, that is, the amount of money left over after deducting all of your expenses.
So those are the income statement basics – for a more detailed description take a look at this blog post which takes a deep dive into all things Income Statement.
The Balance Sheet
The balance sheet is the second most famous financial statement, and when presented alongside the income statement can give a pretty good picture of a company’s financial position. (Although not perfect, for that you need all the statements.)
The balance sheet displays the value of a company’s assets, liabilities, and shareholder’s equity at a given moment in time. This is distinct from the income statement, which describes values that accumulated through a period of time. That is to say, the balance sheet from Dec. 31 describes the value of a company’s assets, liabilities, and equity at the end of that day, and the balance sheet on Dec. 20th describes the values at the end of that day. This may seem a bit confusing, but the key point is that the asset, liability, and equity accounts on the balance sheet represent a store of value that changes through time, not the amount of the actual change.
For example, imagine you bought a multi-million dollar piece of equipment. This is an asset that your business owns and therefore must be displayed on your balance sheet. Just like your car or your house or your computer, this asset will likely lose value over time, so in order to get a good understanding of your company’s financial standing at a given moment it will be key to see the value of the asset at that particular moment in time. Another example would be a loan. On day one of a loan you owe the entire amount, so the entire amount will be shown on the balance sheet. Three years into the loan it will (hopefully) be much smaller, so the amount on the balance sheet will be the remaining balance of the loan after three years.
What is the point of all of this? The point is to show the assets that a company owns, the liabilities that a company owes, and the value that has either been invested in the company or that the company has generated through its operations, (the final concept being the equity). By looking at this one can get a much better understanding of a company’s financial position. Does it have a ton of debt? Does it have a great deal of assets? What kind of assets does it have? What kind of debt does it have? A balance sheet can help to answer these questions.
Quick Tip: Normally, when the balance sheet is displayed alongside the income statement it will represent the last day in the period shown via the income statement. In the case of an annual report, the income statement will display activity from Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, and the balance sheet will display values as of Dec. 31. (Unless of course the company doesn’t use the regular calendar for their fiscal year – but the concept holds regardless of the dates in question.)
The balance sheet can be a bit confusing, but the key points to remember are that it is a snapshot in time, and that it displays a company’s assets, liabilities, and equity, thereby giving you a better understanding of its overall financial health. Take a look at the vocabulary below for a bit more help decoding some of the line items you may encounter, and If you are interested in learning more, check out our great blog post that goes into detail on the ins and outs of balance sheets.
Either cash, or an asset that is expected to be converted to cash within the next year, generally very liquid assets.
Prepaid Expenses / Assets
Items which you have already paid for but haven’t expensed yet on the income statement. For example, good or services that you have already paid for but haven’t received yet. When you receive them you will take this asset off of the balance sheet and add an expense to the income statement.
Long Term Assets
Assets not expected to be converted to cash in the next twelve months.
Liabilities that will need to be paid in the next twelve months.
Long Term Liabilities
Liabilities that will not be paid in the next twelve months.
PP&E (Property, Plant & Equipment)
As noted above, PP&E stands for Property, Plant & Equipment. This asset category includes the value of the physical assets the you own over a long term such as machinery, buildings, equipment, and vehicles. When these assets lose value through time, it is known as depreciation, which is a non-cash expense on the income statement.
Assets that aren’t physical in nature that you will own over a long time frame, such as patents or intellectual property. When these assets lose value through time, it is known as amortization, which is a non-cash expense on the income statement.
The profits that have been accumulated through time. Imagine in year 1 you have $1,000 in profits (net income), at the end of year 1 you will have $1,000 in profit on the income statement and $0 in retained earning on the balance sheet. Then in year 2 if you make $3,000 in profits you will have $3,000 on the income statement, and the original $1,000 will be accounted for in retained earnings on the balance sheet. Come year 3 you will have $4,000 in retained earnings on the balance sheet, and the profit you make in that year will be on the income statement. This account represents a key relationship between the income statement and the balance sheet. In short, retained earnings is where you store the net income which you have accumulated in the past.
The Statement of Cash Flows
The third financial statement is the statement of cash flows. The statement of cash flows has never had the same acclaim as the IS and BS, but it is extremely important. The role of the statement of cash flows is to express the actual cash that comes in and out of a business.
You may be thinking, doesn’t the income statement already do that? The answer is no, for several reasons. For one, the income statement includes transactions that may not actually involve the use of cash, for example when you depreciate an asset the depreciation expense is deducted against revenues when determining profit even though there is no cash lost. Or, you may spend cash on transactions that never hit the income statement. For example, when you buy inventory you spend cash, but that inventory is not expensed until it is sold (this is COGS) – in the meantime it represents another asset on your balance sheet.
Another example would be when you purchase long term assets. If you purchase a massive piece of machinery you probably spent a ton of cash, but the purchase won’t hit the income statement at all. The expense associated with that purchase will hit the income statement slowly over time through the depreciation expense, discussed above. Likewise for intangible assets like patents or intellectual property, which eventually are expensed on the income statement via the amortization expense. Given that these kinds of items can be extremely expensive, one can see how checking the income for changes in cash flows can be a major mistake.
If you look at the sample statement of cash flows above you will see a perfect example of the difference between net income (from the income statement) and net cash flows, from the statement of cash flows. As you can see, Year 1 has more net income than Year 2, yet in Year 1 the company actually has a net loss of $25,000 in cash, whereas in year 2, the company has a net gain of $163,000 in cash. Why is that? Two primary reasons. For one, in year one there is a major capital expenditure of $150,000. This represents the purchase of a long term asset, like some expensive machinery. That is $150,000 out the door that isn’t touching the income statement (yet) and therefore is not included in the calculation of net income.
In addition, in Year 2 there is a $50,000 increase in cash due to some new debt, presumably a loan of some sort. This also doesn’t hit the income statement, and can only be see here, on the statement of cash flows. These two differences, plus some nominal differences elsewhere on the statement, lead to the substantial discrepancy in cash flows between these years.
If you are really interested in accounting it is crucial you eventually learn the subtleties of cash flow statement, but if you are just looking for a basic understanding of the financial statements suffice it to say that the statement of cash flows is the go to financial statement for examining your cash flows. If you are depending on the income statement for this than you are making a major rookie mistake. (We will be posting an in-depth discussion of the cash flow statement soon should you wish to learn more.)
Why is all of this important? Well for one, the last thing a business wants to do is to run out of money. Regardless of how big your profits are, running out of money is bad for business. (Very bad.) In addition, it is important to know where your cash is coming from and where it is going, so you can plan accordingly. The statement of cash flows will show you both how much your cash has changed over a period of time (it uses flow variables like the income statement), and what transactions have affected it.
Quick Tip: A classic topic of discussion in business schools is the challenge of a new business with incredibly high profits that fail because they run out of money. Check out this article from Inc. Magazine for three detailed real world examples. Or, to learn even more about the difference between cash flows and profits, check out this article from Harvard Business School.
Like the income statement, the statement of cash flows ties back to the balance sheet. In this case, the statement of cash flows explains the change in the amount of cash (an asset) on the balance sheet over time. So, if at the end of year 1 the balance sheet had $100,000 in cash, and at the end of year 2 it had $50,000, the statement of cash flows will describe in detail why that number went down.
The actual statement of cash flows is broken into three parts: Operating Activities, Investing Activities, and Financing Activities, described below in turn, along with some other key vocabulary.
These represent cash flows associated with revenue generation, for example cash received from product sales.
These represent cash flows associated with the acquisition and sale of assets, for example buying a truck (CapEx) or selling a building.
Capital Expenditures (CapEx)
Capital expenditures represent investments in assets that you will use over a long period of time, for example machinery, equipment, or buildings. The amount of the purchase will hit the statement of cash flows initially, then the expense will gradually hit the income statement through depreciation or amortization. This would be categorized on the statement of cash flows under investing activities.
These represent cash flows associated raising capital, for example acquiring and paying off loans, fundraising from investors, and paying dividends to shareholders.
Concluding Remarks on the Financial Statements
So, there you have it, the three primary financial statements. By examining these statements you can get a very good understanding of the financial standing of a company, be it yours or someone else’s. The income statement provides a picture of revenues, expenses, and profits, the balance sheet breaks down the asset, liability, and equity accounts, and the statement of cash flows sheds light on the cash coming in and out of the company.
If you want to go really deep, like super deep, into these topics then you should read these materials from the CFA Institute. The CFA Institute is an extremely reputable organization in the world of finance and has many great reference materials, not to mention an incredible charter than you can acquire.
Final point: for more information on why businesses work with companies like us take a look at the first video below. For some great video content on the financial statements, take a look at the second video below.
Why Do Companies Work with Outside Bookkeeping & CFO Services Companies Like My OC Bookkeeper?