Cash flow management basics for small businesses

February 28, 2024 | 7 minute readEn español

Managing cash flow — how much money is going out the door versus how much is coming in — is essential for every business. It’s especially important for small businesses, which often operate on a very lean budget. Inflation is also a considerable factor right now, with some 88% of small business owners saying inflation is affecting their businesses, according to Bank of America’s 2023 Small Business Owner Report. The report also found that 26% of small businesses are losing sales, and 36% of owners are planning to pay higher wages to attract or retain employees in this competitive labor market.

 

Maintaining a healthy cash flow can help ensure that you have cash available for your needs today and in the long term. But how do you do it?

 

Forecast expenses and earnings

“Business owners are often, by necessity, very focused on what’s happening here and now, but they also need to plan ahead,” says Chris Wong, head of Small Business Products with Bank of America. He advises that business owners estimate their payroll costs and other expenses, factor in the amount and timing of invoices and bills that will need to be paid, and project earnings expectations for three months, six months and a year out.

 

Looking ahead allows a business owner to be proactive about managing cash flow — finding a balance between receiving payments faster and, if necessary, delaying payments to vendors. This also allows you more lead time to seek financing in case you need it. “You want to project several months out, so that if you need a short-term loan or need to transfer money from one account to another, you have enough time to do that,” Wong says.

 

Track net cash flow

Incoming and outgoing cash flow will give you a good indication of the health of your business. Create a cash flow budget or statement to track the amount of money coming into the business via sales, loan proceeds and interest income — and out of the business for inventory and other purchases, payroll, rent, utilities, taxes and loan payments.

 

Your cash flow statement will also help you track how much cash you have on hand. If the amount of revenue you make covers your total expenses for a given period, you have hit the break-even point with your cash flow. New businesses that are not generating much revenue yet or are in the pre-revenue stage will also want to take a similar approach to tracking their burn rate — the pace at which they are spending money before reaching positive cash flow. Reports such as your operating budget — which tracks overhead, labor and production costs — and profit and loss projection will help you gain a better understanding of your cash flow situation.

 

Having the right tools can help you create a cash flow budget and update it regularly. Many businesses opt to use online tools to streamline the process. “The best way to monitor cash flow is to use a budgeting tool that can categorize expenses and identify any potential shortfalls before they occur,” Wong says. The Bank of America® Cash Flow Monitor is one example of a tool that can track your business’s performance. Identifying potential shortfalls in advance will give you time to find and implement a solution.

 

Healthy cash flow

Generally speaking, positive cash flow — in which your business takes in more money than it spends — will put you in a strong position to invest in growth. If cash flow from operating activities exceeds expenses, you may wish to reinvest it in activities that can help the business grow, such as marketing. In healthy businesses, cash flow improves over time and, in turn, allows the overall business to expand.

 

If you are experiencing negative cash flow, in which your business spends more money than it earns, you will most likely need to optimize operating costs and revenue collection practices.

 

Reducing expenses is one of the quickest ways to improve cash flow. The lower your spending on labor, office space, production, supplies and other common expenses, the more cash you will have on hand.

 

5 ways to improve cash flow

1. Avoid being short of cash

  • Keep a cash reserve, ideally three months’ worth of expenses on hand, for unforeseen expenses and emergencies.
  • Consider establishing a line of credit, particularly if your industry is impacted by seasonality.
  • If a loan is not an option, consider a business credit card for any short-term expenses.
  • When you’re picking a merchant services provider, make sure it allows quick access to your funds from card payments.

 

2. Improve inventory management

  • Keep your records up-to-date to optimize ordering.
  • Maximize raw materials and reduce waste.
  • Avoid ordering more inventory than you need and reduce excess stock.

 

3. Collect receivables promptly

  • Invoice customers the same day a sale or service is completed.
  • Establish payment terms. Whether payment is due on receipt or within 30 days (“net 30”), set the expectation from the start.
  • Offer discounts for quick payment and make deposits promptly. Fast payments also speed up your cash conversion cycle.
  • Implement penalties for late payments and be diligent about taking action when necessary.
  • Consider electronic invoicing. Software-based services such as BILL, Payments and Invoicing from Bank of America (available to eligible clients1) or FreshBooks can help you automatically invoice your regular clients.
  • Accept multiple payment types — from credit and debit cards to contactless, swiped and keyed payments to mobile, electronic payments such as Automated Clearing House (ACH) and Electronic Fund Transfers (EFT).

 

 

4. Optimize accounts payable

  • Analyze your spending habits, revisiting and reviewing your costs regularly.
  • Choose vendors that are flexible on payment terms.
  • Prioritize invoices according to their due dates to avoid the strain on cash flow that may come from paying every bill immediately.
  • Prioritize credit card bills both by due dates and interest rates. Pay the cards with the highest interest rate first, then work your way down.
  • Take advantage of trade discounts when you have excess cash.
  • Use less costly forms of credit, such as low-interest bank loans, especially if you need to carry a balance.
  • Establish multi-person sign-offs for expense claims, overtime, check writing and payroll to bring accountability to the spending process.
  • Reconcile daily so you know where you stand when prioritizing payments.

 

5. Lease equipment instead of buying

  • Managing a monthly payment instead of making a large upfront purchase minimizes short-term impact to cash flow.
  • Leasing instead of buying helps you avoid having to upgrade or resell existing purchased equipment.
  • Avoiding commitment to long-term ownership allows you to upgrade or change equipment based on needs and customer demands.

 

Get help from your banker

Small business owners often don’t realize the resources available to them at their financial institutions. Your small business banker can help you with both short-term and big-picture planning. If your business experiences a shortfall, your banker is likely to have many ideas to help you find a solution.

 

Strategically tapping financing can help businesses weather seasonal downturns or periods of low revenue. Options for small businesses include revolving credit (such as credit cards and lines of credit) and term loans for a fixed amount, any of which can be either secured by collateral or unsecured. The right fit for the business will depend on the amount needed and whether the need is short-term or ongoing. For a more detailed overview of how these choices differ, see “Financing options for small businesses.”

 

Cash flow glossary: Six terms you should know

The amount of revenue necessary to cover the total fixed and variable expenses incurred during a specific period. This is the point where business losses end and profits can begin.

 

The pace at which spending is outpacing revenue in a given period of time, usually month over month.

 

The amount of time it takes to convert investments in inventory into cash from sales. It’s a way to measure how long (in days, usually) each dollar put into the business is tied up in production and sales, before it is converted into cash.

 

The amount of money entering and exiting a business, showing how much cash is on hand at any given time.

 

When a business’s expenses exceed the revenue it generates.

 

When a business generates more revenue than it spends on salary, rent, inventory and other expenses.

 

1Only Small Business clients who are enrolling into Business Advantage 360, Bank of America’s small business online banking platform, for the first time, or existing Small Business clients who have never enrolled in Bill Pay, are eligible for Payments and Invoicing. Clients with an existing Bill Pay account are not eligible.

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