How to Create a Cash Flow Projection: Step-by-Step Guide
Ask any experienced business owner what the most important factor is in staying afloat as an early-stage company, and nine times out of ten you’ll hear two words:
Think about it. You’ve got expenses coming out of your ears, from wages to equipment purchases to tax bills, and if you don’t have enough cash coming in to pay those expenses? Well, you know the rest.
So, what can you do to manage cash flow, short of doubling down on your sales efforts to get that cold hard cash pouring in?
You create (and keep creating) cash flow projections. That’s what.
In this article, we’ll show you exactly why cash flow projections are so crucial and guide you through the process of calculating cash flow for your own startup.
Table of contents:
- What is a cash flow projection?
- Why are cash flow projections important?
- How to create a cash flow projection
- Tips and tricks
What Is a Cash Flow Projection?
Let’s start from the top.
Cash flow is the net balance of cash you have coming in and out of your business across a specified timeframe. So, your monthly cash flow is the amount of cash you have moving into and out of your company that month.
That one’s easy to calculate, as you’ve got real-life figures from the last month to use.
A cash flow projection, looks forward to the coming month (or months, or quarter, or whatever timeframe you want to create a forecast for), and makes an estimate of what cash flow will look like.
While a cash flow projection is an estimate, you’re not exactly plucking numbers out of thin air.
You’re going to use your accounts receivable (cash you have coming in from your customers) and accounts payable (cash you’re going to have to pay during that period for expenses, such as employee salaries), many of which will be solid numbers.
Okay, so far so good. So, why should you care?
Why Are Cash Flow Projections Important to Understand?
Okay, so there are a few obvious answers here.
Founders need to know how much cash is coming in so they can:
- Ensure they’ve got enough money in the bank to pay for upcoming expenses
- Deliver on growth projections
- Make informed decisions on future monetary investments
But what you’re probably thinking is “Doesn’t my profit and loss statement tell me this information? Why do I need to spend time creating a whole other financial projection?”
The problem with profit and loss statements (at least as far as we’re concerned for making estimates of future cash flow) is that they don’t fully represent cash in the bank.
Here’s what we mean:
Regular expenses (things like utility bills, rent, and employee wages) reduce your profitability, and you’ll see these expenses on your profit and loss statement.
But some business spending (like buying new business assets) doesn’t reduce profitability and isn’t included in the P&L statement.
That means your business can be pouring out cash for various startup costs (loading up on inventory, for example) and still look profitable on paper, even though your cash flow is negative.
A similar situation exists on the revenue side of your profit and loss statement.
When your company makes a sale and invoices a customer, this counts as additional revenue in your P&L, even if you don’t have the cash in the bank yet.
So, the short of it is this:
Cash flow projections are important for founders to use and understand because, unlike other financial reports and statements, they tell you exactly what you’ve got in the bank, what you’ve got coming in, and what you’ve got going out, so you can make accurate, informed decisions and ensure you meet important financial obligations like employee salaries and debt repayments.
How to Create a Cash Flow Projection in 5 Steps
1. Start with Your Opening Balance
This step is nice and easy. Head into your banking app or financial modeling platform, and grab your bank account balance.
This is the “opening balance” for the period of your cash flow projection. In this example, we’re going to do a monthly cash flow projection, so this will be your opening balance for the month.
2. Calculate your receivables
Now, you’ll need to estimate the amount of money you’re going to receive for the month.
Here’s where to pull this data from:
- Sales of your product and/or services (usually tracked as Accounts Receivable). Be sure to only include balances that are due within the period you’re creating the cash flow projection for.
- New loans or investments. If you’re currently applying for a loan or raising funding that you expect to receive next month, include that here.
- Sales of assets. If you’re selling any business assets that you expect to receive payment for next month, include that amount.
- Other income, such as interest income.
If you use Finmark, we handle all of these calculations for you!
3. Calculate Your Payables
Now, we’re going to do the exact same thing but for money going out.
Typical expenses to include in your cash flow projection include:
- Employee wages and salaries
- Rent or lease fees
- Software subscriptions
- Tax payment
- Utility bills
- Seasonal expenses
- Asset purchases
- Marketing and advertising costs
- Loan repayments
4. Apply the Cash Flow Formula
Now, you simply subtract your total payables from your total receivables.
Cash flow formula: Cash flow = Total receivables – Total payables
For example, let’s say our receivables for next month totals $26,000, and our payables totals $15,000. Our cash flow formula would look like this:
$26,000 – $15,000 = $11,000
Meaning our cash flow for the month is $11,000.
Cash flow can also be negative if our payables are higher than our receivables. If in the above example, our payables for the month total $32,000, then our cash flow projection would look like this:
$26,000 – $32,000 = ($6000)
5. Add Your Opening Balance to Determine the Closing Balance
If you’d like to determine your closing balance for the cash flow period, simply add your cash flow amount to the opening balance.
So, if our cash flow for the month is $11,000, and we had an opening balance of $4,000, then our closing balance will be $15,000.
Calculating the closing balance is important as this becomes your opening balance for the next month, so it’s helpful if you’re creating cash flow projections for several months in advance (a reasonably common approach).
Tips and Tricks for Creating Cash Flow Projections
Ready to create your first cash flow projection? Before you jump in, let’s discuss a few helpful tips to make sure you create the most reliable and helpful forecasts possible.
Leverage Historical Data for the Most Accurate Projections
Where possible, you should use the data you have on hand to inform your calculations.
For example, let’s say you’ve been in business for over a year, so you have a full 12 months’ worth of data on your utility bills. Use this to inform your estimate of what that expense will look like next month.
If you’re projecting for May, say, then look at what May’s bill was like last year.
Was it higher or lower than April (seasonal variability is important to keep in mind)? Has your bill been trending upward over the last 12 months (perhaps you’ve been continuing to increase production)? If so, work this insight into your expense estimate.
Use Conservative Estimates
While we want to use hard data where possible, there are going to be expenses that you just have to estimate.
You know how much you’re paying your employees, for example, so that’s pretty hard and fast.
But like in our previous example, where we needed to calculate next month’s utility expense, there’s a bit of estimation involved.
So, when you are estimating revenue and expenses, use conservative figures.
Consider a range for each revenue and expense line, and use the most conservative amount (lowest for revenue, highest for expenses) in your projection. This will prevent you from getting into hot water by overcommitting yourself to spending based on an overzealous cash flow projection.
The best solution, however, is to use a scenario planning platform to generate multiple cash flow projections that give you an idea of what cash flow will look like in various situations (for example, comparing your high revenue estimate with your low revenue estimate).
We recommend modeling these three scenarios:
- Base/Average scenario: This is your “business as usual” scenario where you assume revenue and expenses will remain at a steady rate.
- Upside scenario: This is your best case scenario where you assume faster revenue growth and steady (or slightly lower) expenses.
- Downside scenario: This is your “worse case” scenario where you assume slower or declining revenue with steady or slightly increasing expenses.
Learn more about creating and analyzing scenarios in this article.
Don’t “Set and Forget”
Cash flow projections aren’t a “one and done” kind of operation. As the month (or whatever period you’re projecting for) progresses, you’re going to have more and more accurate data for revenue and expenses, as cash flows in and out of the business.
Use this information to edit and iterate on your cash flow projection, keeping your estimates as accurate as possible throughout the month.
Use Automation to Set up Alerts
Though you can create cash flow projections manually, savvy startup founders prefer to use financial planning platforms (you know, like Finmark?) to create and manage these financial reports.
Here’s an example of what our cash flow report looks like, and you don’t have to do a bunch of data entry into a spreadsheet to create it. Finmark automatically pulls in your data and handles all the calculations for you.
Ready for More Accurate Cash Flow Projections?
By this point, you should have a pretty strong understanding of why cash flow projections are so important for founders to comprehend (and use). You know how they work, and how to create one for yourself.
But here’s the thing:
Cash flow projections are only one piece of the puzzle.
Startup founders need to create and analyze a variety of financial reports, statements, estimates, and projections, all of which are made easier when you have an effective and intuitive financial planning platform on your side.
Yeah, that’s us.
Start a free trial of Finmark today, and let us show you how we can transform your financial planning experience.