Cash flow is king. It flows into your business from satisfied clients who pay your invoices, and it flows out as you pay employees, suppliers, and others who serve your business. And, if you play your cards right, some of that cash flows into your own pockets as a return on your investment in your business.
Keeping an eye on your company’s cash flow is as important as watching the fuel gauge while driving a car. In fact, poor cash flow is a big reason why one in every four businesses won’t survive its first year, and why more than half of businesses don’t survive past the fifth.
If your company is running low on gas and you’re not sure why, here are a few troubleshooting tips to help you keep cash flow balanced.
1. Keep good books
You won’t be able to figure out where the money goes if you don’t track it. It’s crucial that you track money movements such as:
A good accounting software solution like Freshbooks, Quickbooks, or Xero can help you keep this information up to date. Some cloud accounting solutions automate the invoicing process and flag late and unpaid invoices, so it’s easy to stay on track.
2. Watch your accounts receivable
Find your accounts receivable listed as a “current asset” on your balance sheet. On your cash flow statement, you can see your change in accounts receivable—not the total amount you’re owed, but the increase or decrease compared to last month (or last year, or whatever reporting period you’re using).
Reviewing your financial statements monthly is a critical step to staying on top of your business’s performance. Specifically with accounts receivable, you’re watching for troubling trends, like that your AR is growing over time, because that indicates you haven’t been paid on outstanding invoices. Businesses that are making plenty of sales, but not getting paid on time (or at all) are at risk. You can be reporting solid revenue on paper, but unless you have cash in hand, you’re not going to be able to pay your bills.
The longer the period between the date you issue an invoice and the date you receive payment, the lower your bank account balance can sink.
To avoid cash flow problems, when you submit a project proposal or contract, be clear on your payment terms—they should be in writing. Likewise, when sending an invoice, ensure that the payment terms are spelled out.
Research from FreshBooks shows that using the words “21 days” as opposed to “Net 21” in your payment terms gets invoices paid more often and faster. While the words “Net 21 days” or similar makes sense to most business owners, that kind of wording may not be as clear to less business-savvy clients or consumers.
The same research also found that being polite matters. A simple “please pay your invoice within” or a “thank you for your business” can increase the percentage of invoices paid by more than 5 percent.
3. Follow up on bad debts [an email template]
If a client is past due, you need not involve shady characters and baseball bats. Try emailing a friendly reminder with the details of the payment in the body of the message. It can read something like this:
I wanted to follow up on the invoice for the [project work]I submitted on [date]. That payment hasn’t yet come through. Could you please check on it for me? Here are the details:
If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to call me. Here’s a link to submit payment immediately: examplepaymentlink.com. Of course, if you have already sent payment, please disregard this notice.
An easy way to stay on top of these reminders is to schedule follow-ups to email messages, including phone calls, until you receive payment.
Some cloud accounting solutions enable automated late payment reminders, so you can avoid the late payment dance altogether.
4. Schedule your own bill payments and monitor accounts payable
Schedule payment of your bills to happen on the day before they are due. This is what professional organizations like utilities and credit card companies expect. This is one tactic that slows the speed at which cash flows out of your business. Your goal is to get paid as quickly as possible, and retain your cash for as long as you can without damaging your credit or your reputation. Don’t try to evade payment, just don’t pay bills a month early if you don’t need to.
When you’re reviewing your cash flow statement, watch for increases in accounts payable: your bills. An increase month over month or year over year might not signal a big problem. But if you know your accounts payable are increasing and you don’t have cash in the bank to pay those ever-increasing bills, it’s time to build a strategy to mitigate the problem before it topples your business.
5. Make your terms work harder for you
Large organizations hone their accounts receivable processes to maximize their own cash flow. Would any of their payment terms work for your business?
If you think the answer is yes, implement the terms for a fixed period and track the results. If the changes in terms help you get your money sooner, they’re worth keeping. For more resources, check out this article —it explores a number of different tactics for getting paid faster.
6. Forecast your cash flow
Keep track of variances between forecast and actual cash flow. Unless your forecasts are off (and they might be—predicting future cash flows is more art than science), those variances can signal issues you need to deal with.
An accountant or expert business advisor can help you create and review your cash flow forecast, but check out this guide to do-it-yourself cash flow statement analysis. You’ll gain a better window into seasonal cash trends for your business—times when you can expect surplus or cash deficit. This will give you a pretty good idea how much cash will be required over the coming months to run your business—and with more of a runway in case you need to secure a line of credit or a loan to get you through the lean time. The best time to seek a loan is before you’re in dire straights. That’s exactly what cash flow statement analysis should help help.
Forecasting cash flow and then comparing actual figures against it can also help identify areas of the business that require extra attention. If you see an unexpected discrepancy between the two, you can examine further and identify where spending may be out of control. For example, your electricity bills may be climbing, which could indicate a need to review your building’s energy efficiency, or search for ways to save energy.
Young businesses often face cash-flow problems during the first few years. Paying close attention to these issues and troubleshooting along the way will help keep cash flowing into the business.
Have other great troubleshooting tips for solving cash flow issues? Let us know on Twitter @Bplans.
Editor’s note: This article originally published in 2014. It was updated in 2019.