The Difference Between Cash Flow and Profit

Comerica Bank

macro shot of the word cash flow circled in red pencil

Sales and profits are crucial to your business’s success, but knowing the difference is essential for long-term profitability.

Sales and profits are two very different things – as a business owner, you can find yourself without the cash to pay bills despite making sales you know to be profitable. Alternatively, you may be shocked to discover that strong cash flows from sales actually generated little profit.

What exactly is cash flow?

A cash flow forecast tracks the cash flowing in and out of your business. The timing of these flows enables you to identify cash-rich and cash-lean periods. This can help you make the right business decisions, such as knowing when to buy assets or when to prepare for cash shortfalls.

The importance of cash flow

Cash flow is essential to the survival of your business – it’s (arguably) more important than profit in the short term. Profit may be essential in the long run, but businesses need cash to pay bills and operating costs.

A business with good cash reserves can survive until it becomes profitable. But a business that runs out of cash needs to find a solution quickly to avoid going bankrupt.

A definition of profit

Profit is the money left in your business after all your expenses have been paid. An income statement (also referred to as a profit and loss report) reveals what profit your business made last month or last quarter. Profit is often detailed using two figures, namely:

  • Gross profit – what’s left from sales after deducting the costs of goods sold or services provided.
  • Net profit – what’s left from gross profit after operating costs (your business overheads) have been deducted.

Note that net profit still isn’t the final ‘bottom line’ profit until all your taxes have been paid.

The significance of profit

All businesses need profit to grow. Your profit can be allocated to (among other purposes):

  • Buying more production assets.
  • Developing new products, new services or intellectual property.
  • Funding start-up costs for new employees.
  • Marketing and business growth campaigns.
  • Reducing debt levels.
  • Paying dividends to shareholders.

Why cash flow and profit can differ

The gap between a cash flow forecast and an income statement (profit and loss report) reflects the different ways business owners record financial data.

Cash flow forecasts record cash

A cash flow forecast only records actual cash transactions. Cash flow can be boosted by inputs other than sales, such as:

  • Capital injections by the owner or investors.
  • Cash coming in from loans.
  • Cash from selling an asset.

These sources boost cash levels to fund your business, but aren’t considered profit.

Profit and loss statements show actual profit

Unlike cash flow forecasts, an income statement includes ‘book figure’ inputs that don’t involve cash outlays, but do affect the profit calculation, such as:

  • Depreciation expenses on capital assets, such as equipment costs.
  • Assets written down, such as writing off an uncollectible account receivable owed by a customer.

Explaining discrepancies

These scenarios can help explain the gap between your cash flow and profit.

Where’s the money?

“The income statement shows a $50,000 profit, but the cash in the bank is only a fraction of this. The figures don’t match up. Where’s the missing profit?”

A common example that can raise this question is a business that buys equipment (a fixed or capital asset) for $40,000.

  • The cash flow forecast shows the full $40,000 cash payment when it was made.
  • On the income statement, the business will claim only the depreciation amount on a capital asset. However, the profit and loss account will show $4,000 as an expense against sales. This makes the business’s net profit seem much higher than the actual cash available in the bank.

Sales are great, so we must be profitable

“We’ve been extremely busy these past few months. Sales are booming – but I can’t see any profit.”

Inexperienced business owners can easily confuse ‘being busy’ with being profitable, but there’s a very clear distinction between them. Your profit is always what’s left over after all costs have been deducted.

If you haven’t calculated your selling prices correctly, your ‘thriving’ business may, in fact, be operating at a loss. The cash flow may seem great, but your profit and loss account will reveal the true picture.

The critical lesson here is to never set your prices until you know all the costs involved. You might end up operating at a loss or at an unsustainably small profit level.

We’ve made many profitable sales but can’t pay our bills

It’s quite possible to run out of cash or go bankrupt by taking on too much business too quickly, even though each sale is profitable. This is called overtrading – businesses that sell on credit rather than cash terms are more at risk.

Actions that can lower cash flow

Reasons businesses can run out of cash include:

  • Excessive withdrawals by the owner(s).
  • Purchasing too much inventory relative to sales.
  • Taking on more loans than the business can service.
  • Buying assets at inappropriate times (such as during a slow period).
  • Pre-payments or paying suppliers too soon. If suppliers offer 30 days, it makes sense to take advantage of the full credit period.

Cash flow is about timing

Cash flow is all about the timing of money inflows and outflows.

If you expend significant cash to pay operating expenses and miscalculate the actual time to collect customer receivables, or your business is poor at collecting on overdue accounts, you can easily use up all of your cash paying suppliers and other bills while waiting to collect amounts owed by customers. 

This information is provided for general awareness purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal or compliance advice.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. While the information contained within has been compiled from source[s] which are believed to be reliable and accurate, Comerica Bank does not guarantee its accuracy. Consequently, it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter nor be relied upon as such.

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