If you’re a small business owner, you’re well aware of how many financial documents you need to apply for a loan. But these financials aren’t just important to have when you’re looking to pay off debt or expand operations–they can help you plan your business, adjust for changes, and understand all the whys and hows of your success. They give you hard-and-fast information and analyses you should never go without.
Keeping track of a few indispensable financial documents will give you the insight to be a fast-moving, adaptable, and informed small business owner. Let’s check out how.
1. Balance Sheet
According to Investopedia, a balance sheet is “a financial statement that summarizes a company’s assets, liabilities and shareholders’ equity at a specific point in time.” In other words, it’s a snapshot of your small business’s financial health–and that’s definitely not financial document you want to lose track of.
Your balance sheet can tell you how well your business stacks up now to an earlier time, where any danger zones might lie, how flexible your assets are, and whether your current choices are sustainable and successful. Simply keeping track of what you have and what you owe seems obvious, but once you use a balance sheet’s specific breakdown of that information to direct your business decisions, it starts sounding a whole lot savvier.
By having your balance sheet ready on Day One and checking it regularly, you can make informed choices about how to keep your business healthy, and how to keep it growing!
2. Profit & Loss Statement (Income Statement)
While your balance sheet can give you insight into your small business’s overall health, your profit and loss statement–sometimes called an income statement–shows an overview of your business’s revenue and expenses. And it’ll keep you informed about the successes and problem areas of your business that you may not be aware of.
By properly calculating your P&L, and diligently keeping it up to date and at the forefront of your mind, you can easily answer some pretty important questions. How do your overall expenses compare to your net income? What costs are draining your revenue that you might be able to cut out? What months or quarters does your small business flourish in–and why? Conscientious small business owners track their profit and loss statements over time to keep an eye on unexpected trends, and adjust their inventory or marketing plans accordingly.
If you don’t have the time to craft your own P&L–or you’re a bit repelled by numbers and accounting!–then it’s a good idea to look into accounting software.
3. Cash Flow Forecast
A cash flow forecast is a spreadsheet that, well… forecasts your cash flow. The basic formula is receipts minus payments, but ideally you would create a detailed analysis of where your cash will be going to and coming from over the course of each week, month, quarter, or year–depending on your business’s structure, size, and profitability.
If a cash flow forecast sounds suspiciously like a profit and loss statement, that’s because it is. But the main difference is a crucial one: a cash flow forecast is a prediction, while a P&L is an analysis of hard data. The savviest of small business owners use both financial documents in tandem–the P&L will teach you how to make a more accurate cash flow forecast, and a good cash flow forecast should ensure that your next P&L will stay focused on what’s important. By planning in advance, you might spot some upcoming needs for cash before they become emergencies, and you can set a budget goal for your business’s next stage.
Getting into the habit of constructing cash flow forecasts is as much about the discipline of financial management as it is about accurately predicting your revenue and expenses. The more you think ahead, the less you’ll be caught by surprise by a nasty situation you could’ve avoided.
4. Breakeven Analysis
Nothing beats that moment of success when your small business stops owing money and starts making it. A Breakeven Analysis would help you figure out when exactly that will be, and plan your finances (and celebrations!) around it.
By figuring out the costs associated with your small business–ranging from purchasing and storing your inventory, to rent, insurance, payroll, and everything in between–you can calculate the revenue you’d need to break even… And just past that, the revenue you’d need to make a profit! The Small Business Administration recommends thinking of your costs in terms of “fixed,” or sales-independent (like rent), and “variable,” or sales-dependent (like inventory storage). This is so you can separate what you’ll need to pay regardless of sales from what you’ll need to pay in order to make sales–it’s easier to adjust your sales practices than your lease, after all, so this can be pretty important information.
No matter how you find your business’s breakeven point, understanding that metric doesn’t just give you a milestone to schedule a party for. You can–and should–use that breakeven point to set up a margin of safety. As the name implies, a margin of safety is a buffer between good and bad: and in this case, between your breakeven point and the revenue inflow you actually want to be aiming for. If you’re only trying to reach just past your breakeven point, then any unexpected downturns or accidents could leave you in the lurch. Instead, take the breakeven analysis into account when figuring out a margin of safety. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) there’s no formula here: your sense of security will depend on a number of very specific factors, and is ultimately unique to you and your small business.
5. Business Licenses and Proof of Ownership
These next two points might seem obvious, but they’re just too important not to include! Depending on your industry–from agricultural production to running a bar–you’ll need to have applied for and received specific federal and/or state business licenses or permits. You can look up which your business would require on the Small Business Administration’s website. These are important documents to keep copies of on-hand and up-to-date, in case of emergency.
You should similarly have quick and easy access to proof of ownership, in whatever form the type of your small business necessitates, just in case. These won’t help you steer your business towards success, necessarily–but they can help you avoid unnecessary trouble.
6. Keep Track of Bank Statements and (Business & Personal) Tax Returns
While you should have your ownership documents and proper licenses available to prevent any legal conflicts from arising, you should keep track of your bank statements, tax returns, and other financial documents for a different reason. It’s no walk in the park collecting all your financial information when preparing for a loan, or making a big decision about your business or your life (which your business plays a big part of!). Being a meticulously organized file-keeper is a matter of habit that can save you hours of headache and frustration–and as they say, time is money. If the unthinkable occurs and you need cash fast, you don’t want to be hunting around for an old folder or USB stick containing your tax returns. Be prepared, and be rewarded.
You might have noticed a trend here. All these financial documents are necessary to have for certain key points of your small business–applying for licenses, getting loans, getting ready for big changes–but by updating them often and checking them early, you can make the best decisions for your business all the time.
Meredith Wood is the Editor-in-Chief at Fundera, an online marketplace for small business loans that matches business owners with the best funding providers for their business. Prior to Fundera, Meredith was the CCO at Funding Gates. She is a resident Finance Advisor on American Express OPEN Forum and an avid business writer. Her advice consistently appears on such sites as Yahoo!, Fox Business, Amex OPEN, AllBusiness, and many more.