A Complete Guide to Reading Financial Statements

Financial Statements

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, financial statements are a fundamental part of running a business. To some, they may seem like a little more than a list of random numbers. However, to those who can quickly read and analyze them, financial statements can reveal a lot about a business. 

The good news is that you don’t have to be Einstein, or even a CPA, to understand them. With a little practice, any business owner can learn to use their financial statements to drive smart business decisions. 

Think of them like a report card. Their purpose is to show how money has moved through the company and to show that information from different angles. Together, the three primary financial statements—the income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement—present a holistic view of a company’s finances. 

In this guide, we’ll break down: 

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The Basics of Financial Statements

Financial statements are meant to be historical records of what happened during the accounting period before. They can be calculated on a monthly, quarterly, annual, or ad hoc basis. However, it would be difficult (and likely not worth the time required) to create these reports more often than once per month. 

The reason these reports can’t be created in real time is that, as historical records, it’s important that a company’s financial statements be 100% accurate. Not only will this accuracy help you understand the true state of your business, but it will be required when it’s time to file taxes

After a month or quarter wraps up, it’s time to “close the books,” or finalize all the journal entries that took place over that time period. Closing the books can take some time, especially if your records aren’t kept up to date on a regular basis. How long it takes can range from a week or two to upwards of one month. 

However, once all the information is accounted for and the books are closed, the next step is to create financial statements for business owners and leadership to review. The financial statements follow guidelines outlined in GAAP, or generally accepted accounting principles.

The three basic financial statements each help to answer a different question for business owners. They are: 

  • The Income Statement: How did we do? 
  • The Balance Sheet: Where are we at? 
  • Cash Flow Statement: How much cash is left? 

Together, these statements allow business owners to get a sense for the overall financial health of the business. Separately, they allow owners to dig deeper into any questions or issues they see and investigate the potential causes. 

Why Small Business Owners Avoid Them

If financial statements are so valuable to business owners, why do so many avoid reviewing them on a regular basis? Why do they opt to create them only when taxes are due instead of every month?

Common complaints about financial statements revolve around two main concerns: 

  1. Hard to Understand: Financial statements are made by accountants, typically with financial professionals in mind. They’re not naturally intuitive to business owners without a finance background. 
  2. Stale Information: When it takes 30+ days to learn how your business did the month before, it’s hard to put that information into action. 

These complaints are valid. Financial statements aren’t naturally intuitive, and they can take a while to create. That said, these hurdles can be easily overcome and are no reason to skip reviewing statements altogether. 

The vast majority of businesses that fail do so because of cash flow problems. In other words, business owners don’t have a strong grasp on their finances. And when that happens, it can spell stress, fear, and even the end of a business. 

82% of businesses fail due to cash flow problems.

Because most businesses run on accrual basis accounting, keeping track of cash is made even more difficult. You can’t simply check your bank account and know that you’ll have enough in the bank to cover upcoming expenses. 

This is where financial statements come in. They can help make sense of where your money is using accrual accounting and help avoid major cash flow issues. 

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Refresher Course on Cash vs. Accrual Accounting

The two methods of accounting—cash and accrual—are designed to serve different purposes. 

Cash basis accounting recognizes revenue and expenses when cash changes hands. If a customer bought an ice cream cone from you in July, your July reports would show the transaction. It’s an easy-to-understand method, but it’s limited. 

The accrual method recognizes revenue and expenses when incurred. If you sent an invoice in July and your customer paid you in August, you’d recognize the income in July. Accrual accounting is more complex to understand, but it provides a better long-term view of your business. The only real downside of accrual accounting is that it makes tracking your cash more challenging. 

Through the income statement and cash flow statement, your financial reports show not only all the revenue and expenses you recognized over a period but also all the cash that changed hands, making accrual accounting easier to navigate. 

The Income Statement

The income statement, also known as the profit and loss statement (or simply P&L statement), shows a company’s financial performance over a set period of time, like a month or quarter. Performance is measured through revenue and expenses that took place during that period. Because it’s a measure of sales performance, as well as operational efficiency, the income statement answers the question: “How did we do?”

The income statement answers the question: “How did we do?”

Income statements also include information for shareholders. By reporting earnings per share, these statements show how much shareholders would receive if net earnings from that period were distributed.

Let’s break down the sections of the income statement and what they mean to you, the business owner. 

Revenue

The very first section of the income statement shows all the revenue your business generated over the period. Total revenue goes by many names. So if you see net sales, net revenue, gross sales, or gross revenue, they all mean the same thing. This is how much money you made before any expenses are taken out.

Cost of Goods Sold

Next up is cost of goods sold, also known as cost of sales or simply COGS. This includes the cost to produce goods, cost of services rendered, and cost of inventory. Expenses in this section include:

  • Cost of raw materials
  • Cost of labor
  • Commission for employees

Cost of goods sold is typically a variable cost, meaning that the more you sell, the more you’ll need to produce those goods. Therefore, COGS also goes up. 

Gross Profit

After cost of sales expenses have been deducted, you’ll see the company’s gross profit, also called gross income. Gross profit will be used to cover all of the company’s other expenses. 

Gross Profit = Total Revenue – COGS

Operating Expenses

Next, operating expenses will be listed. These are also referred to as Selling, General, and Administrative expenses (SG&A) and show general expenses of a company’s operation. This will include expenses such as:

  • Administrative salaries
  • Marketing expenses
  • New product research
  • Depreciation expense (wear and tear on assets over time)

Operating Profit

Below operating expenses, you’ll see operating profit, also known as operating income. This represents earnings from a company’s normal operations before any additional income or expenses are considered.

Operating Profit = Total Revenue – COGS – Operating Expenses

Interest Income and Expense

Interest income and expense will be listed next. It is the money made by a company from anything that earns interest, such as money market funds or savings accounts.

Income expense, on the other hand, is money that a company must pay to cover the interest on money they have borrowed.

Income Tax

Income tax is estimated and is the final deduction made on the income statement.

The Bottom Line

Income statements are where the phrase “bottom line” comes from. Once all expenses have been deducted from earnings, what’s left is considered net income. Like most other elements of the income statement, it goes by a few names like, net profit, earnings, or net earnings.  

Quick Tips to Read the Income Statement

The best way to read the income statement is to understand each section and how the numbers you see are calculated, but there are a few quick tips to keep in mind as you scan your next statement. 

  1. Start at the Top: Is total revenue in line with what you were expecting? Every business should set sales goals for each month or quarter to manage growth. Check your revenue against those goals. 
  2. Look at the Bottom Line: The same goes for net income—you should set goals for this too. Check your net income against your goals. Is it close to what you expected? 
  3. If You Answered No: If your revenue or net income surprises you, it’s best to dig in a little more to find out what changed. Start by looking at your gross profit. Is it higher or lower than last time? That may signal a change in COGS, like a vendor charging more and cutting into your margins. Also take a look at operating income. Were your everyday expenses higher than normal? If so, what caused it? 

Key Metrics from the Income Statement

There are many calculations you can perform from the income statement. One of the most common is gross margin, which is calculated by dividing total revenue by gross profit. Simply put, out of every $1 you make, the gross margin shows you how much of that dollar is left for expenses after the cost of sales is deducted.

Gross Margin = Total Revenue / Gross Profit

Other helpful metrics may include EBIT or EBITDA, which show earnings before expenses like taxes, interest, or depreciation and amortization. They can be calculated on our free calculator tool here

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The Balance Sheet

The balance sheet provides a quick look at company assets, liabilities, and shareholders’ equity at a given point in time. Unlike the income statement, the balance sheet does not show performance over a period of time. Instead, it shows cumulative totals and outstanding payments. In other words, it’s a snapshot of a company and answers the question: “Where are we at?” 

The balance sheet fundamentally relies on the accounting equation, which says that a company’s assets must equal the sum of its liabilities and shareholders’ equity. 

Assets = Liabilities + Equity

On one side of the balance sheet are assets, or what a company possesses. And on the other side are liabilities (what a company owes) and equity (what’s left over). 

Assets

An asset is anything a company possesses that has value. An asset can be something that is directly sold or something that is used by the company to sell a service or to manufacture and sell a product that can be sold. 

Assets can include:

  • Cash
  • Accounts Receivable
  • Patents
  • Trademarks
  • Company investments
  • Physical property, such as product inventory, buildings, and equipment

Types of Assets on the Balance Sheet

There are two types of assets, usually listed on the balance sheet according to how fast they can be converted to cash, or liquidated.

Current assets are those that a company expects to quickly convert to cash, usually within a year. They have high liquidity, in other words. Examples of current assets are:

  • Inventory
  • Cash
  • Prepaid expenses
  • Accounts receivable 

Non-current assets are ones that would take a company longer than a year to sell. Examples of non-current assets are:

  • Long-term investments
  • Investments in other companies
  • Intangible assets such as brand recognition

Non-current assets also include fixed assets. Fixed assets are not sold or used by a company but are used to produce goods and services.

Fixed assets include:

  • Property
  • Buildings
  • Equipment and machinery
  • Computer equipment and software
  • Intangible assets such as copyrights, patents, and trademarks

Liabilities

The liabilities section simply shows everything that the company owes. Liabilities, like assets, come in many forms, including:

  • Employee payroll
  • Government taxes
  • Bank loans for new product launches
  • Customer obligations
  • Rent for buildings and equipment
  • Money owed to material suppliers

Types of Liabilities on the Balance Sheet

Balance sheets list liabilities by their due dates.

Like current assets, current liabilities are those expected to be paid off within a year. Companies must be sure that they have enough to pay these when they are due.

Examples of current liabilities include:

  • Accounts payable
  • Sales taxes payable
  • Payroll taxes payable
  • Short-term loans
  • Interest payable
  • Customer deposits

Long-term liabilities are those that are not due within one year of the balance sheet’s date. Examples of long-term liabilities are:

  • Long-term loans
  • Pension liabilities
  • Bonds payable

Shareholders’ Equity

Shareholders’ equity, also called capital or net worth, is the amount of money that would be left if a company were to pay off all liabilities and liquidate all of its assets. That’s why it’s often thought of as “what’s left over.”

Shareholders’ equity will show the amount a shareholder invested in the company plus or minus any company earnings or losses.

Depending on your business’ entity type, the equity section of the balance sheet will look different. Some companies retain earnings, while others distribute them as dividends. Most opt for a blend of the two. 

The retained earnings section, as the name implies, shows the cumulative profits from previous periods. For example, if at the end of last year your business had $300,000 left in profit after all expenses, taxes, and other costs were paid, you might decide to distribute some out to owners and to place the rest into retained earnings. If next year, you find yourself with another $300,000 in profit, you could see your retained earnings go up to $600,000. 

In other words, it’s how much profit your business has made over the life of the business. When companies are looking to make a big purchase or investment, they may draw from retained earnings to afford it, like an average consumer might draw from savings to purchase a new car. 

Quick Tips to Read the Balance Sheet

  1. Start With Current Assets: Can you cover your current liabilities with them? If yes, you’re probably in fine shape for the short-term. If no, you’ll want to dig in to your current liabilities more. Map out when each payment is due and when you expect to have money coming into the business. Remember, current assets and current liabilities have a time frame of one year. So you may not be in immediate trouble if you can’t cover current assets. But you should dig deeper to make sure you’ll be able to cover liabilities when the time does come. 
  2. Retained Earnings: Next, look at retained earnings. If you are a new business, this number may be negative for some time. If you have a breakeven goal, keep checking back to make sure that you’re nearing it on schedule. 

Key Metrics from the Balance Sheet

Because the balance sheet shows a snapshot of time, the key metrics that can be gleaned from it are financial ratios. In other words, how does one area of the balance sheet relate to another? 

The primary ratios to calculate are: 

QuestionRatioFormulaWhat It Means
How much liability is there compared to equity?Debt-Equity ratioTotal Liabilities / Total Shareholder EquityHow much of the company is owned versus owed.
How much leverage do you have?Debt to Asset Ratio(Short-Term Debt + Long-Term Debt) / Total AssetsPercentage of assets that were financed by debt.
What are your current assets minus current liabilities?Working CapitalCurrent Assets – Current LiabilitiesShows if the business can meet obligations.
What are your current assets compared to your current liabilities?Current RatioCurrent Assets / Current LiabilitiesHow much the business is bringing in versus paying out.
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The Cash Flow Statement

The cash flow financial statement, also called the statement of cash flows, shows how much money is coming into and going out of a company. In other words, cash flow statements report how much cash a company generated during the statement period. Because accrual basis accounting makes keeping track of cash difficult, the cash flow statement supplements the income statement and helps business owners understand the true state of their cash

There are three parts to a cash flow statement: cash flow from operating activities, cash flow from investing activities, and cash flow from financing activities. Each inflow or outflow of cash falls into one of these three categories, though the majority will likely fall under operating activities. 

Cash Flow from Operating Activities

This part breaks down a company’s cash flow from everyday business activities. This means invoices that were collected, bills that were paid, employee paychecks that were paid. All of it. When the cash changes hands, those kinds of activities show up here. 

Cash Flow from Investing Activities

This part shows cash flow from investments. These investments can include purchases or sales of long-term assets such as property or equipment. If a purchase is made, especially for expensive facilities or machinery used to produce goods, this is reflected as cash outflow.

If investments are sold by the company, the money made would show as cash inflow.

Cash Flow from Financing Activities

This section accounts for cash flow from any financing activity that company is involved in. Cash inflow occurs when capital is raised, like when companies issue bonds to the public or borrow from a bank.

Cash outflows occur when a company pays interest on loans or to bondholders, when they pay off loans, or when they distribute dividends.

Quick Tips to Read the Cash Flow Statement

  1. Start at the Bottom: Was your total cash flow positive or negative? In other words, did you bring in more cash than you spent? If so, that’s great. You had enough to pay all your expenses. If not, you’ll want to take immediate action to make sure you can cover all the expenses that are coming up next. 
  2. Look at Cash Flow from Operating Activities: This section is closely tied to your operating income on the income statement. Explore both and compare them to the previous statement to identify what’s changed. 

The Financial Statements at a Glance

In case all the information above was TLDR (read: too long, didn’t read), here’s a quick overview of the three primary financial statements, what they show, and the key metrics they reveal. 

As you can see from glancing over them, each financial statement shows something different about a business’ financial health. 

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Get Your Financial Statements Cheat Sheets

Learn how to read your statements at a glance.

Best Practices for Preparing Your Financial Reports

The importance of financial statements to your business can’t be overstated. That’s why we’re firm believers you should review them every month. This is the best way to ensure that you are using your financial statements to drive smart, data-driven decisions. 

The bare minimum for preparing financial statements is once a year because they are required for tax purposes. If you’re a small business owner with only a few transactions each month and no debt, you might be able to get by with this. However, the majority of businesses should review them more often. 

If you do decide to seek a loan or investors, you may be asked to prepare these statements so that outside parties can evaluate whether or not they want to hand over financing. If seeking financing options is in your future, make sure that your books are always up to date so that you can prepare these statements easily and quickly, as soon as they’re requested. 

When carefully prepared, reviewed, and managed, financial statements provide invaluable insight into a company’s profitability and viability. While they can be cumbersome to create, the value they provide far outweighs the headache of closing the books and reviewing them. 

The faster they are created, the more relevant the information provided will be. Consider an accounting solution that can help you close the books within days, rather than weeks, of the month’s end. That way, your financial information will not feel nearly as stale but will still remain an accurate historical record of what happened. 

Need help creating financial reports? ScaleFactor is here to help. Check out our reporting and insight capabilities or request a demo today to see our reporting functionality in action. 

This post was originally published on October 17, 2017. It has been updated to provide additional information.

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