“It’s not necessarily the big hole that’ll sink a ship; that one you can plug. It’s the hundred little pin holes that are hard to find,” says Al Titone, the district director of the New Jersey Small Business Administration.
With the economy still in unstable territory, experts say you need to be extra vigilant about cash flow, carefully monitoring fixed and incidental expenses in order to reserve enough cash to survive uncertain times. Titone says you should question the necessity of all expenses — whether it’s a car or a brand-name printer cartridge.
The Small Business Administration recommends keeping the equivalent of six months to a year of operating costs in reserves. The key is relatively simple: Analyze your expenses as regularly as possible. Here, experts reveal a few basic tips to forecasting and maintaining cash flow in an uncertain economy.
1. Calculate your break-even analysis. Business owners should start the budget process with a break-even analysis, the equation that shows a business’ base cost to provide its product or service, says John Welch, a San Francisco-based CPA and attorney who specializes in small businesses. In his experience, most business owners, preoccupied with covering daily expenses and making payroll, don’t perform the analysis annually.
“In an uncertain revenue world, the idea is to keep fixed cost to the minimum to run the business, and then really manage variable costs,” Welch says. “As a business owner, it becomes an administrative burden to do it. … But in an uncertain world you have to be more proactive about managing expenditures and matching the revenue levels you’re anticipating.”
2. Re-evaluate fixed expenses. Many business owners don’t second-guess fixed expenses like rent or insurance when setting their annual budget, even though those base expenses represent the largest bite out of cash flow, Welch says.
Switching carriers for employee health insurance or moving offices if location isn’t critical to a business could represent substantial savings. Or, Titone suggests, try to renegotiate rent; business owners have some leverage in a bad market.
“Make sure fixed costs commiserate with revenue level,” Welch says. “Then variable costs, really beat them to death.”
From the owner’s perspective, he says, money left over from base costs either goes to variable costs or back to the business as profit; the more tightly it’s monitored, the more could potentially become profit.
4. Schedule a monthly check-up for tax purposes. Welch also suggests business owners perform a monthly analysis of income and expenses so they know through the year what their tax bill will look like.
Tax analysis requires keeping books on a cash basis as well as an accrual basis, he says. Most business owners keep books on an accrual basis — recognizing receivables and payables — and then for taxes adjust books to a cash basis — the difference between taxable income collected and cash expenditures made, which is taxable income.
“That’s part of this whole cash flow planning process,” he says. “That way they’re not surprised by a big tax bill.”
5. Evaluate variable costs every six months. Businesses should regularly — on an annual or, preferably, semiannual basis — audit variable expenses such as office supplies for necessity, which most business owners neglect to do, experts say.
“You should always be second-guessing expenses, even in a good economy,” Titone says. “If you’re doing OK right now, it’s a good time to lock in cash flow.”