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What is a Cash Flow Forecast? A Guide to Creating Effective Forecasts

  • 9 min read

Predicting future cash flow is called cash flow forecasting. Learn the ins and outs of cash flow forecasting and how to use it in your business.

Crystal ball with a hand hovering above it

The cash flowing into and out of a business—called its cash flow—is like its breath: It comes and goes cyclically, keeping the enterprise alive. That’s why every business needs a good sense of the amount of cash it has on hand, as well as how much cash it’s likely to have in upcoming months.

Predicting that future cash flow is called cash flow forecasting.

Crucially, a cash flow forecast can tell a company about its free cash flow. Free cash flow is how much cash a company has left in a given period after paying for operating and capital expenditures in that same period. Cash flow forecasting to learn this number can help a business plan for sustainable and strategic growth.

Planning for growth is only one of the reasons to forecast cash flow. There are numerous other benefits to doing cash flow projections, all of which help companies run with more insight and foresight.

Read on—or jump to a section of interest—to learn the ins and outs of cash flow forecasting and how to use it in your business.

7 reasons to forecast cash flow

There are many reasons to forecast cash flow, from ensuring your cash reserves are sufficient to enabling business growth.

  1. Predict cash positions in future—Knowing how much cash you’re likely to have in the coming months is essential for planning how you will deploy your resources to improve and grow your business. This is particularly true if most of your sales are made on credit, as you will need to be confident you will have the cash on hand to pay back your debts.
  2. Build up cash reserves—If you know how much cash you are likely to bring in the door in future months, you can calibrate your spending to increase your free cash flow, thereby building up cash reserves that you can use strategically in the future.
  3. Avoid cash shortages—Even if you’re not in a position to build up cash reserves, cash flow forecasting can help you avoid coming up short of cash to pay your bills. Cash flow projections can help you align your spending with your revenue and can tell you when you need credit to help get through a slow period.
  4. Get returns on cash surpluses—Extra cash can be invested and leveraged for returns, but it’s only possible to pursue such strategies if you’re confident you won’t need the cash you’re investing to pay bills in the short term. Projecting cash flow can help you feel confident in putting your surplus to other uses.
  5. Prepare for atypical situations—Business isn’t always the same month after month, and your finances need to be able to keep up with the changes. For example, you need cash on hand to pay your workers in months with three paydays, extra funds to buy special inventory in particular seasons, or a cash cushion to cope with inflation or even a recession. Cash flow forecasting helps make sure such occurrences don’t take you by surprise.
  6. Obtain loans—Lenders may require cash flow forecast reports as part of loan applications, as they like to make sure you’ll be able to service the debt. Doing a cash flow projection before applying for credit is a good idea even if the lender doesn’t require it, as you should only take on debt if you know you can pay it back on time.
  7. Plan business growth—Knowing how much free cash flow you have and can expect over time is essential for figuring out what investments you can afford to make in your business. Cash flow forecasting can also help you figure out how much credit you can safely use to enable your growth.

How to prepare a cash flow forecast

You must make two important decisions before creating a cash flow forecast: what timeframe you’ll be looking at, and whether you want to do a direct or indirect projection.

1. Choose your timeframe

  • Short-term forecasting—Short-term forecasts are the shortest cash flow projections, looking just a month or less into the future. These cash flow forecasts are best for short-term liquidity planning.
  • Medium-term forecasting—Medium-term forecasting has you look anywhere from two to six months into the future. This type of cash flow projection can help you see how to reduce interest and debt and manage your risk.
  • Long-term forecasting—Long-term cash flow forecasts usually look six to 12 months into the future, forming the basis for your annual budgeting process. These projections can help you assess your positioning in relation to growth strategy and capital projects.

The longer the term of the cash flow forecast, the more complicated it is to create and the less accurate it is likely to be. This is because cash flow projections require making assumptions about what will happen in the future, and our certainty diminishes the further out we look.

2. Choose between the direct method and the indirect method

There are two common ways of forecasting cash flows: the direct method and the indirect method. The direct method is suited for daily cash management while the indirect method provides a better basis for strategic planning.

  • The direct method: This method of creating a cash flow forecast takes a bottom-up approach, building the forecast based on actual cash collected and spent in a given timeframe, and making assumptions based on the customers’ payment habits and sales projections. This method is best suited for short- to medium-term projections.
  • Indirect method: The indirect method is based on forecasted income statements in conjunction with balance sheets. This method for forecasting cash flow is aligned with financial plans and budgeting. It's typically used for longer-term strategic planning.

An example of cash flow forecasting

To get a sense of how a cash flow forecast works in action, let’s look at a sample three-month cash flow projection for Toolio Inc., a fictional enterprise tools manufacturer. Here are the data points for this forecast:

  • Opening balance of the cash position is $25 million
  • Revenue during three months (20% of sales in cash and 80% in credit; credit period is one month). Oct: $150 million, Nov: $170 million, Dec: $167 million
  • Raw material purchase (25% of the purchase is paid in cash and 75% in credit; credit period of 2 months). Oct: $70 million, Nov: $80 million, Dec: $75 million
  • Labor charges are paid in cash. Oct: $25 million, Nov: $25 million, Dec: $25 million
  • Other costs are paid in cash. Oct: $5 million, Nov: $4 million, Dec: $6 million

As this chart illustrates, Toolio Inc. can expect to increase its cash balance by more than 7x in three months. This allows the company to see how it can weather upcoming changes or challenges, and provides an idea that it confidently make investments in the short term to enable more growth.

5 common cash flow forecasting challenges

Cash flow forecasting comes with a number of challenges. Here are five issues that are common causes for complaint in the cash flow projection process.

  • The direct method of cash flow forecasting may be accurate, but it is tedious and time-consuming, taking finance staff away from other tasks for too long.
  • The indirect method has a relatively high chance of inaccuracy and is subject to errors in the projected income statements and balance sheets on which it is based.
  • A cash flow forecast’s results can be skewed if finance has an inaccurate understanding of days payable outstanding (DPO; how long the company takes to pay bills on average) and/or days sales outstanding (DSO; how long the company takes to collect payment from customers on average).
  • A forecast may be inaccurate if finance has a faulty understanding of customer payment terms, which can frequently change.
  • A forecast can be made quickly irrelevant or inaccurate by unexpected market changes that affect sales projections.

How AR automation helps cash flow forecasts

Cash flow forecasting comes with a lot of inherent uncertainty, as none of us know what the future will bring. But there’s a key way to make your forecasting easier and more accurate: accelerate your cash flow.

AR automation tools help do just that, as they make it easier for buyers to transact, such as by paying online with their preferred method. Faster, more frequent cash flows help increase the ease and accuracy of a cash flow forecast.

AR automation tools can also offer greater insight into how your buyers' tend to pay, which can help you gain greater transparency about when and how payments will arrive. These tools can help you identify delinquent accounts and take action to recover payment quickly, allowing you to determine when payment might come in.

And this kind of software can provide accounts receivable metrics related to cash flow forecasts that can help with decision-making, such as built-in AR aging tables that give a sense of how cash is flowing.

Improve your cash flow forecasts

A cash flow forecast is only as good as the information it is based on, which is why the best-in-class tools companies use to improve their projections are all about gaining visibility into payment processes. One example is increasing the effectiveness of collections efforts by using software that enables a more collaborative approach to payments.

Check out Versapay’s guide to accelerating collections to learn more about how this type of support can help your business improve your cash flow forecasts.

About the author

Katie Gustafson Headshot

Katie Gustafson

Katherine Gustafson is a freelance writer specializing in content for mission-driven changemakers such as tech disruptors, visionary nonprofits, and big-thinking startups. She is the author of a book about innovation in sustainable food, and her writing has appeared in Slate, TechCrunch, Business Insider, and Forbes, among other places.

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