When it comes to long-term business success, preparation is the name of the game. And the key to that preparation is a solid financial plan that sets forth a business’s short- and long-term financial goals and how it intends to reach them. Used by company decision-makers and potential partners, investors and lenders, alike, a financial plan typically includes the company’s sales forecast, cash flow projection, expected expenses, key financial metrics and more. Here is what small businesses should understand to create a comprehensive financial plan of their own.

What Is a Financial Plan?

A financial plan is a document that businesses use to detail and manage their finances, ensure efficient allocation of resources and inform a plethora of decisions — everything from setting prices, to expanding the business, to optimizing operations, to name just a few. The financial plan provides a clear understanding of the company’s current financial standing; outlines its strategies, goals and projections; makes clear whether an idea is sustainable and worthy of investment; and monitors the business’s financial health as it grows and matures. Financial plans can be adjusted over time as forecasts become replaced with real-world results and market forces change.

A financial plan is an integral part of an overall business plan, ensuring financial objectives align with overall business goals. It typically contains a description of the business, financial statements, personnel plan, risk analysis and relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) and ratios. By providing a comprehensive view of the company’s finances and future goals, financial plans also assist in attracting investors and other sources of funding.

Key Takeaways

  • A financial plan details a business’s current standing and helps business leaders make informed decisions about future endeavors and strategies.
  • A financial plan includes three major financial statements: the income statement, balance sheet and cash flow statement.
  • A financial plan answers essential questions and helps track progress toward goals.
  • Financial management software gives decision-makers the tools they need to make strategic decisions.

Why Is a Financial Plan Important to Your Small Business?

A financial plan can provide small businesses with greater confidence in their short- and long-term endeavors by helping them determine ways to best allocate and invest their resources. The process of creating the plan forces businesses to think through how different decisions could impact revenue and which occasions call for dipping into reserve funds. It’s also a helpful tool for monitoring performance, managing cash flow and tracking financial metrics.

Simply put, a financial plan shows where the business stands; over time, its analysis will reveal whether its investments were worthwhile and worth repeating. In addition, when a business is courting potential partners, investors and lenders, the financial plan spotlights the business’s commitment to spending wisely and meeting its financial obligations.

Benefits of a Financial Plan

A financial plan is only as effective as the data foundation it’s built on and the business’s flexibility to revisit it amid changing market forces and demand shifts. Done correctly, a financial plan helps small businesses stay on track so they can reach their short-term and long-term goals. Among the benefits that effective financial planning delivers:

  • A clear view of goals and objectives: As with any type of business plan, it’s imperative that everyone in a company is on the same financial page. With clear responsibilities and expected results mapped out, every team member from the top down sees what needs to be done, when to do it and why.
  • More accurate budgets and projections: A comprehensive financial plan leads to realistic budgets that allocate resources appropriately and plan for future revenue and expenses. Financial projections also help small businesses lay out steps to maintain business continuity during periods of cash flow volatility or market uncertainty.
  • External funding opportunities: With a detailed financial plan in hand, potential partners, lenders and investors can see exactly where their money will go and how it will be used. The inclusion of stellar financial records, including past and current liabilities, can also assure external funding sources that they will be repaid.
  • Performance monitoring and course correction: Small businesses can continue to benefit from their financial plans long after the plan has been created. By continuously monitoring results and comparing them with initial projections, businesses have the opportunity to adjust their plans as needed.

Components of a Small Business Financial Plan

A sound financial plan is instrumental to the success and stability of a small business. Whether the business is starting from scratch or modifying its plan, the best financial plans include the following elements:

  • Income statement: The income statement reports the business’s net profit or loss over a specific period of time, such a month, quarter or year. Also known as a profit-and-loss statement (P&L) or pro forma income statement, the income statement includes the following elements:

    • Cost of goods sold (COGS): The direct costs involved in producing goods or services.
    • Operating expenses: Rent, utilities and other costs involved in running the business.
    • Revenue streams: Usually in the form of sales and subscription services, among other sources.
    • Total net profit or loss: Derived from the total amount of sales less expenses and taxes.
  • Balance sheet: The balance sheet reports the business’s current financial standing, focusing on what it owns, what it owes and shareholder equity:

    • Assets: Available cash, goods and other owned resources.
    • Liabilities: Amounts owed to suppliers, personnel, landlords, creditors, etc.
    • Shareholder equity: Measures the company’s net worth, calculated with this formula:

      Shareholder Equity = Assets Liability

    The balance sheet lists assets, liabilities and equity in chart format, with assets in the left column and liabilities and equity on the right. When complete — and as the name implies —the two sides should balance out to zero, as shown on the sample balance sheet below. The balance sheet is used with other financial statements to calculate business financial ratios (discussed soon).

    Balance Sheet

    Assets =

    Liabilities + Shareholder Equity

    Debit Balance

    Credit Balance

    Assets Liabilities Shareholder Equity
    • Cash: $175,000
    • Inventory: $225,000
    • Land/Real Estate: $645,000
    • Accounts Payable: $17,000
    • Long-term Debt: $450,000
    • Common Stock: $150,000
    • Retained Earnings: $428,000
    A balance sheet shows how much cash a business has, its current obligations and net profit, which appears as increases in shareholder equity.
  • Cash flow projection: Cash flow projection is a part of the cash flow statement, which is perhaps one of the most critical aspects of a financial plan. After all, businesses run on cash. The cash flow statement documents how much cash came in and went out of the business during a specific time period. This reveals its liquidity, meaning how much cash it has on hand. The cash flow projection should display how much cash a business currently has, where it’s going, where future cash will come from and a schedule for each activity.

  • Personnel plan: A business needs the right people to meet its goals and maintain a healthy cash flow. A personnel plan looks at existing positions, helps determine when it’s time to bring on more team members and determines whether new hires should be full-time, part-time or work on a contractual basis. It also examines compensation levels, including benefits, and forecasts those costs against potential business growth to gauge whether the potential benefits of new hires justify the expense.

  • Business ratios: In addition to a big-picture view of the business, decision-makers will need to drill down to specific aspects of the business to understand how individual areas are performing. Business ratios, such as net profit margin, return on equity, accounts payable turnover, assets to sales, working capital and total debt to total assets, help evaluate the business’s financial health. Data used to calculate these ratios come from the P&L statement, balance sheet and cash flow statement. Business ratios contextualize financial data — for example, net profit margin shows the profitability of a company’s operations in relation to its revenue. They are often used to help request funding from a bank or investor, as well.

  • Sales forecast: How much will you sell in a specific period? A sales forecast needs to be an ongoing part of any planning process since it helps predict cash flow and the organization’s overall health. A forecast needs to be consistent with the sales number within your P&L statement. Organizing and segmenting your sales forecast will depend on how thoroughly you want to track sales and the business you have. For example, if you own a hotel and giftshop, you may want to track separately sales from guests staying the night and sales from the shop.

  • Cash flow projection: Perhaps one of the most critical aspects of your financial plan is your cash flow statement. Your business runs on cash. Understanding how much cash is coming in and when to expect it shows the difference between your profit and cash position. It should display how much cash you have now, where it’s going, where it will come from and a schedule for each activity.

  • Income projections: Businesses can use their sales forecasts to estimate how much money they are on track to make in a given period, usually a year. This income projection is calculated by subtracting anticipated expenses from revenue. In some cases, the income projection is rolled into the P&L statement.

  • Assets and liabilities: Assets and liabilities appear on the business’s balance sheet. Assets are what a company owns and are typically divided into current and long-term assets. Current assets can be converted into cash within a year and include stocks, inventory and accounts receivable. Long-term assets are tangible or fixed assets designed for long-term use, such as furniture, fixtures, buildings, machinery and vehicles.

    Liabilities are business obligations that are also classified as current and long-term. Current liabilities are due to be paid within a year and include accrued payroll, taxes payable and short-term loans. Long-term liabilities include shareholder loans or bank debt that mature more than a year later.

  • Break-even analysis: The break-even point is how much a business must sell to exactly cover all of its fixed and variable expenses, including COGS, salaries and rent. When revenue exceeds expenses, the business makes a profit. The break-even point is used to guide sales revenue and volume goals; determination requires first calculating contribution margin, which is the amount of sales revenue a company has, less its variable costs, to put toward paying its fixed costs. Businesses can use break-even analyses to better evaluate their expenses and calculate how much to mark up its goods and services to be able to turn a profit.

Four Steps to Create a Financial Plan for Your Small Business

Financial plans require deliberate planning and careful implementation. The following four steps can help small businesses get started and ensure their plans can help them achieve their goals.

  1. Create a strategic plan

    Before looking at any numbers, a strategic plan focuses on what the company wants to accomplish and what it needs to achieve its goals. Will it need to buy more equipment or hire additional staff? How will its goals affect cash flow? What other resources are needed to meet its goals? A strategic financial plan answers these questions and determines how the plan will impact the company’s finances. Creating a list of existing expenses and assets is also helpful and will inform the remaining financial planning steps.

  2. Create financial projections

    Financial projections should be based on anticipated expenses and sales forecasts. These projections look at the business’s goals and estimate the costs needed to reach them in the face of a variety of potential scenarios, such as best-case, worst-case and most likely to happen. Accountants may be brought in to review the plan with stakeholders and suggest how to explain the plan to external audiences, such as investors and lenders.

  3. Plan for contingencies

    Financial plans should use data from the cash flow statement and balance sheet to inform worst-case scenario plans, such as when incoming cash dries up or the business takes an unexpected turn. Some common contingencies include keeping cash reserves or a substantial line of credit for quick access to funds during slow periods. Another option is to produce a plan to sell off assets to help break even.

  4. Monitor and compare goals

    Actual results in the cash flow statement, income projections and relevant business ratios should be analyzed throughout the year to see how closely real-life results adhered to projections. Regular check-ins also help businesses spot potential problems before they can get worse and inform course corrections.

Three Questions Your Financial Plan Should Answer

A small business financial plan should be tailored to the needs and expectations of its intended audience, whether it is potential investors, lenders, partners or internal stakeholders. Once the plan is created, all parties should, at minimum, understand:

  • How will the business make money?

  • What does the business need to achieve its goals?

  • What is the business’s operating budget?

Financial plans that don’t answer these questions will need more work. Otherwise, a business risks starting a new venture without a clear path forward, and decision-makers will lack the necessary insights that a detailed financial plan would have provided.

Improve Your Financial Planning With Financial Management Software

Using spreadsheets for financial planning may get the job done when a business is first getting started, but this approach can quickly become overwhelming, especially when collaborating with others and as the business grows.

NetSuite’s cloud-based financial management platform simplifies the labor-intensive process through automation. NetSuite Planning and Budgeting automatically consolidates real-time data for analysis, reporting and forecasting, thereby improving efficiency. With intuitive dashboards and sophisticated forecasting tools, businesses can create accurate financial plans, track progress and modify strategies in order to achieve and maintain long-term success. The solution also allows for scenario planning and workforce planning, plus prebuilt data synchronization with NetSuite ERP means the entire business is working with the same up-to-date information.

Whether a business is first getting started, looking to expand, trying to secure outside funding or monitoring its growth, it will need to create a financial plan. This plan lays out the business’s short- and long-term objectives, details its current and projected finances, specifies how it will invest its resources and helps track its progress. Not only does a financial plan guide the business along its way, but it is typically required by outside sources of funding that don’t invest or lend their money to just any company. Creating a financial plan may take some time, but successful small businesses know it is well worth the effort.

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Small Business Financial Plan FAQs

How do I write a small business financial plan?

Writing a small business financial plan is a four-step process. It begins with creating a strategic plan, which covers the company’s goals and what it needs to achieve them. The next step is to create financial projections, which are dependent on anticipating sales and expenses. Step three plans for contingencies: For example, what if the business were to lose a significant client? Finally, the business must monitor its goals, comparing actual results to projections and adjusting as needed.

What is the best financial statement for a small business?

The income statement, also known as the profit and loss (P&L) statement, is often considered the most important financial statement for small businesses, as it summarizes profits and losses and the business’s bottom line over a specific financial period. For financial plans, the cash flow statement and the balance sheet are also critical financial statements.

How often should businesses update their financial plans?

Financial plans can be updated whenever a business deems appropriate. Many businesses create three- and five-year plans and adjust them annually. If a market experiences a large shift, such as a spike in demand or an economic downturn, a financial plan may need to be updated to reflect the new market.

What are some common mistakes to avoid when creating a small business financial plan?

Some common mistakes to avoid when creating a small business financial plan include underestimating expenses, overestimating revenue, failing to plan for contingencies and adhering to plans too strictly when circumstances change. Plans should be regularly updated to reflect real-world results and current market trends.

How do I account for uncertainty and potential risks in my small business financial plan?

Small businesses can plan for uncertainty by maintaining cash reserves and opening lines of credit to cover periods of lower income or high expenses. Plans and projections should also take into account a variety of potential scenarios, from best case to worst case.

What is a typical business financial plan?

A typical business financial plan is a document that details a business’s goals, strategies and projections over a specific period of time. It is used as a roadmap for the organization’s financial activities and provides a framework for decision-making, resource allocation and performance evaluation.

What are the seven components of a financial plan?

Financial plans can vary to suit the business’s needs, but seven components to include are the income statement, operating income, net income, cash flow statement, balance sheet, financial projections and business ratios. Various financial key performance indicators and a break-even analysis are typically included as well.

What is an example of a financial plan?

A financial plan serves as a snapshot of the business’s current standing and how it plans to grow. For example, a restaurant looking to secure approval for a loan will be asked to provide a financial plan. This plan will include an executive summary of the business, a description and history of the company, market research into customer base and competition, sales and marketing strategies, key performance indicators and organizational structure. It will also include elements focusing on the future, such as financial projections, potential risks and funding requirements and strategies.