The Most Important Financial Numbers You Need to Track to Grow Your Business

Here are the financial numbers to keep your eye on as you monitor the health of your business.


If you use accounting software, you likely have access to a wealth of financial reports that offer a window into your business’ performance. However, if you’re like most busy entrepreneurs, you don’t have the time, the inclination, or the training to understand complex financial numbers.

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In fact, many small business owners focus solely on what they’re passionate about, skipping over the big picture. Unfortunately, no matter how talented and committed you are to your craft, product, or service, if you don’t attend to the financial side of your business, it’s likely to fail.

Not on our watch! Let’s take a look at the 7 numbers you need to review every single month to help you get your profits up and keep them there. Don’t worry, you won’t need to be a certified CPA to understand how to interpret and pull these numbers from key financial statements. But you will need some kind of accounting software solution to help you run these reports.

Once you have a clear line of sight to the financial statements that measure the health of your business, you’ll be able to make smarter, more forward-thinking decisions.

Profit and Loss

You know the expression, “What’s the bottom line?” It comes directly from the profit & loss (P&L) report. The ‘bottom line’ is the final line of a P&L statement—the number that shows whether a company made a profit or took a loss.

Profit (also called “net income”) tells you how much money you’ve earned after expenses have been paid out. It’s most helpful to analyze your P&L regularly (i.e., once a month) so you can:

  • Monitor where you’re spending your cash on expenses and look for ways to curb it if it’s affecting your profit
  • Identify what times of the year you tend to have less work and make less money so you know when to cut back or amp up your sales efforts
  • Help inform your revenue trend—you may be on an upward trajectory in terms of income, but if your profits are being drastically lowered by expenses you can figure out why and fix it. For example, you could try to reduce your expenses or raise your rates.

Ultimately, if your business isn’t profitable, or isn’t profitable enough for you to pay yourself what you want, it’s not sustainable. As a business owner, stay focused on this “bottom line” to make sure you’re earning the money you want.

Expenses

Running a successful business often requires an investment in things like equipment, office supplies, transportation, training, and advertising. Depending on the type of business you run, these expenses can grow fast—and even overtake your revenue.

It’s critical to enter your expenses into your accounting software regularly and check on the numbers every month. When you take the time to do this, they’ll be included in your P&L statement, which tells you if you’re making or losing money.

But many accounting solutions also include an expense report that shows you the distinct categories you’re spending in. Reviewing your expense patterns will help you decide where you can cut back if you need to.

Your only job with respect to keeping an eye on expenses is to make sure they’re not growing faster than your revenue. The exception would be if you are making an intentional long-term investment, such as hiring a new employee or buying new equipment that will pay off over time.



Accounts Receivable

Do you ever wish you could shake a tree and have money fall out? Accounts receivable, aka A/R, is about as close as you’re going to get.

A/R is really just a fancy way of saying, “money I’m owed.” This is the sum of your unpaid invoices, and it appears as a line in your balance sheet, another basic financial report. If your accounts receivable is a big number, you have a lot of money in the treetops.

If you find yourself with troubling P&L numbers, take a look at A/R. Late or unpaid invoices are often the culprit for financial distress for small business owners. It pays to stay on top of clients to pay promptly and keep cash flowing. Many accounting software tools offer automatic payment reminders to help keep things on track.

And knowing what your A/R numbers are at any given moment will empower you to make better decisions about what you choose to invest in and when.

Profit by Client

Not all clients are created equal. Financially speaking, some are much more lucrative than others. The best clients aren’t the ones who pay the biggest fees—they’re the ones who generate the most profit.

It can be exciting to get a big-name client, but sometimes they require you to invest in additional equipment, insurance, travel, and other expenses. So, even though they may be paying more, they’re also costing more. In contrast, some of your smaller clients may not pay a ton but their projects add up to a lot of profit.

Some accounting software solutions offer a revenue by client report. While this financial statement can be eye-opening to see exactly what each client is “worth” to your business, it’s also helpful to take an extra step to determine how much profit they generate.

To calculate this, take the total fees you received from a client and subtract all of the expenses associated with working for them. That’s your gross profit. If you track the hours you spend working with them, divide that profit by the approximate number of hours you spend on their work. That’s your “hourly wage” for this client.

Compare this wage between clients to see which are most lucrative for you. Focus your marketing on getting more of the clients who are profitable, even if they are not the “biggest” projects. This way you’ll earn the most money with the least time spent.

Cash Flow

mastering cash flow

One of the hardest concepts for small business owners to conquer is cash flow. It refers to the actual cash that’s entering (income) and leaving your business (expenses) over a specific period of time. Your cash flow statement shows how much cash is available at the end of that period of time.

Even if your P&L shows a consistent profit, you can still have a cash flow problem. Maybe you invoiced for a big project, but the payment terms are 60 days, so you won’t have cash in hand for a while. Meanwhile, your expenses may be reasonable based on the income you’re making but if a big investment in equipment is required while you’re waiting for that cash to come in, you’ll end up without enough money to pay for it.

Accounting experts advise checking in with your cash flow statement regularly so you can properly time your purchases and ensure that your clients are paying swiftly.

Item Sales

Want to know how much money you’re making from each item you sell and how many times you actually sell that item? Many accounting software solutions offer this insight through an item sales report.

This is important information because it shows you the profitability of each of your products or services. Here’s where you’ll see whether your best-selling product is actually pulling its weight in profit. You can also check on what effect discounts on certain products have on their profitability. Using financial statements like the item sales report offers up important information you can use to decide which items deserve most of your time and attention, and which don’t.

Project Profitability

Wondering how profitable entire projects are to your business, particularly if you have employees working on them? Enter the Project Profitability Details Report.

Some accounting software solutions offer a Project Profitability reporting tool that tracks the performance of your projects to see how profitable they are. It takes into consideration the time and expenses being tracked to projects by your team members, helping you can make better project management decisions in the short-term and better business decisions in the long term.

The Bottom Line on Financial Numbers

When it comes to financial numbers, the old adage, ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail’ really is the bottom line.

Like it or not, numbers tell the story of the health of a business. They can tell you things like:

  • What kind of clients to go after to be most profitable
  • How much you need to make on a project or product to make it profitable
  • What kind of capital investments are reasonable and affordable
  • When to make capital investments in your business
  • Which clients owe you money – and when
  • What kind of profits you can expect to make based on past performance
  • Real-time cash flow

These are important metrics that will inform both big and small business decisions. Accounting experts recommend checking on these financial statements on the first day of every month, starting with the cash flow statement. This will allow you to adjust your business strategy as needed. And as you get used to analyzing data on a regular basis, you might find additional reports that’ll help you take the measure of your business success.

In the meantime, making use of these 7 numbers and their corresponding financial statements a priority is an investment that will pay off in the long run.

This post was updated in April 2021.



about the author

Freelancer & FreshBooks Customer Heather Hudson has been a freelance writer for more than 17 years. As a small business owner, she understands the triumphs and challenges of life as an entrepreneur. And as a longtime FreshBooks customer, she’s always looking for ways to work smarter, not harder. You can learn more about her work at heatherhudson.ca.