Pop quiz! What’s the difference between cash flow and profit? If your hands got a little sweaty and you found yourself searching for the nearest pencil sharpener so you wouldn’t need to make eye contact with anyone who might ask you to answer, we get it. As a business owner, these two terms can feel awfully interchangeable. But the truth is, they’re far from it—and knowing when to prioritize one over the other can help you make better strategic decisions in that moment. How do you know when to prioritize cash flow or profit? Ack! Another question. Okay, so let’s say you started a business 3 years ago and took on some loans from investors to help you get off the ground. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit—along with record-level inflation—and you haven’t been able to pay back your investors as quickly as you’d like. Now, they’re starting to pressure you for a return. Would you focus on cash flow or profit in this situation? Prioritizing cash flow will offer you more fluidity with debt repayment and should come before profit in this scenario—but don’t worry if you didn’t know that, yet, because we’re going to explain all of this and then hit you with that quiz we promised. So sit back and get ready to understand the difference between cash flow and profits and when each is most important. What Is Cash Flow? Whether you’re just starting a business or have an established brand, you’ll feel the effects of cash flow similarly. Cash flow is simply the movement of liquid money (cash) in and out of your business at a specific point in time. When you execute a business transaction and receive money, that’s an inflow of cash. When you spend money on inventory, bills, or other expenses, that’s an outflow of cash. As you track the movement (flow) of cash in and out of your business, you’ll find that you are either operating: Cash Flow NegativeCash Flow PositiveYou’re spending more cash than you’re bringing in.You’re bringing more cash in than you’re sending out. If you have positive cash flow, you have enough cash to cover your financial obligations. If you’re operating with negative cash flow, you are not bringing in enough cash to cover your current expenses and will likely need to seek additional business financing to continue running at your current pace. What Is Profit? Profit refers to the remaining revenue after all expenses are paid. If you have a positive value after subtracting total expenses from total revenue, then you’re profitable. If you have a negative value, you’re spending more than you’re making over that timeframe and are operating with a loss. Profit can be used in many ways. You can distribute profit to other owners or shareholders, invest it back into the business, or save it in a reserve fund in case of emergency. For many small businesses, profitability fluctuates throughout the year. Take toy and hobby retailers, for example, which arguably see the bulk of their sales in the final quarter of each year. This imbalance creates cyclical ebbs and flows of profitability, which can be misleading without the proper context. (source) What’s The Difference Between Profit And Cash Flow? Cash flow and profit are just two of many financial metrics business owners and investors use to assess the health of a company. Both measurements have their own advantages and disadvantages, and it’s up to you to understand how to use each to make better strategic decisions. However, the difference between profit and cash flow can be tricky to grasp because they both relate to the balance of money within your business. Complicating the matter further, businesses can actually operate with a positive cash flow without being profitable—and may be profitable with a negative cash flow. Timing is the subtle difference that needs to be considered when comparing cash flow to profit. Cash flow focuses on the past, looking at the actual money that has come in or left your business at a specific point in time. Profit looks at the past, present, and future of your business and includes liabilities like accounts receivables and long-term debt, which are expected expenses or future cash. For example, if you sell an item on credit, you don’t actually have the cash on hand—it’s an account receivable, which still needs to be collected. However, it’s considered revenue because the liability of payment has passed on to your customer, and it is used to measure profitability. On the other hand, cash flow will only measure money that comes in and leaves your business. As a result, it won’t recognize that transaction until the cash is received from the credit purchase. When to Prioritize Cash Flow Vs Profit Cash flow and profit both have their purposes as financial metrics, and business owners would be wise to measure and analyze each ongoingly and for different scenarios. For example, if you want to have an overarching view of your business and its long-term viability, profit can shed more insight than cash flow because it takes a holistic view of your income and financial obligations. However, if you want to see a snapshot of your financial efficiencies at a specific point in time, cash flow may give you more perspective because it’s focused more on your day-to-day operations. Quiz Time: Now, It’s Your turn. We’ve outlined the difference between cash flow and profit as well as when each is most important. So, let’s take a look at a few scenarios and see if you can apply this understanding to real-world examples. At the end of the quiz, we’ll see how you did. Cash Flow or Profit: What’s More Important? Cash flow and profit are both important, and business owners and investors may focus on each at different times and for specific reasons. Determining whether profit or cash flow is more important will be based on your unique situation. Understanding the relationship between cash flow and profit can help you begin to identify when to look at one or the other. This insight alone will put you in a better position to make the right decisions to guide your business forward.