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How to manage your cash flow in uncertain times

In a world of high inflation, rising interest rates and surging energy costs, some businesses are facing real challenges in managing their cash flow.

The perfect storm of conditions affecting cash flow

Poor cash flow can have many causes: delayed payments, spiralling expenses or simply a lack of profit. But currently, unprecedented macro-economic factors are creating even more pressure for businesses trying to manage their cash.

We’re facing a perfect storm, with inflation, interest rates and energy costs all rising.

  • High inflation: Inflation can trigger higher costs for raw materials, meaning narrower profit margins. Businesses may have to put prices up, which could deter customers from spending. Ultimately, it could result in an imbalance between costs and revenue.
  • Rising interest rates: Business owners will pay more interest on loans and credit cards as rates rise. It may also mean customers saving more of their earnings to gain higher rates of interest, instead of buying a product or service with that money. Again, this could create a cash flow imbalance. 
  • Surging energy costs: With energy bills escalating sharply, businesses will face rising costs as they pay more to heat and power work premises, while customers may have less disposable income to spend on goods and services. Rising costs and falling revenue can lead to negative cash flow.

Each of these factors individually can have a detrimental effect on a business’s cash flow, but all three combined may signal a higher cost of doing business, more cautious customers and revenue challenges.

Six ways to help to manage and prevent cash flow difficulties

In the event of a cash crunch, it is important that business owners meet the issue head-on and build a strategy. Consult your accountant as early as possible as they can help with the steps below and future-proof your plans for worst case scenarios. 

1. Use cash flow forecasting 

Cash flow forecasting can help predict the future availability of cash to the business and is a must, especially in challenging times. Cash flow forecasts are never going to be 100% accurate, but they’re a useful tool to help predict if and when you might run out of money, or have a surplus of cash, and test the impact of saving any costs.

The best approach when putting together a forecast is to predict your sales, profit and your cash in the bank, and then compare the figures to actual sales, profit and cash as you go. 

As part of this, examine your outgoings and if there are ways to save money without damaging your brand, it may be a good idea to do so as soon as possible. 

2. Review your debtors

It can be tempting for small business owners to allow customers to negotiate discounts on their prices, or give grace periods to those who don’t pay on time. But this causes an awful lot of cash flow issues. So in other words, as a small business owner, make time to review your trade debtors (customers who owe you money), and think about whether you still want to do business with customers who pay you late or haggle over your prices.

3. Simplify customer payments 

Making it easier for customers to pay can have a positive effect on cash flow. For example, if you insist on customers sending you a cheque, could you make it easier for them to pay? Can you take bank transfers or a credit card payment? Customers will pay you more quickly      if they can do it more easily.

Cash flow forecasts are never going to be 100% accurate, but they’re a useful tool to help predict if and when you might run out of money or have a surplus of cash

4. Consider short-term loan options 

A short-term loan from a bank or a family member can help a business struggling with cash flow. But remember: a bank will expect to see your cash forecast before granting you a loan, and will need to be comfortable with your ability to pay it back. 

Don’t attempt to borrow more than you can afford to pay back, and remember that with interest rates going up at the moment, your repayments could increase over time, so read the small print and build the loan into your forecast.

5. Keep an emergency fund 

It’s also a good idea to keep emergency funds available to cover costs during times of cash flow difficulties. The amount you will want to have saved up depends on the size and type of business, but there should be enough cash on hand to see the company through a period of poor cash flow.

6. Monitor and revise your figures regularly 

If you’ve had one cash flow issue, don’t pretend it never happened; you have to prevent it from happening again. Make sure you monitor your cash very regularly, as it goes in and out of your bank account. Always know how much you’ve got – and how much you can afford to spend.

Finally, in such an unpredictable environment, it pays to watch economic indicators and world events (for example, view Economics Weekly here), and try to plan your cash flow accordingly. Anticipate the effect these events will have on your cash flow, and on the economy as a whole. For instance, if fuel prices continue to rise, what will that do to your bank balance?

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of the NatWest Group Economics Department, as of this date and are subject to change without notice.

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