(This column originally appeared in Entrepreneur)
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
For most people, New Year’s Eve is a big night of celebration, a chance to end the holiday season with a bang, a time to reflect on the year before and to make resolutions about the year ahead. But unfortunately, for some of my clients, New Year’s Eve is not a celebratory occasion. Some would even regard it as the worst night of the year. But, why?
“Because every year I’m reminded that New Year’s Eve is the end of the year,” one client recently told me. “Which means having to start again at the beginning.”
Despite all the reports of an economic slowdown, the fact is that most of my clients had a pretty good 2022. But none of them will say that it came easy and this year was particularly hard, what with higher inflation, rising interest rates and continuing economic challenges. But they battled and hustled and worked hard to make the year a success. So what’s their reward at the end of the year?
They get to do it all over again. Yay! All of our prior accomplishments were short-lived. They’re already in the past. They’ve been wiped clean. January 1st sets everything back to the beginning. And for many business owners, the future is uncertain and unsettling. That’s why they hate New Year’s Eve.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re like many of my clients and dread the beginning of a new year I’ve got a way for you to ease your concerns: forecast. Ask yourself this question on December 31st: Do you know what your cash will be on March 31, a mere 90 days from now? If you can reasonably predict your future cash, then won’t feel a little less uncertain about the future?
Of course, you will. That’s because when you know the future you can make a plan. and when you have a future plan you can feel better about the present. And you can do all of this with a simple, basic cash forecast. It’s not as hard as you think. All it takes is these four simple steps:
Step 1: Determine your overhead for the next 90 days
This should be easy: You know what your payroll will be. You know your lease, debt and rent payments. You know what your utility, internet and other operating costs should be. I’m not asking you to forecast this for all of the year. Just the next 90 days. Write this down.
Step 2: Agree on a reasonable estimated margin — or two
This doesn’t have to be exact. Forecasting is an art, not a science. By now I’m pretty sure you know how much gross profit you make on a typical sale which is the sale price less the direct cost of materials and labor to make or deliver it. If you have a lot of products take an average. If you have just a few product lines and it’s easy to calculate, then use two margins and split it amongst your sales accordingly. Again, this is just an estimate. Maybe it’s about 20%. Or 30%. Whatever it is, pick a reasonable number.
Step 3: Now the “hard” part: Forecast your cash sales
I put quotes around “hard” because every client I have thinks this is difficult. But it’s not, really. You’re just thinking of 90 days, not the whole year. I’m sure you have a listing of open quotes and open orders (which haven’t been converted to sales). You’ve got receivables that will convert to cash during that period. You probably have some sort of pipeline report from your customer relationship management system. You can talk to your sale team to better understand what deals are cooking. And, assuming you were in business before the pandemic, you’ve got historical sales from similar periods. Put all that together and I bet you’ll come up with a reasonable estimate of sales over the coming three months.
So now, take those sales. Apply the estimated margin against them and then deduct your overhead. Congratulations: You’ve now forecasted your operating cash. But you’re not completely finished. There’s one final step.
Step 4: Consider any extraordinary items
Do you have any big debt payments coming up? Large purchases? A pending large sale? Estimated tax payments? Bonuses? Is there anything else significant you think of that’s out of the ordinary? Figure that in too.
And there you have it, your final cash profit for the next 90 days.
Take your cash on New Year’s eve, apply the final number to it (hopefully it’s positive) and you’ll know your cash 90 days from now. Not so tough. What’s tough is doing it the first couple of times. Once you get the process down, and you’re doing it every month, something big will happen: you will feel better. Why? Because you’ll know the future. And that’s what my best clients do. They don’t like surprises. They’re always looking ahead. They do their best to know what’s coming later so they can make their plans now. They take the time each month to forecast their cash because they don’t like to run their businesses in the dark.
Forecasting is easier than you think. And it’s a critical management tool to help you run your business. Done consistently you will find yourself making much smarter decisions. But best of all, you’ll find yourself enjoying New Year’s Eve much, much more in the future. So Happy New Year.