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20 financial terms that every small business owner should know and understand

They’re words or terms that are frequently used in business. Many of them you possibly already use or often hear. But do you know the actual meaning of them all?  

Accounting period

This is the period to which a business’s financial accounts refer, which is usually 12 months. You can compare headline numbers from different accounting periods to assess how well your business is performing or developing.

Accounts payable

This is an accounts/bookkeeping record of money owed by a business to its suppliers. This is shown as a liability on a business’s balance sheet (see 4). “Accounts receivable” is a record of money owed to a business by its customers.


These are items of value that a business owns. They can be physical, tangible things, such as machinery, tools, vehicles, premises, computers, office furniture, etc, or non-physical, intangible things, such as intellectual property, brand identity, “goodwill” (ie reputation), customer base, in-house systems, etc. Both can be important when valuing a business for sale.

Balance sheet

A balance sheet is a financial statement that shows a business’s assets and liabilities at a given point, while detailing shareholder equity (ie the amount shareholders would receive if a company’s total assets were liquidated and all debts repaid). Bottom line is the last line on a balance sheet that shows total profit or loss.

Cash accounting

Cash accounting is an accounting method that records income when it’s received and expenses when they’re paid. The alternative is the accrual accounting method, which is where income and expenses are recorded when they’re earned/incurred, regardless of when cash actually enters or leaves a business. There are pros and cons to each.

Cash flow

Cash flow (or cashflow) describes the relationship between cash entering and leaving a business. Positive cash flow means more cash entering a business than leaving it. Cash-flow problems arise when you spend more than you make or when you don’t have sufficient cash to pay your short-term debts. Poor cash-flow management can kill even profitable businesses.

Credit control

Firstly, this requires managing which customers get credit from your business and how much they get. Credit control also involves monitoring customer accounts and prompting them when necessary to ensure that they pay their invoices when due. 


An accounting term used to describe a person or business to whom/which your business owes money. Your suppliers can be described as trade creditors. A debtor is a person or business that owes money to your business.


A bookkeeping system whereby every time you detail a transaction it’s recorded in two places within your accounts, once as a debit and once as a credit. The double-entry system can make it easier to prepare accurate financial statements and identify errors.

Gross profit  

This is your turnover (see 18) minus your cost of sales and direct costs. Your gross profit margin/percentage = gross profit/turnover x 100. So, if your business made a gross profit of £30,000 on a turnover of £75,000, its gross profit margin/percentage would be 40%.


This is money that you or your business receives in exchange for your labour or supplying goods or services. Income can also be earned through investment. Revenue is an alternative name for business income. Net income is income minus cost of goods/services sold, expenses, depreciation and amortisation, interest and tax.


This is simply another word for materials or stock that a business buys to sell or make into products for sale. Inventory is reported as a current asset on a company’s balance sheet.


Margin is sale price minus the cost of goods/services sold. So, if you sell a product for £100 and it costs you £70 to make, your margin is £30 (or 30% margin percentage). Markup is how much you add to your costs to reach your selling price. So, a markup of £30 from your £70 cost gives a £100 price, but the markup percentage is 42.9%, which is the markup amount divided by your costs.

Net profit 

This is your gross profit (see 10) minus your indirect costs and expenses. So, if your gross profit is £30,000 and your indirect costs and expenses are £10,000, your net profit is £20,000. Your net profit percentage = net profit/turnover x 100. So, in this case, £20,000/£60,000 x 100 = 33.3%.


Overheads are your day-to-day running costs, such as rent, rates, etc. Sometimes these are called “fixed costs”, because they don’t change regardless of how much you make or sell. However, your “variable costs” will increase if you make or sell more. Raw materials are the most obvious variable cost.

Petty cash 

This refers to small amounts of cash belonging to a business that is kept for low-value day-to-day purchases, such as a bottle of milk, tea bags or jar of coffee. Obviously, petty cash purchases must be accounted for.


Return on investment. Basically, the financial rewards your business gets back from things it invests in, for example, a marketing campaign, new website or new item of equipment. The formula for working out ROI as a percentage is net profit/total investment x 100. Doing such calculation enables you to work out how effective an investment proved.   


This is one of the most common words in the business lexicon. Turnover simply means the total value of sales made, usually in a year. Sometimes the word revenue is used, but it has the same meaning. A small price increase can make a big difference to your turnover.

Working capital 

This is the amount your business needs to operate day to day. It’s easy to work out how much working capital you need. You simply take your current liabilities (accounts payable – how much you owe) away from your current assets (ie your available cash, accounts receivable, inventory and short-term investments).


This refers to the end of a company’s accounting or financial year. It is known by the alternative name of accounting reference date (ARD) and is on the last day of the month during which the company was registered with Companies House (although it can be changed).

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