Free Cash Flow

Bradford Toney
Updated At


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Free Cash Flow (FCF) is a critical financial metric indicating a company's cash generated after accounting for the cash outflows needed to support operations and maintain its capital assets. Understanding and managing FCF is vital for the sustainability and growth of small business owners. It reflects the business's ability to generate surplus cash that can be used for expansion, paying dividends, reducing debt, or reinvesting in new opportunities without external financing.

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What is Free Cash Flow?

Free Cash Flow represents the net cash the business generates after it has met its operating expenses and invested in maintaining or expanding its asset base. This metric is crucial because it provides a clear picture of the company's financial health, efficiency in generating cash, and the capability to grow and return value to owners. Calculating FCF is essential for owners and potential investors as it highlights the actual cash available for discretionary purposes beyond the fixed costs and investments required to keep the company running.

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Free Cash Flow vs. Net Income

While Free Cash Flow (FCF) focuses on the actual cash generated, Net Income calculates the company's profit, including non-cash expenses such as depreciation and amortization. The key difference is that FCF offers insight into the business's liquidity and financial flexibility, whereas Net Income provides a snapshot of overall profitability, including cash and non-cash items. For small businesses, FCF is often more indicative of their financial health and immediate reinvestment or debt repayment capacity.

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How to Calculate Free Cash Flow

Free Cash Flow can be calculated using the following formula:

FCF = Operating Cash Flow − Capital Expenditures

Step-by-step guide:

  1. Determine your Operating Cash Flow (OCF) from your cash flow statement, which shows the cash generated from your business operations.
  2. Identify your Capital Expenditures (CapEx), the funds used to acquire, upgrade, and maintain physical assets.
  3. Subtract CapEx from OCF to find your FCF.

For example, if a small business has an Operating Cash Flow of $120,000 and Capital Expenditures of $20,000, its FCF would be:

FCF = $120,000 − $20,000 = $100,000

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Why is Free Cash Flow Important?

  • Measurement of Operational Cash Generating Efficiency: Free Cash Flow (FCF) holds immense value for small businesses as it gauges their adeptness at producing cash from their regular operations. In simpler terms, it sheds light on how well a business turns its everyday activities into cash. This internally generated money can stimulate growth without relying on outside capital, giving the business greater autonomy and financial security.
  • Indicator of Financial Health: Being a key barometer of a business's financial vitality, FCF offers insights into the capacity of a business to grow, funnel its funds into new ventures, pay out dividends, or trim down its debt. It works as a marker, providing a bird's eye view of how well-positioned the business is regarding financial flexibility and stability.
  • Positive FCF and Business Growth Opportunities: If a business continually demonstrates a positive FCF, it possesses ample liquidity, i.e., readily available cash to capitalize on fresh opportunities without scrambling for funds. This financial nimbleness can enhance its competitive edge and solidify its position in the market, making it more resilient and future-ready.
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How to Improve Free Cash Flow?

  • Revenue Enhancement through Marketing and Sales: Businesses seeking to optimize their Free Cash Flow (FCF) can consider bolstering sales and marketing activities. Businesses can significantly improve their revenue stream by targeting more customers and convincing existing ones to buy more, effectively increasing their FCF.
  • Cost Reduction through Operational Efficiency: Businesses can also aim to improve their operational efficiency as an effective strategy to curb costs. By making operations more efficient, unnecessary expenses can be slashed, leaving more cash available - directly contributing to increasing FCF.
  • Inventory Management to Unlock Cash: Effective management of inventory is another way to free up cash and enhance FCF. By ensuring that only necessary inventory levels are kept on hand, businesses can avoid tied-up funds, giving a lift to their cash flow.
  • Extended Payment Terms with Suppliers: Extending payment terms with suppliers can also help to improve FCF. By negotiating longer periods to pay off supplier dues without causing harm to relationships, businesses can keep cash in their accounts for longer, effectively augmenting FCF.
  • Capital Expenditure Review: Lastly, businesses can audit and potentially decrease their Capital Expenditures without negatively affecting critical operations. By scrutinizing these significant investments and cutting back where feasible, businesses can make more cash available, ultimately boosting FCF.
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What Does It Mean When Free Cash Flow is Going Up?

An increase in FCF suggests that the business is becoming more efficient in generating cash from its operations or is effectively controlling its capital expenditures. This positive trend indicates improved liquidity, which could support expansion, debt reduction, or other investments that contribute to the company’s growth and stability.

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What Does It Mean When Free Cash Flow is Flat?

A stable FCF indicates consistent performance. However, for growing businesses, this might signal a need to re-evaluate operational efficiency or investment strategies to fuel further growth. It suggests the business is maintaining but not necessarily improving its position.

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What Does It Mean When Free Cash Flow is Going Down?

A decline in FCF can be a warning sign, indicating increased spending on capital expenditures, reduced operational efficiency, or declining sales. Business owners must identify the causes of this trend and address them to prevent potential liquidity issues or financial instability.

Free Cash Flow is an indispensable metric for small business owners, offering insights into the company’s ability to generate surplus cash after meeting its operational and capital investment needs. It’s a key indicator of financial health, operational efficiency, and growth potential. Understanding, calculating, and improving FCF can significantly impact a business’s strategic decisions, enabling owners to fund expansion, reduce debt, or invest in new opportunities to enhance competitiveness and ensure long-term success.

Fernando, J. (2024a, January 12). Free Cash flow (FCF): formula to calculate and interpret it. Investopedia.

Feroldi, B. (2023, September 29). What is Net Income vs. Free Cash Flow? | Brian Feroldi posted on the topic | LinkedIn.

Kenton, W. (2023, November 7). Net Income (NI) definition: Uses, and how to calculate it. Investopedia.

Murphy, C. B. (2023, October 31). What is the formula for calculating free cash flow? Investopedia.

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