How to Read Cash Flow Statement for Beginners

Beginner's Guide: How to Read Cash Flow Statement

In this beginner's guide, we'll break down the basics of cash flow statements and explain how they interact with other financial statements like income statements and balance sheets. 

We'll also discuss the different methods of calculating cash flow and answer common questions like "What constitutes cash and cash equivalents?" and "Can negative cash flow be beneficial?" 

By the end of this post, you'll have a solid understanding of cash flow statements and be able to use them to make better financial decisions for your business.

Understanding the Basics of Cash Flow Statements

Cash flow statements, a crucial component of financial reports, provide insights into a company's financial health. These statements track the cash movement in and out of a business, helping evaluate its liquidity and ability to generate cash.

By understanding cash flow statements, investors can make sound financial decisions. It's important to note that cash flow statements are organised into three main sections: operating, investing, and financing. Each section represents different business activities and cash transactions within a given period. 

Accrual accounting principles, such as GAAP or IFRS, play a significant role in preparing these statements. Cash flow statements reconcile net income with actual payments and receipts, allowing a comprehensive analysis of a company's cash inflows and outflows. This understanding of cash flow is essential for assessing a company's financial health and making informed investment decisions. 

Importance of Cash Flow Statements for Businesses

  • Cash flow statements play a crucial role in helping businesses identify the inflows and outflows of cash. They provide valuable information about a company's operating, investing, and financing activities, giving a comprehensive view of how its creditors utilise money. 
  • From an investor standpoint, knowing how a company uses the money they are given is essential. Cash flow statements show where money was spent and provide insights into how it was finished.
  • Furthermore, cash flow statements are not only valid for businesses but also for investors. Investors rely on these statements to evaluate the profitability and sustainability of a company. 
  • By examining the cash flow from operating, investing, and financing activities, investors can gauge a company's financial health, assess its ability to pay dividends and debts, and make informed investment decisions.
  • In conclusion, cash flow statements are essential for businesses and investors. They provide valuable insights into a company's cash flow, allowing for effective financial planning and decision-making. 

By utilising accrual accounting principles and reconciling cash transactions, businesses can assess their cash position accurately and ensure a stable financial foundation.

Dissecting the Structure of a Cash Flow Statement

Cash flow statements consist of three main sections: operating, investing, and financing activities. The operating activities section reports cash from day-to-day business operations, while the investing activities section shows money from buying or selling assets. 

On the other hand, the financing activities section reveals cash flows related to raising capital or repaying debts, such as loans and owner's equity. Each section provides valuable insights into different aspects of a company's financial activities, helping stakeholders understand the sources and uses of cash. 

Understanding the structure of a cash statement is crucial in interpreting the information it provides and assessing a company's financial health. By analysing these sections, businesses can understand how much cash is generated from their core operations, how much is spent on investments or acquisitions, and how much is obtained from external sources such as lines of credit or equity financing. 

This breakdown of cash flows allows companies to make informed decisions based on their financial position and ensures transparency in financial reporting. 

Cash From Operating Activities: An Overview

Cash from operating activities, one of the main sections of a cash flow statement, provides insights into a company's core operations. It reflects the cash generated or used by the day-to-day business activities that sustain the company. This section includes money received from customers and money paid to suppliers and employees. 

Analysing the cash flow from operating activities is essential in determining a company's financial health and ability to generate consistent cash. Positive cash flow is generally considered a good sign, indicating the company has enough money to cover its operating expenses. By examining this section, investors and stakeholders can assess a company's ability to manage its business activities effectively.

Cash From Investing Activities: What Does It Mean?

Cash from investing activities represents cash flows associated with the buying or selling of assets (mergers and acquisitions (M&A)). 

It reflects the company's investment decisions, capital expenditures, and strategic growth initiatives, such as real estate. Positive cash flow suggests profitable investments, while negative cash flow may indicate divestment or heavy spending. Analysing this section helps assess a company's growth, expansion strategies, and potential mergers.

Cash From Financing Activities: A Closer Look

Cash from financing activities provides insights into a company's capital structure and funding strategy. It represents cash flows related to raising capital or repaying debts. This section includes cash received from issuing stocks or bonds and cash paid for dividends or debt repayments. 

Positive cash flow from financing activities suggests the company has external funding sources, indicating financial stability. On the other hand, negative cash flow may predict debt repayment or shareholder distributions. Analysing this section helps evaluate the financial health of a company and its ability to raise funds externally. 

Decoding the Calculation of Cash Flow

The calculation of cash flow involves making adjustments to net income.

Expenses like depreciation & amortisation are added back to get a clearer picture of the cash the business generates monthly. It's also important to consider changes in working capital, such as accounts receivable and inventory, which can significantly impact cash flow. 

By analysing the net changes in cash from operating, investing, & financing activities, the statement reveals the actual financial position of a company. Accurate cash flow calculation is crucial for understanding how much cash a business generates and whether it has enough money to cover its expenses and obligations.

The Direct Cash Flow Method Explained

The direct cash flow method, also known as the direct method, provides a comprehensive overview of actual cash inflows and outflows from a company's operating activities, including cash payments. 

By breaking down cash flows into specific line items, this method offers a more detailed view of how much cash is generated or used in day-to-day business activities.

Investors and analysts often prefer the direct cash flow method due to its transparency. It allows for a clearer understanding of a company's cash position, which is crucial for assessing its financial health. 

In summary, understanding the direct cash flow method is essential for accurately analysing and interpreting a company's operating cash flows. 

This method offers valuable insights into a company's financial performance by providing a detailed breakdown of cash inflows and outflows.

Understanding the Indirect Cash Flow Method

The indirect cash flow method, commonly used in preparing cash flow statements, starts with net income & adjusts for non-cash items & changes in working capital. This method indirectly calculates cash flows by making adjustments from the income statement. 

By analysing the indirect cash flow method, insights can be gained into the relationship between net income and cash flows. It also helps assess a company's operating cash flow efficiency. 

The simplicity of the indirect method makes it a more popular choice for preparing cash flow statements than the direct approach. Understanding this method is crucial for gaining insights into a company's financial health and evaluating its operating cash flow efficiency.

How Do Cash Flow Statements Interact with Income Statements and Balance Sheets?

Cash flow statements complement income and balance sheets by providing additional information about a company's financial performance and position. They explain the sources and uses of cash reflected in the other two statements.

What Are the Limitations of Relying Solely on Cash Flow Statements?

Relying solely on cash flow statements may have limitations. They may not give a complete picture of a company's financial health, as they don't reflect non-cash expenses and revenues. Additionally, they may not accurately represent the timing of cash inflows and outflows or consider future cash flows or investments. This can overlook critical financial indicators. 

However, it is essential to note that negative cash flow should only automatically raise a red flag with further analysis. Poor cash flow sometimes results from a company's decision to expand its business at a certain point, which would be good for the future.

Here is an example of a Cash Flow Statement

  • A statement provides a practical understanding of how this financial report tracks the cash movement within a company during a specific period, such as the fiscal year. The information is divided into operating, investing, and financing. 
  • In the operating activities section, cash flows are recorded from customer payments and payments to suppliers. The investing activities section captures cash used for property, plant, and equipment investments, including investment activities such as purchasing stocks and bonds. 
  • The financing activities section includes cash from issuing debt or equity and currency paid for dividends. By analysing these line items, businesses can gain insights into their cash transactions and assess the company's financial health.

What Constitutes Cash and Cash Equivalents in Cash Flow Statements?

Cash and cash equivalents in cash flow statements refer to physical currency, like coins and bills, and money held in bank accounts. Cash equivalents are short-term investments easily converted into cash within three months. 

Examples include treasury bills, money market funds, and short-term government bonds. Both cash and cash equivalents are reported on the balance sheet and included in the cash flow statement to provide a comprehensive view of a company's financial position.

Can Negative Cash Flow Be Beneficial for a Business?

Negative cash flow can benefit a business in specific scenarios. It may indicate investment in growth, temporary cash usage for debt repayment or acquisitions, and improving future profitability. However, sustained negative cash flow could be a sign of financial instability.

How Does the Direct Method Differ from the Indirect Method in Cash Flow Statements?

The direct and indirect methods are two approaches to preparing cash flow statements. The straightforward way presents actual cash inflows and outflows from operating activities, providing a detailed breakdown. 

On the other hand, the indirect method starts with net income & adjusts for non-cash items and changes in working capital. While both ways arrive at the same net cash from operating activities, the indirect method is more used due to its simplicity & reconciliation with the income statement.


Understanding cash flow statements is crucial for managing the financial health of your business. It provides valuable insights into how money flows in and out of your organisation. You can make informed decisions by analysing cash flow statements, identifying potential cash shortages, and improving your overall financial management.

Whether you're a beginner or have some understanding of cash flow statements, this guide has covered the basics, dissected the structure, explained the calculation methods, and discussed the interaction with income statements and balance sheets. We've also highlighted the limitations and provided an illustrative example.

Don't hesitate to contact our experts if you need further assistance or have any questions. 

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