Financial Speak 101 for Small Business Owners: A Pocket Dictionary of Financial Words

Mike Kelly

Since 2019, 63% of businesses have seen a decrease in their revenue. So, if you’re focusing on keeping your business in good financial shape even more than before, you’re not alone.

To help, we’ve compiled a list of common business finance terms and definitions that you may find while reviewing your small business’ financial statements. Use it as a reference while you’re working with financial experts like your accountant or while going over your books each week.

Accounts Payable

Financial speak

Accounts payable is also called trade payable. It refers to the total invoices for goods and services a business has received, but has yet to pay. They’re usually due for payment within 15 to 45 days. In short, this is money your business owes to other businesses.

Accounts Receivable

Accounts receivable is the amount of money a company has claim to or has invoiced. It is from having sold goods or rendered services to its customers. This is what other businesses or customers owe your business.

Accrued Expenses

Accrued expenses are expenses that a business has incurred but has yet to pay. This is because either the invoices have not yet been received or the payments aren’t yet due. Accrued expenses are generally created by an accounting entry to reflect these liabilities.

Examples of accrued expenses include interest on loans and taxes incurred. Salaries your employees earn up to the period of reporting, but aren’t due for payment until after the report is prepared, are also accrued expenses.


An asset is any item your business owns that is of fiscal value and is expected to benefit the business in the future.

Balance Sheet

financial experts

Your balance sheet gives an overview of the financial situation of your company. Unlike an income statement, a balance sheet offers a snapshot of a business’s finances at a specific time.

A balance sheet consists of three segments:

  • “Assets”
  • “Liabilities”
  • “Owner’s Equity”

These three segments must balance out in a simple equation. Assets = Liabilities + Owner’s Equity. Hence, the name balance sheet.

(You can learn more about income statements and owner’s equity further down in this article.)

Cash and Cash Equivalents

Cash and cash equivalents are assets and items that a business can easily convert into cash. Cash equivalents could include checks, certificates of deposit and treasury bills. If your business doesn’t have cash equivalents, it would only report its cash-on-hand and in the bank.

Cash Flow

Cash flow refers to the flow of cash moving into and out of a business. When a business receives more cash than it sends out, it is cash flow positive. A business is cash flow negative when it spends more than it receives.

Cost of Goods Sold or Cost of Revenue

Cost of goods sold refers to the full cost for the production of the goods a business has sold.

Gross Profit

Business finance

Gross profit is the cost of goods sold or cost of revenue subtracted from net sales and  excludes operating expenses that do not directly generate revenue such as:

  • Accounting
  • Supplies
  • Advertising

It is the first determinant of how profitable a company is. It indicates the profitability of the products and services the company offers before considering operational expenses.

Gross Profit Margin

Gross profit margin refers to the ratio of the revenue that you keep as gross profit. It is also called gross margin or gross profit percentage.

The formula to calculate this is (Gross Profit/Net Sales) x 100.

A detergent business whose gross profit is $20,000 with net sales of $50,000 has a gross profit margin of 40%. This means the detergent sold returned 40% on the capital that’s directly associated with the detergent production.

Gross Sales

Gross sales includes the total of all sales activity during a reported period. It excludes sales deductions such as sales:

  • Discounts
  • Returns
  • Allowances

Income Statement

Your income statement is also called a profit and loss statement or earnings statement. An income statement shows all the money your business makes (i.e. profit). Income statements are generated monthly, quarterly or annually depending on the company and usually include comparative figures from prior periods.


liability refers to any financial amount a business owes. This includes trade and accounts payable, accrued expenses, loans, mortgages, and even advance payments received from customers for goods and services not yet delivered or rendered. Liabilities are reported on balance sheets as short-term (current) and long-term liabilities. Current liabilities are typically obligations that are due within a year.

Net Income

Business financing

Net income is gross profit minus all other expenses incurred during the reported period and also reflects any additional non-recurring income and expenses.

It is the overall determinant of how profitable a business is. Here’s an example. If your gross profit is $20,000, and you spent $10,000 on operating and non-operating items, your net income would be $10,000.

Non-Operating Expenses and Loss

Non-operating expenses are costs incurred due to activities unrelated to a business’s core operation. These activities don’t have tangible effects on operating results. This includes, but is not limited to, interest and insurance.

A non-operating loss is loss incurred from activities that don’t relate to business operations. A good example would be a loss incurred as a result of a lawsuit settlement.

Non-Operating Revenue and Income

Non-operating revenue and income is the total profit created by a business from activities that aren’t tied to its core operations. Examples would include proceeds from selling business equipment or realizing a gain on a special transaction.

Notes Payable and Notes Receivable

Notes payable are amounts due to other parties outside of your usual trade and accounts payables. . These could be funds borrowed from a bank or an amount owed to a supplier for raw materials delivered. Notes payable are a debt instrument. They are recorded as a current liability on a balance sheet if due within 12 months.

Notes receivable is the opposite of notes payable and represents amounts owed to you that are outside typical customer receivable transactions Examples may include loans made to employees or shareholders. Notes receivable appear as a current asset on a balance sheet if expected within 12 months.

Operating Expenses

Manage money

Operating expenses are the costs tied to a business’s core operations outside of production costs, which are generally classified as cost of goods sold. Operating expenses include selling, general and administrative expenses that are not directly related to the production of the company’s products or services.

Owner’s Equity

Owner’s equity is the totality of the owner’s investment into the business. This is the portion of assets that belongs to the business owner. It is derived by deducting total liabilities from total assets. Owner’s Equity is not the fair market value of a business.

Operating Income

Operating income is the revenue or net sales that’s left after you deduct operating costs. It is also called operating profit or earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT). Its calculation excludes non-operating expenses like:

  • Interests
  • Taxes
  • Lawsuit settlement expenses

Operating Margin

manage money

Operating margin is the ratio of revenue or net sales a business keeps as operating income. It is calculated by dividing operating income by revenue or net sales. The result is then presented as a percentage by multiplying by 100.

For example, a business’s operating income was $10,000 on a $50,000 revenue or net sales. Its operating margin is then $10,000/$50,000 = 0.2 x 100 = 20%.

Operating margin helps determine how efficient a company’s day-to-day operations are. In the example above, the business’s day-to-day operation made $0.20 for each dollar of revenue.

Prepaid Expenses

Prepaid expenses usually arise when businesses pay in advance for goods and services needed in the near term. Prepaid expenses usually appear on a balance sheet in the current assets subsection. This is because they’re usually due within 12 months.

Insurance is one example of a prepaid expense. For example, assume your business pays up front for an an insurance policy of $2,400 with a 12-month term. You will initially have a $2,400 prepaid expense asset on your balance sheet. As each month passes over the 12 month period, you’ll reduce this asset by $200 and record an expense until the expense has been equally recognized over the course of the term.

Other typical prepaid expenses include rent, supplies, legal and other products or services paid for in advance.


Revenue is the total amount of money a company brings in from its business activities after discounts, returned goods, and other sales allowances have been deducted. Businesses that sell goods, such as retailers, are more likely to refer to revenue as net sales. It is also called top-line because it usually appears at the top of an income statement.

Selling, General, and Administrative Expenses (SG&A)

Business financing

Selling, general, and administrative expenses are expenses you incur while selling your products and services. They also include the cost of running your business on a daily basis. Below is a breakdown:

  • Selling expenses include the cost to sell the goods you’ve already produced or purchased. This excludes cost of production or purchase. It includes: expenses related to sales material, traveling, advertising, delivery, warehousing, telephone bills, salaries of sales employees, and sales commission.
  • General and Administrative expenses are usually more fixed than selling expenses. They include expenses related to rent, mortgage, insurance, utilities, and salaries of non-production and non-sales employees.

Unearned Revenue

Unearned revenue refers to advance payments a business receives from its customers. It is also called deferred or prepaid revenue. It’s considered a liability because you received the payment but haven’t delivered the product or service yet.

Unearned revenue is treated similar to prepaid expenses.  Whereas the prepaid asset is reduced and the expense is incurred monthly over the period of a contract. The opposite is true for unearned revenue. In this case, income is incurred evenly over the period of a contract and the liability is reduced accordingly.

Learning how to manage money is one of the most important parts of running a business. Unfortunately, small business financing can seem daunting if you don’t have any background in it. By learning these key business financial terms, you’ll be more able to understand your financial statements, communicate with finance professionals and monitor your business’s cash flow.

Next Steps:  You’re busy. We get it. So why not let us do some work for you? By signing up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter, you’ll receive hand-picked articles, How-Tos and videos covering the latest in small biz tools and trends. We’ll do the research while you spend your time where it counts: managing and growing your business.

30 Responses to "Financial Speak 101 for Small Business Owners: A Pocket Dictionary of Financial Words"
    • Milagros C Flores | August 18, 2022 at 7:54 am

      Thank you. Great to know.

      • Small Biz Ahead | August 18, 2022 at 10:18 am

        You’re welcome! Thanks for reading SBA!

    • Joellyn D Kuhn | May 26, 2021 at 12:09 pm

      Very good basics for many clients.

      • Small Biz Ahead | May 26, 2021 at 1:32 pm

        We’re glad you think so! Thanks for reading our article and commenting!

    • Rebecca Gardner | January 12, 2021 at 1:27 pm

      Thanks for explaining that liabilities from accrued expenses should be documented with an accounting entry. My sister is looking to start a small craft business and wants to avoid common financial mistakes by working with a local accounting service. Asking about accrued expenses should be helpful as she looks for an accounting service that’s reliable!

      • Small Biz Ahead | January 14, 2021 at 3:25 pm

        Thanks for the comment! I’m glad we could help out!

    • Ramona Ramsey | June 24, 2020 at 11:34 am

      Thank you for sending this information. I don’t have a moment today to read this I will tomorrow.

    • Lena L Baertsch | June 23, 2020 at 11:11 pm

      Can I get a printable version of this information?

      • Chloe Silverman | June 24, 2020 at 9:04 am

        Hi Lena – You can print this article out by going to the print icon at the top underneath the author’s name. Thank you!

    • Michele Bowen | June 23, 2020 at 4:25 pm

      What about EBITDA? Large or small businesses that need this list should be educated on this too. EBITDA is essentially net income (or earnings) with interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization added back. EBITDA can be used to analyze and compare profitability among companies and industries, as it eliminates the effects of financing and capital expenditures.

    • Tom Apperson | April 26, 2019 at 12:06 am

      Reply to Joan Burkholder. I believe the better word to define unfilled orders would be backlog in lieu of unearned revenue

    • Mike Cuomo | April 25, 2019 at 2:13 pm

      How are sales tax collected treated? Would they be included in Gross Sales and then excluded from EBIT?

    • Ngozi Oyewole | April 24, 2019 at 8:16 pm

      Knowing these terms actually gives me a better picture of what am doing right and wrong

      • Hannah Sullivan | April 25, 2019 at 7:12 am

        We appreciate your feedback, Ngozi!

    • Ilan Mintz | April 24, 2019 at 7:56 pm

      Excellent refresh of very important financial settings

      • Hannah Sullivan | April 25, 2019 at 7:12 am

        Thanks for reading, Ilan!

    • Gene Marks | April 24, 2019 at 12:15 pm

      Reply to Joan Burkholder:

      Your accounting treatment is correct. An order is not an accounting event. The accounting event where you recognize revenue is when the goods are shipped FOB shipping point, which means they’re now owned by the customer. Hopefully your invoice goes out at the same time.

      As to your other question: when you receive an order from a customer it’s called a Sales Order.  When you place an order to buy goods and materials it’s called a Purchase Order.

    • Rob McBrayer | April 24, 2019 at 11:37 am

      Where can I find a copy of this little “book?” Love the wording. easy to follow. My ignorance is embarrassing. Fortunately my wife is adroit but I need a way to keep up with her and our CPA.

      • Hannah Sullivan | April 24, 2019 at 12:00 pm

        Hi Rob- thanks for reading! You can print out our article using the printer icon at the top of our page, to the right of the photo.

    • Jennifer Narain | April 24, 2019 at 11:32 am


    • Joan Burkholder | April 24, 2019 at 7:26 am

      Our customers send us Orders for goods they wish to receive in the near future (3 to 6 months for example). We design, engineer and fabricate the items they have requested. I would term these orders as Unearned Revenue. The customer is then not billed (invoiced) until the goods are shipped. Would you agree? What is a good one word to use to separate the customer’s P.O. from Purchase Orders we place to buy goods & materials? These customer directives need to be entered into the ERP in order to perform the internal business activities prior to shipping.

    • Joyce Benton | April 23, 2019 at 10:39 pm

      Thanks. It’s always important to learn more to understand more and do better. 🙂

      • Hannah Sullivan | April 24, 2019 at 9:29 am

        Thank you for your feedback, Joyce.

    • Ed Hoffman | April 23, 2019 at 10:19 pm

      In answer to Alicia’s question, she is correct that calculation results in 20% ($10,000/$50,000) and not 40% as stated.

      • Hannah Sullivan | April 24, 2019 at 9:47 am

        Hi Ed- thank you for making us aware of this. We have edited the calculation. Thanks for reading!

    • Brian Blake | April 23, 2019 at 6:53 pm

      Very helpful!!

      • Hannah Sullivan | April 24, 2019 at 9:28 am

        Thanks for reading, Brian!

    • Jann | January 4, 2018 at 11:16 am

      Can you explain how end of year inventory effects your financial stmt? How does this effect your net sales numbers?

    • V. B. Timpson | January 3, 2018 at 10:17 pm

      Thank you. This information is very valuable; term explanations are very informative & very much needed.

    • Alicia | January 3, 2018 at 9:50 pm

      Wouldn’t operating margin be 20%?

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