What is a balance sheet and why is it important? (2024)

A balance sheet is a versatile document that offers a snapshot of a company's or individual's finances at a given point in time.

Businesses can use balance sheets to develop plans for the future and present a picture of their financial health to investors or other outside entities. You can also generate a personal balance sheet to get a concise view of your assets and liabilities.

Here, CNBC Select explains what a balance sheet is, how to create one and how it can be useful to both companies and individuals.

What we'll cover

  • What is a balance sheet?
  • How a balance sheet works
  • Why balance sheets are important
  • How to make a personal balance sheet
  • FAQs
  • Bottom line

What is a balance sheet?

A balance sheet, also known as a statement of net worth, is a summary of a company's financial status at a specific point in time. It presents all assets and liabilities, as well as any investments from shareholders. It is one of the three primary financial statements all companies are required to have by law, along with an income statement and a statement of cash flows.

Because it uses archival data, a balance sheet only presents a snapshot of a company's financial situation. While it's a critical tool, it can't guarantee future performance.

How does a balance sheet work?

A balance sheet uses a formula that equates a company's assets with its liabilities plus its shareholder equity. The equation should always be in "balance," with the two sides equal.

Here's what each aspect of the balance sheet equation represents:

  • Assets: Assets are resources with quantifiable value, such as cash, inventory or money the company is owed. They are often split into current assets — bank accounts, inventory and other things that could easily be converted into cash — and fixed assets — buildings, machinery, long-term loans to customers and other things that will stay on the books longer. (Intellectual property can also be included as a fixed asset.)
  • Liabilities: Essentially the opposite of an asset, a liability is something the company owes, usually a sum of money. They are divided into short-term liabilities — like salaries, rent and money owed to other companies — and long-term liabilities , like mortgages, larger loans and long-term leases.
  • Shareholder equity: This is a company's net worth — essentially what would be left if the business had to liquidate its assets and pay off all its debts. It most commonly takes the form of stocks and retained earnings (money the company earned but hasn't distributed to investors), but also includes any capital investments. Analysts and investors can use shareholder equity to judge a company's financial well-being.

While there can be nuances regarding the classification of certain assets or liabilities, a balance sheet is still a good way to determine a company's financial health at a given point in time.

Why balance sheets are important

In a corporation, a balance sheet lets stakeholders know if the business is solvent, meaning the value of its assets is higher than the total of its liabilities. It can also pinpoint areas where the company is underperforming.

Externally, a balance sheet lets potential investors, clients and other businesses know if a company is solvent. Did it borrow more money than it should have? Are its liabilities higher than the industry average? Is the available cash on hand higher or lower than normal?

While you'll most often hear about balance sheets in the context of business, they can also help individuals take stock of their finances and make informed purchasing and investing decisions.

You can also use a balance sheet to quickly determine several key financial measurements:

  • The current ratio, the current assets divided by current liabilities, illustrates a company's ability to pay off debts over the next 12 months.
  • A quick ratio indicates a company's ability to pay off debt right away. It's determined by dividing liquid assets (cash/cash equivalents + short-term investments + accounts receivable) by current liabilities. The quick ratio is often the same as the current ratio.
  • There is also the debt-to-equity ratio, or "risk ratio." It's a company's total liabilities divided by its total equity. This metric reveals how much of a business is financed by debt. If a company is highly leveraged, it can make it hard to get additional financing.

How to make a personal balance sheet

The formula for a personal balance sheet is similar to one for a business, only without shareholder equity. Essentially, your net worth is equal to your assets minus your liabilities, or debts.

To create a personal balance sheet, start by collecting relevant financial records from your bank, investment companies and creditors. Using a personal finance app, such as You Need A Budget (YNAB), can be helpful during this kind of deep dive. YNAB syncs with your bank and investment accounts, allowing you to assign funds to different life categories to better help you visualize your finances.

You Need a Budget (YNAB)

  • Cost

    34-day free trial then $99 per year or $14.99 per month (college students who provide proof of enrollment get 12 months free)

  • Standout features

    Instead of using traditional budgeting buckets, users allocate every dollar they earn to something (known as the "zero-based budgetingsystem" where no dollar is unaccounted for). Every dollar is assigned a "job," whether it's to go toward bills, savings, investments, etc.

  • Categorizes your expenses

    No

  • Links to accounts

    Yes, bank and credit cards

  • Availability

    Offered in both the App Store (for iOS) and on Google Play (for Android)

  • Security features

    Encrypted data, accredited data centers, third-party audits and more

Terms apply.

Now, tally up your assets. This includes money in checking accounts, savings accounts and retirement funds, as well as your car or home (if you own them outright) and valuables like jewelry, art or collectibles.

Then work on identifying your liabilities, or outstanding debts. Common ones include mortgages, student loans, car payments and credit card bills.

Once you've listed both, subtract your liabilities from your assets. The resulting figure is your net worth.
If the amount is lower than you would like, or even negative, remember that this is just a snapshot of your current status.

You now have information that can help you address your financial situation.

For instance, if you see you've accumulated a substantial amount of credit card debt, you could consider applying for a balance transfer credit card like the Wells Fargo Reflect® Card, which has a 0% intro APR for 21 months from account opening on purchases and qualifying balance transfers. Balance transfers made within 120 days qualify for the intro rate, BT fee of 5%, min: $5.

If you kept up with payments, you could chip away at your debt without being buried under a high interest rate.

Wells Fargo Reflect® Card

  • Rewards

    None

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% intro APR for 21 months from account opening on purchases and qualifying balance transfers.

  • Regular APR

    18.24%, 24.74%, or 29.99% Variable APR on purchases and balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

    5%, min: $5

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See rates and fees. Terms apply.

FAQs

A balance sheet is a key financial tool for business owners, executives, analysts and anyone who wants a clear picture of a company's current monetary position.

A balance sheet gives an overview of a company's financial position by taking stock of what it owns, what it owes and the value of its equity.

There are a few things a balance sheet won't show you, including cash flow, profits and losses and the fair market value of assets such as land.

A balance sheet can contain negative values, most commonly when a business is spending more than it is making. But the basic formula — assets = liabilities + shareholders' equity — should always balance out.

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Bottom line

Businesses use balance sheets to indicate their financial standing. They can also be used by individuals or households to get a high-level view of their current wealth and identify areas for improvement.

Why trust CNBC Select?

At CNBC Select, our mission is to provide our readers with high-quality service journalism and comprehensive consumer advice so they can make informed decisions with their money. Every article is based on rigorous reporting by our team of expert writers and editors with extensive knowledge of financial products. While CNBC Select earns a commission from affiliate partners on many offers and links, we create all our content without input from our commercial team or any outside third parties, and we pride ourselves on our journalistic standards and ethics.

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What is a balance sheet and why is it important? (2024)

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