What Financial Health Means for Small Business Owners

CFI will research the relationship between business and personal finances.

When we ask about a household’s financial health, we want to know whether the family is currently managing well and on a positive track for the future. The concept revolves around three core elements: well-functioning day-to-day systems, resilience (the ability to weather shocks), and the pursuit of longer term goals.

CFI and many others in the financial inclusion space have been seeking fast, reliable and convenient ways to measure financial health. Measurement matters because it opens the door to diagnosis of financial problems and points the way toward financial fitness. It matters to policy makers who need to understand major economic and social forces creating or eroding financial health, to financial service providers as they craft products, and to individuals for whom financial health is a continual quest.

So far, our conversations about financial health have focused on individuals and households, and we now have a number of measurement frameworks available, such as CFSI’s eight-indicator “Spend, Save, Borrow, Plan”  for the U.S., or the six indicators CFI developed with CFSI and Dalberg to adapt the concept to the developing world.

A few people have begun looking at a new question: What does financial health mean for small businesses? They have begun to develop frameworks for business which are quite similar to those developed for individuals. For example, both contain indicators on timely payment of financial obligations, manageable debt burdens, and forward planning. This should come as no surprise, because implicit in the financial health concept is the question of whether an economic entity has “healthy” income and cash flow statements and a sound balance sheet. In essence, the frameworks for assessing financial health for any economic entity highlight selected financial statement indicators that correspond to the concepts of daily systems, resilience and pursuit of goals.

But what if the person, family and small business function as a single economic entity, as is true for many of those Accion and the financial inclusion sector serve? Among the millions of micro-entrepreneurs around the world, family and business can be nearly indistinguishable. A shopkeeper employs her teenagers to work behind the counter, where they do their homework between customers; a farmer divides his crop between commercial sales and the family table. In a more developed economy, such as the U.S., the entities are more likely to be distinct, but even so, transactions between them can be very significant, as anyone knows who has calculated the percentage of their home or automobile used for a business on their tax return.

Some of these interactions contribute to financial health, while others detract. Either way, it is likely that the interactions have an outsize influence on financial health, such that looking at the financial health of the household without understanding the financial health of the business (or vice versa) will not yield an accurate picture of either.

Our next challenge is to figure out how to measure financial health of the combined entity, while taking these interactions into account. Believing that it is important for business success to secure the personal financial health of the business owner, CFSI has begun to examine these interactions in the U.S.

Let’s look at the ways business and household may connect:

  • Personal investment to start the business. In the U.S., as elsewhere, personal savings are overwhelmingly the main source of start-up capital. (Household contributes to business.)Business net worth is a major asset for the owner. (Business contributes to household.)
  • Business pays “salary” of owner. (Business contributes to household.)
  • Family members work in the business. (Contributions go both ways if family members are paid.)
  • Savings from the business can be used to cover household emergencies – and vice versa. (Contributions could go either way.)
  • Business supplies household benefits, or relies on household for benefits, including health insurance, pension, etc. (Contributions could go either way.)

Many of these interactions could be considered healthy, while others are less so. For example, risks for small business owners are seriously concentrated when both capital investment and daily income depend on the same business. No wonder people often prefer salaried employment! As another example, use of family savings to cover business emergency expenses may be a warning sign of financial stress – even though it could also be a smart coping mechanism.

These are lines of inquiry CFI’s research will investigate, thanks to support from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. In the context of low income business owners, especially in developing countries, there are some factors that require special attention. They include income volatility, a low absolute level of income or profit, and the existence of multiple income sources in the household. Seeking to define a measurement framework that adequately incorporates the business-household nexus, we will conduct primary research in a couple of countries during the next six months without becoming unwieldy.

Over the years, microlenders have long recognized the interdependence of business and household, and financial educators have given out a lot of advice about separating household and business finances, but there have been few attempts to look specifically at these connections. With this research, we will gain deeper insight into how business-family interdependence shapes the prospects of the business and the well-being of the people who depend on it.

Among the millions of micro-entrepreneurs around the world, family and business can be nearly indistinguishable...Seeking to define a measurement framework that adequately incorporates the business-household nexus, we will conduct primary research in a couple of countries during the next six months.
Elisabeth Rhyne

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