As 2011 winds down, planning next year's finances should be a priority. And if managing cash flow isn't hard enough already, by now you should be creating -- or perhaps fine-tuning -- your projections for what your business will spend and earn over the next year.
If this is making you feel overwhelmed, relax. There are a number of apps and online tools that can make managing and forecasting your business finances a lot easier.
We tested a number of online cash-flow management tools to come up with our five picks that provide the most value for your time and money:
1. Free Cash-Flow Projection Templates
The simplest way to conduct your own cash-flow analysis is to download one of the many free cash-flow forecasting templates embedded in well-known business applications.
While they don’t have the features of more sophisticated tools, cash-flow projection templates save the time it can take to create a similar one from scratch. Microsoft Office provides several detailed spreadsheets for Excel pre-loaded into its desktop software, with more available for download from the Office website.
Related: A Primer on Cash-Flow Projections
Google Docs offers templates which can be shared and edited with other members of your Google Apps account. You can search for cash-flow tools through Google Docs' list of templates to find the best one for your business. SCORE -- a nonprofit which provides mentorship services for small businesses and entrepreneurs -- also offers templates for cash-flow forecasting and other financial statements.
Expect to change some headings and tinker with these templates. But if you fill in expenses, sales and client data, these tools can help you learn a lot more about your money.
2. QuickBooks’ Cash Flow Forecast Report
Intuit's QuickBooks has built a cash-flow forecast feature into its popular accounting tools. You can define different aspects of your business -- such as receivables, bank balances and credit card ledgers -- to get a more accurate cash-flow model. Once the report is generated, estimates can be broken down by clicking links and changing date ranges.
3. You Need a Budget's Online Expense Tracking and Planning Tools
Though mostly aimed at tracking expenses for consumers and household budgets, You Need a Budget's $60 single-purchase, downloadable app can offer forward-looking spending estimates for smaller firms, too.
The software automatically generates a budget based on your uploaded bank statements, which can then be edited according to your business needs. Based on this information, You Need a Budget estimates how much money you should expect to have and how much you may still need on hand to meet your costs.
Related: Cash-Flow Calculator
Although the app tends not to offer as detailed an analysis as QuickBooks's Cash Flow Forecast, it’s not nearly as complex to use with an easy-to-understand interface and jargon-free tutorials.
4. Pulse's Cash-Flow Modeling Software
For a more comprehensive tool, Pulse is a dedicated cash-flow Web app that allows you to review your company's cash flow online in unlimited detail.
You can input financial information manually or from a spreadsheet to generate a cash-flow model that can be viewed day-to-day or in weekly or monthly periods. It offers a number of graphics and charts for visualizing how money moves in and out of your business.
Pulse also includes significant collaboration features. Multiple users can edit or view cash flow as well as add notes to income and expenses, which makes Pulse handy for sharing information with a team or with consultants.
Paid accounts start at $14 per month for up to three users and 3 GB of file storage.
5. Master PlanGuru
If your business is outgrowing all these options, one option is PlanGuru. It allows for financial forecasts up to 10 years out as well as automatic management of company income statements and balance sheets -- in Excel or QuickBooks files and other formats.
From that, PlanGuru generates a statement with up to 20 different methodologies. You can use it to forecast just about any hypothetical business situation.
All this power comes with a clear risk. Users need to know how to manage money in a complex enterprise, or pay someone who does. PlanGuru is available as a download for $399. It can also be installed on a network server for collaboration at $399 for one user and $250 for each additional user.
Remember, no matter which online tool you use, your forecast is only as good as the data you enter into it. For cash-flow projection tools to function properly and provide the most accurate forecasts, your software needs to be accurate with sales, expenses data and the proper dates for all transactions.