Cash Flow Diagram: The Basic Concept
A cash flow diagram allows you to graphically
depict the timing of the cash flows as well as their
nature as either inflows or outflows.
Such a diagram is very easy to construct.
We start with a simple horizontal time line....
...and then add arrows to represent
the inflows (arrows pointing from the line)
or outflows (arrows pointing to the line) of cash ...
Although this concept seems simple enough,
it is not without controversy.
My use of arrows differs from that used by some
In these texts you'll often find that an "up" arrow
represents money received and a "down" arrow money paid out.
However, I like to think of the time line as a "stream"
and as time goes on, you either put money
into the stream or you take money out of the stream.
The money you put into the stream is an outflow
represented by an arrow pointing to the stream: the money
is flowing out from you into the stream.
The money you take out of the stream is an inflow
represented by an arrow pointing away from the stream:
the money is flowing out from the stream in
If you find this confusing then it may be comforting
to know that in the overall scheme of things I don't think
how you draw your arrows really matters.
Just as long as you understand what they represent.
However, be aware that on this site the diagrams will
always be drawn in accordance with my "stream" metaphor.
The "Stream" Metaphor: Check your Understanding
Which of the following diagrams does not
represent an initial cash inflow
followed by four cash outflows?
Click the radio button next to your choice to confirm
Perspective: A Practical Example
There are always two sides to a financial
transaction: a borrower and a lender;
a buyer and a seller; an investor and
You should keep in mind the dual
nature of financial transactions when
drawing a cash flow diagram.
From who's perspective will it be drawn?
The example of a mortgage can illustrate this issue.
From the borrower's perspective the transaction consists
of a large cash inflow followed by a series of smaller
The situation is exactly reveresed for the lender:
Note that the calculated amounts (present or future value
, payment amount, interest rate, number of periods)
will be the same regardless of the perspective from
which the cash flow diagram is drawn.
It simply helps in understanding and describing the
problem to be conscious of the perspective from which it is
Also note that the angled line at the right end of
the time line above is used to represent a continuation
of time (and in this case also of payments) that
cannot be shown because of space limitations.
Illustrating Interest Payments
The rule regarding how interest payments are
illustrated is fairly flexible: sometimes I include interest
payments in a cash flow diagram and sometimes I don't.
Normally I don't.
I typically include interest payments when they
help contrast the difference between two
For example, when we are comparing an investment
with monthly compounding to one with quarterly compounding:
However, in most cases including the interest payments
in the drawing does more harm than good; they
end up confusing a diagram whose primary purpose is
to provide a simplified respresentation of
a complex problem:
If you think the drawing above is messy, imagine
how you would draw a diagram to depict daily
Or worse, continuous compounding.
So the rule of thumb regarding the inclusion of interest
payments in a cash flow diagram is this:
in general interest payments are presumed and not shown.
Only when illustration of the interest payments serves
a specific purpose should they be included in the diagram.
Enhancing the Cash Flow Diagram
Now that we know how to draw cash flows, we
can embellish our diagram to make it more useful.
In general we want to add labels to our diagram
but only to the point that they are helpful.
Keep in mind that the purpose of the diagram
is to illustrate a complex financial transacation
as concisely as possible.
Adding too much information only confuses the issue.
Here are some ideas for labels to include in
a cash flow diagram:
- Include the dollar amout for each inflow or outflow
where possible; for annuities with large periodic payments,
you may want to indicate the payment amount only once.
- Identify an unkown value with a question mark and
its name (e.g., "? PV" for an unknown present value).
On this site unknown values are shown in red.
- Use an arrow line from one cashflow to another cashflow
to show an accumulation,discounting, or amortization.
- Include the interest rate on the accumulation or discount
line and show the compounding frequency.
- Label the time increment (e.g., years, months, etc.).
- Add consise text labels to explain things not evident
in the diagram.
Here are some examples:
What is the present
value of $10 to be paid in 3 years
at 5% componded monthly?
In order to be clear it always helps to add
the appropriate units to the time line (e.g., years).
You should also label the interest rate i with the
From the borrower's perspoective, what is the interest
rate charged on a loan of $100 that requires
four annual payments of $27
using annual compounding.
This example is an amortization of a loan
and you need to find the interest rate i.
Specifying $0 as the future value is
How many years will it take for $10 to
grow to $20 at 8% componded monthly?
Here n is the unknown so
you value time units in reference to
their relative relationship with n.
Don't ever discount the value of a graphic. (No pun intended.)
Its purpose is to illustrate a complex situation
as succinctly as possible.
If you can illustrate a complex problem concisely
and precisely, you are better able to focus
on its solution.
I know some people who consider it childish to
Yet when I was at Ernst & Young, we made a lot of
money conveying complex tax and financial
strategies to high-level executives, almost always
with the aid of graphics.
There is no shame in drawing a picture to help
solve a problem.