Let’s dive into the world of retained earnings a number that reveals the effect of your profitability and cash reinvestment over time. 

This guide is also related to our guides on understanding owner’s equity, how to read a balance sheet, and double-entry accounting: the basics.

In this article, we’re going to break down everything you need to know about retained earnings, and we promise to keep it straightforward and jargon-free. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • understanding earnings and return on assetsWhat Are Retained Earnings?
  • Calculating Retained Earnings
  • Understanding how Retained Earnings contribute to your Balance Sheet
  • Learn how to prepare this statement and use it to make smart financial decisions.
  • Retained Earnings Financial Ratios
  • Case Studies with examples

By the end of this guide, you’ll see retained earnings in a whole new light—not just as a line item on your financial statement but as a tool to help your business thrive. Let’s get started!

The Calculation of Retained Earnings

Let’s break it down into a formula that makes sense for small businesses, especially those with a single owner where dividends are more aptly considered as Owner’s Draws.

The basic formula for calculating retained earnings for a small business is quite straightforward:

Beginning Retained Earnings + Net Income (or Loss) – Owner’s Draw = Ending Retained Earnings

Identifying Key Components

To make the best use of this formula, it’s important to understand what each component represents:

Beginning Retained Earnings: This is the amount of retained earnings at the start of the period. If you’re calculating this for the first time, it might be zero or the amount of your initial investment if the business is new.

Net Income or Loss: This figure comes from your Profit & Loss statement. It’s the total money made (or lost) during the period, after all expenses are paid. It shows whether your business operations were profitable.

Owner’s Draw: Unlike dividends that are distributed to shareholders in larger companies, an Owner’s Draw refers to the money taken out of the business by the sole owner for personal use. This could be regular withdrawals or a lump sum, depending on how the owner prefers to pay themselves.

A closer look at Owner’s Draw

In the context of a small business, especially sole proprietorships or single-member LLCs, the Owner’s Draw plays a significant role in the calculation of retained earnings. It’s a reflection of the owner’s personal claim on the profits generated by the business. 

By carefully monitoring and managing the Owner’s Draw in relation to net income, small business owners can ensure they maintain a healthy balance between rewarding themselves for their hard work and investing in the future of their business.

How they all come together

At the end of the fiscal period (typically the end of the year) both Net Income and Owner’s Distributions are rolled into Retained Earnings. For example, let’s say Retained Earnings are $100,000, Net Income is $75,000 and Owner’s Distributions were $85,000 

$100,000 + $75,000 – $85,000 = Ending Retained Earnings of $90,000

Even though there was plenty of profit during the year, higher Owner’s Distributions decreased Retained Earnings. On January 1 of the new year, Net Income and Owner’s Distributions are $0, and will accumulate and be rolled into Retained Earnings at year-end. 

This shows how Retained Earnings is a cumulative number that represents cash and profit retained over the entire life of the business.

Importance of Retained Earnings in Business

Interpreting Retained Earnings is recognizing the fuel that drives your business forward. Let’s explore why retained earnings are a critical component for the health and growth of your business.

Retained Earnings on the Balance Sheet

Retained earnings hold a special spot on the balance sheet, a key financial statement that gives you a snapshot of what your business owns, owes, and the value that’s left over for you, the owner. Here’s how to find and understand retained earnings in the grand scheme of things.

Location and relation to Other Equity

On the balance sheet, retained earnings are nestled under the equity section, which is all about showcasing the owner’s stake in the business. Think of equity as a pie, and each piece represents a different type of value that belongs to the business owner or shareholders. 

Retained earnings are a crucial slice of this pie, sitting alongside other forms of equity like common stock (if applicable) and owner’s contributions. Together, these elements make up the total equity and show how much of the business’s value can be attributed to the owners after settling all debts.

Analyzing the Statement

When you’re looking at retained earnings within your balance sheet, you’re essentially seeing a history of how profits were handled. Here are a few tips to get the most out of this number:

Growth Over Time: Look at how retained earnings have changed over several periods. Increasing retained earnings can indicate a healthy, growing business that’s able to reinvest its profits. If it’s shrinking, you might be drawing too much or not making enough profit.

Reinvestment Potential: A larger retained earnings balance could mean you’ve got a lot of cash ready to be reinvested back into the business—think new products, marketing campaigns, or even paying down debt.

Dividend Distribution: For businesses that share profits with shareholders, the retained earnings figure can give you an idea of the company’s dividend-paying capability. A healthy retained earnings balance suggests that the business can afford to reward its shareholders while still funding growth.

Profitability vs. Cash Flow: Remember, retained earnings reflect profits that were not distributed to owners or shareholders. However, this number doesn’t directly tell you about cash flow. It’s possible to have high retained earnings but low cash if the profits are tied up in inventory or receivables. Always compare retained earnings with the cash flow statement for a full financial picture.

The Role of Retained Earnings in Financial Strategy

Let’s explore how savvy business owners can leverage retained earnings to fuel growth, innovate, and strengthen their financial footing.

Reinvestment Opportunities

Fuel for Expansion: Thinking about opening another location or expanding your online presence? Retained earnings can provide the capital you need to grow without seeking outside funding. This means you can embark on expansion projects with fewer strings attached and maintain control over your business’s direction.

Investing in R&D: For businesses looking to stay ahead of the curve, investing in research and development (R&D) is vital. Retained earnings can fund new product development or improve existing offerings, keeping you competitive and opening up new revenue streams.

Enhancing Operations: Sometimes, the best investment is in optimizing current operations. Retained earnings can be used to upgrade equipment, invest in technology, or train staff, leading to increased efficiency and reduced costs over time.

Debt Repayment and Owner’s Draw Policy

Strategic Debt Reduction: Carrying less debt on your balance sheet not only reduces interest costs but also frees up cash flow. Retained earnings can be strategically used to pay down debt, improving your business’s financial health and making it more attractive to lenders and investors.

Balancing Owner’s Draw: As a business owner, deciding how much to pay yourself is always a balancing act. Retained earnings play a crucial role in this decision. By carefully managing your draws, you ensure that the business retains enough profit to support your personal financial goals while still funding its growth.

Retained earnings are at the heart of strategic financial planning for any business. They offer a way to self-fund growth, innovation, and operational enhancements while managing debt and personal compensation. The key is to align the use of retained earnings with your overall business goals, ensuring that every dollar reinvested contributes to your long-term vision.

Retained Earnings Ratios

Retained earnings, a critical indicator of a company’s profitability and reinvestment strategies, are central to several key financial ratios. These ratios can help business owners and investors gauge a company’s growth potential, financial stability, and how it rewards its owners while funding its operations and expansion. 

Let’s explore some of these pivotal ratios related to retained earnings.

Retained Earnings to Total Assets Ratio 

RE to Total Assets Ratio = Retained Earnings / Total Assets

Optimal Result: Higher ratios are generally favorable, as they indicate a significant portion of the company’s assets are financed through reinvested earnings rather than debt.

Significance: This ratio highlights a company’s ability to grow and sustain itself with internally generated funds, showing financial independence and a solid foundation for future growth.

Dividend (Owner’s Draw) Payout Ratio

Dividend (Owner’s Draw) Payout Ratio = Owner’s Draws / Net Income

Optimal Result: The optimal result varies by the company’s stage and strategy. Younger companies may have a low or zero payout ratio to reinvest earnings, while more established companies might aim for a moderate ratio to balance reinvestment and owner rewards.

Significance: This ratio reveals how much of the net income is being distributed to the owner(s) versus being retained for reinvestment, offering insights into the company’s dividend (or draw) policy and sustainability.

Retention Ratio (Plowback Ratio)

Retention Ratio = (Net Income – Owner’s Draws) / Net Income

Optimal Result: A higher ratio suggests that more earnings are retained for reinvestment in the company, which is favorable for growth-focused businesses.

Significance: The retention ratio provides a clear view of the company’s commitment to reinvesting profits back into the business.

Earnings Growth Rate

Earnings Growth Rate = (Current Period Net Income – Previous Period Net Income) / Previous Period Net Income

Optimal Result: Consistently positive growth rates are desirable, indicating the company is successfully increasing its profitability over time.

Significance: This metric shows how effectively a company is using its retained earnings to generate additional profits, serving as a barometer for assessing the company’s operational efficiency and growth strategy.

Case Studies and Examples

Let’s dive into two hypothetical companies to see how effectively managing retained earnings can either bolster growth and stability or signal financial distress. We’ll look at “Efficient Tech Solutions” as our success story and “Struggling Retail Co.” as an example of challenges with retained earnings. 

Efficient Tech Solutions: A Story of Growth

Background: Efficient Tech Solutions, a software development company, has seen steady growth over the past five years, thanks to innovative products and a solid market presence.

Retained Earnings: $150,000

Total Assets: $500,000

Net Income: $100,000

Owner’s Draw: $20,000

Retained Earnings to Total Assets Ratio

Calculation: $150,000 / $500,000 = 0.3

Meaning: 30% of the company’s assets are financed through retained earnings, indicating a strong reinvestment back into the company.

Owner’s Draw Payout Ratio

Calculation: $20,000 / $100,000 = 0.2

Meaning: Only 20% of the net income is drawn by the owner, showing a preference to reinvest profits back into the company.

Retention Ratio

Calculation: ($100,000 – $20,000) / $100,000 = 0.8

Meaning: 80% of profits are retained, highlighting a strong focus on using earnings to fuel future growth.

Efficient Tech’s high retention ratio and strategic reinvestment of earnings into R&D and market expansion have significantly contributed to its growth and financial stability.

Struggling Retail Co.: A Cautionary Tale

Background: Struggling Retail Co., a small chain of apparel stores, has faced declining sales and increased competition, impacting its profitability and financial health.

Retained Earnings: $10,000

Total Assets: $200,000

Net Income: $5,000

Owner’s Draw: $8,000

Retained Earnings to Total Assets Ratio

Calculation: $10,000 / $200,000 = 0.05

Meaning: Only 5% of assets are financed through retained earnings, suggesting minimal reinvestment in the business.

Owner’s Draw Payout Ratio

Calculation: $8,000 / $5,000 = 1.6

Meaning: The payout ratio exceeding 100% indicates the owner is drawing more than the company earns, a practice that can deplete company resources.

Retention Ratio

Calculation: ($5,000 – $8,000) / $5,000 = -0.6

Meaning: A negative retention ratio, indicating that not only are no profits being retained, but the owner’s draws are also putting additional financial strain on the company.

Struggling Retail Co.’s negative retention ratio and high owner’s draw payout ratio reflect a concerning trend of consuming more financial resources than the company generates, contributing to its financial instability and limited growth potential.


We’ve covered the concept, importance, and calculation of of Retained Earnings. We’ve seen how they related to the Balance Sheet and fit with other equity items. We understand how year-end adjustments to Net Income and Owner’s Draw create a cumulative number in Retained Earnings. We’ve calculated the relevant ratios related to Retained Earnings, and seen case studies of how real-life choices affect Retained Earnings. 

Armed with this information, you should feel confident in reading and understanding your Retained Earnings and how to boost that number to sustain growth. 

Now check out our articles on modified cash basis accounting, how to calculate burn rate, and bookkeeping 101: a guide to bookkeeping basics.

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FAQ: Retained earnings

Here's some answers to commonly asked questions about retained earnings.

What exactly are retained earnings?

Retained earnings are the profits your business has made that are left over after you’ve paid out any owner’s draws or distributions. Think of them as your business’s savings account for future use.

These earnings get reinvested into the business, whether that’s for growth, paying off debt, or cushioning against future challenges. They’re a key indicator of your business’s financial health and its ability to sustain and grow itself from its own profits.

How do retained earnings differ from net income?

Net income is the profit your business makes in a specific period, like a month or a year, after all expenses have been paid. Retained earnings, on the other hand, are what’s left of those profits over time after you’ve taken out any owner’s distributions.

While net income shows how profitable your business was during a particular period, retained earnings show the cumulative result of those profits (and losses) that have been kept in the business.

Can retained earnings be negative?

Yes, retained earnings can be negative, which happens when your business has more losses or distributions than profits over time. This situation, often called an “accumulated deficit,” indicates that the business has been spending more than it’s earning. It’s a signal that you might need to reassess your business strategy, cut costs, or find ways to increase revenue to improve your business’s financial health and get back into positive territory.