How to Read Financial Statements: The Basics

By Austin Kilham · October 07, 2023 · 6 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

How to Read Financial Statements: The Basics

A company’s financial statements are like a report card that tells investors how much money a company has made, what it spends on, and how much money it currently has.

Knowing how to read a financial statement and understand the key performance indicators it includes is essential for evaluating a company. Any investor conducting fundamental analysis will pull much of the information they need from past and present financial statements when valuing a stock and deciding whether to buy it.

Each publicly traded company in the United States must produce a set of financial statements every quarter. These include a balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement. In addition, companies produce an annual report. These statements tell a fairly complete story about a company’s financial health.

Understanding Each Section of a Financial Statement

Along with a company’s earnings call, reading financial statements can give investors clues about whether or not it’s a good idea to invest in a given company.

Here’s what the different sections of a financial statement consist of.

Balance Sheet

A company’s balance sheet is a ledger that shows its assets, liabilities, and shareholder equity at a given point in time. Assets are anything the company owns with quantifiable value. This includes tangible items, such as real estate, equipment, and inventory, as well as intangible items like patents and trademarks. The cash and investments a company holds are also considered assets.

On the other side of the balance sheet are liabilities — the debts a company owes — including rent, taxes, outstanding payroll expenses and money owed to vendors. When liabilities are subtracted from assets, the result is shareholder value, or owner equity. This figure is also known as book value and represents the amount of money that would be left over if a company shut down, sold all its assets, and paid off its debt. This money belongs to shareholders, whether public or private.

Income Statement

The income statement, also known as the profit and loss (P&L) statement, shows a detailed breakdown of a company’s financial performance over a given period. It’s a summary of how much a company earned, spent, and lost during that time. The top of the statement shows revenue, or how much money a company has made selling goods or providing services.

The income statement subtracts the costs associated with running the business from revenue. These include expenses, costs of goods sold, and asset depreciation. A company’s revenues less its costs are its bottom-line earnings.

The income statement also provides information about net income, earnings per share, and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA).

💡 Quick Tip: The best stock trading app? That’s a personal preference, of course. Generally speaking, though, a great app is one with an intuitive interface and powerful features to help make trades quickly and easily.

Cash Flow Statement

A cash flow statement is a detailed view of what has happened with regards to a business’ cash over the accounting period. Cash flow refers to the money that’s flowing in and out of a company, and it is not the same as profit. A company’s profit is the money left over after expenses have been subtracted from revenue. The cash flow statement is broken down into three sections:

•   Cash flow from operating activities is cash generated by the regular sale of a company’s goods and services.

•   Cash flow from investment activity usually comes from buying or selling assets using cash, not debt.

•   Cash flow from financing activity details cash flow that comes from debt and equity financing.

At established companies, investors typically look for cash flow from operating activities to be greater than net income. This positive cash flow may indicate that a company is financially stable and has the ability to grow.

Annual Report and 10-K

Public companies must publish an annual report to shareholders detailing their operations and financial conditions. Look for an annual report to include the following:

•   A letter from the company’s CEO that gives investors insight into the company’s mission, goals, and achievements. There may be other letters from key company officials, such as the CFO.

•   Audited financial statements that describe financial performance. This is where you might find a balance sheet, income statement and cash flow statement. A summary of financial data may provide notes or discussion of financial statements.

•   The auditor’s report lets investors know whether the company complied with generally accepted accounting principles as they prepared their financial statements.

•   Management’s discussion and analysis (MD&A).

In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires companies to produce a 10-K report that offers even greater detail and insight into a company’s current status and where it hopes to go. The annual report and 10-K are not the same thing. They share similar data, but 10-Ks tend to be longer and denser. The 10-K must include complete descriptions of financial activities. It must outline corporate agreements, an evaluation of risks and opportunities, current operations, executive compensation and market activity. They must be filed with the SEC 60 to 90 days after the company’s fiscal year ends.


The management’s discussion and analysis provides context for the financial statements. It’s a chance for company management to provide information they feel investors should have to understand the company’s financial statements, condition, and how that condition has changed or might change in the future. The MD&A also discloses trends, events and risks that might have an impact on the financial information the company reports.


It can be really tempting to skip footnotes as you read financial statements, but they can reveal important clues about a company’s financial health. Footnotes can help explain how a company’s accountants arrived at certain figures and help explain anything that looks irregular or inconsistent with previous statements.

💡 Quick Tip: When you’re actively investing in stocks, it’s important to ask what types of fees you might have to pay. For example, brokers may charge a flat fee for trading stocks, or require some commission for every trade. Taking the time to manage investment costs can be beneficial over the long term.

Financial Statement Ratios and Calculations

Financial statements can be the source of important ratios investors use for fundamental analysis. Here’s a look at some common examples:


To calculate debt-to-equity, divide total liabilities by shareholder equity. It shows investors whether the debt a company uses to fund its operation is tilted toward debt or equity financing. For example, a debt-to-equity ratio of 2:1 suggests that the company takes on twice as much debt as shareholders invest in the company.

Price-to-earnings (P/E)

Calculate price-to-earnings by dividing a company’s stock price by its earnings per share. This ratio gives investors a sense of the value of a company. Higher P/E suggests that investors expect continued growth in earnings, but a P/E that’s too high could indicate that a stock is overvalued compared to its earnings.

Return on equity (ROE)

Calculated by dividing net income by shareholder’s equity, return on equity (ROE) shows investors how efficiently a company uses its equity to turn a profit.

Earnings per share

Calculate earnings per share by dividing net earnings by total outstanding shares to understand the amount of income earned for each outstanding share.

Current Ratio

This metric measures a company’s abilities to pay off its short-term liabilities with its current assets. Find it by dividing current assets by current liabilities.

Asset turnover

Used to measure how well a company is using its assets to generate revenue, you can calculate asset turnover by dividing net sales by average total assets.

The Takeaway

The financial statements that a company provides are all related to one another. For instance, the income statement reflects information from the balance sheet, while cash flow statements will tell you more about the cash on the balance sheet.

Understanding financial statements can give you clues that could help you determine whether a stock is a good value and whether it makes sense to buy or sell.

Ready to invest in your goals? It’s easy to get started when you open an investment account with SoFi Invest. You can invest in stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, alternative funds, and more. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

Invest with as little as $5 with a SoFi Active Investing account.

Photo credit: iStock/Traimak_Ivan

SoFi Invest®
SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA ( Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


All your finances.
All in one app.

SoFi QR code, Download now, scan this with your phone’s camera

All your finances.
All in one app.

App Store rating

SoFi iOS App, Download on the App Store
SoFi Android App, Get it on Google Play

TLS 1.2 Encrypted
Equal Housing Lender