The Cost of Trade Credit (Accounts Payable)

Checking barcodes

Shironosov/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Small businesses generally use accounts payable as their largest source of financing. Accounts payable, or trade credit, are what businesses owe to their suppliers of inventory, products, and other types of goods that are necessary to operate the business.

It is estimated by most experts that small businesses usually have as much as 40 percent of their financing from trade credit -- what they owe their suppliers. It is certainly the single largest operating current liability on a small business' ​balance sheet. The smaller the firm, the higher the likely percentage of trade credit as a current liability.

How Trade Credit Works

When a company buys from a supplier, that supplier is often willing to allow the company to delay payment. When the supplier allows delayed payment, effectively the supplier is extending financing to the company. This credit becomes a source of working capital financing for the company. For very small businesses and start-up companies, trade credit may be the only financing they have. Suppliers know this and they keep an eye on their accounts receivable and the companies that hold credit with them.

Pick Your Suppliers Carefully

When your business doors open, one of your first tasks should be to pick your suppliers carefully. You want to pick your suppliers not only for the products they can offer you but also for their terms of trade credit. If you are a new or growing business, you certainly want to pick suppliers that offer trade credit and preferably those that offer generous trade credit terms.

When you are choosing suppliers, you will generally make a presentation or proposal to those suppliers. Be sure and emphasize how much inventory you will need and how much inventory you anticipate needing going forward into the future. You want to make your company look attractive to the supplier as a company worthy of trade credit. The more business you do with a supplier, the better your negotiating position will be with regard to the terms of trade credit with that supplier.

The Cost of Trade Credit

That said, there is a cost associated with having trade credit granted to your company by your suppliers. Suppliers are probably in the same position you are regarding cash flow, so the effective cost of what you purchase from the suppliers is often higher than if you were paying cash. Not only do you have to absorb the higher purchase price, but you have to figure in the actual cost of trade credit.

Firms that offer your company trade credit have a credit policy, just as you have a credit policy for your customers. That credit policy may have terms of trade that look something like this: 2/10, net 30. This means that the supplier will offer you a 2 percent discount if you pay your bill in 10 days. If you don't take that discount, then the bill is due in 30 days. If you are offered these terms of trade by a supplier, what do they mean?

An Example of the Real Cost of Trade Credit

Here we can use a formula to calculate the cost of trade credit. This formula is also called the cost of not taking the discount. Let's say that your company is offered terms of trade of 2/10, net 30. Now, we have to imagine a scenario where your company is not able to take that 2 percent discount. In other words, you do not have the cash flow to pay the bill and receive the discount within 10 days, what is this going to cost you?

Here is the formula to calculate the cost of not taking the discount:

Discount Percentage ÷ (1-Discount %) x [360/(Full allowed payment days - Discount days)]

Here's a step-by-step explanation of the formula using the example given above: 2/10 net 30.

  1. Divide the discount percentage, 2%, by (100% - 2%), the difference of 100% minus the 2% discount percentage. It equals 2.0408% 
  2. Divide 360 -- nominal days in a year -- by the sum of full allowed payment days (30 days) minus allowed discount days (10 days). It equals 18.
  3. Multiply the result of 2.0408% by 18. It equals 36.73%, the real annual interest rate charged.

According to the terms in our example above, 36.73 percent is the cost of not taking the discount. You could get a credit union or bank loan at a lower rate than that. 

Using Trade Credit

Should your company use trade credit to buy its inventory and supplies or another source of financing? If your company has the free cash flow to take the discount offered in the terms of credit, then yes. However, you should calculate the cost of trade credit, or the cost of not taking the discount, as in the section above.

If you do not have the cash flow to take the discount, you are usually better off with a cheaper form of financing. It is always better to have enough cash flow on hand to take the discount.