Understanding the Key Differences Between IRR vs. NPV

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 10, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Internal rate of return (IRR) and net present value (NPV) are discount cash flow methods that financial managers often use for evaluating future cash flows or returns on investment. Most businesses use these budgeting tools to determine a project's profitability. Learning the differences between IRR and NPV can help you make or understand financial decisions about a project or an investment opportunity. In this article, we discuss the differences between IRR vs. NPV, explain these financial terms, highlight their similarities, list their advantages and limitations, and provide the factors to consider when using them.

What are the definitions of IRR vs. NPV?

Learning the definitions of IRR vs. NPV is important to understanding how they compare and how they're used:

What is the internal rate of return (IRR)?

The IRR is a discount rate that compares the net present value of cash inflows from a particular project to zero. The IRR is how businesses can express the value of a project as a percentage rather than a dollar amount. Organizations can compare projects, potential investments, and business opportunities by calculating the IRR.

They may also use it to evaluate a proposed capital expenditure or new projects within a short period. IRR is the discount rate a company may earn on its cash flow each year, which is the increase or decrease in an organization's financial standing.

What is the net present value (NPV)?

NPV is the method a company uses to determine the current value of future cash flows they may earn from a particular project. It's an investment measure that tells financial managers and investors if their investment can achieve a target yield in a specific period. If the result is a dollar amount above zero, then the value is likely worth the work. NPV is the difference between the present value of upcoming cash outflows and the investment value. The basis of NPV is the time value of money. This means that money has more value today than tomorrow.

Companies can also use NPV to determine which project to select, as it can show which may generate the most profit. Finance and accounting professionals use NPV to determine the value of businesses and investment securities and assess new ventures. With NPV, companies can see the positive and negative upcoming cash flows throughout a project's lifecycle. Organizations commonly use the NPV method for evaluating projects that may take an extended period to complete.

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What are the similarities between IRR and NPV?

The IRR and NPV are discount cash flow methods that show comparable results and can assist investors or financial managers decide whether to proceed with a project. They're budgeting tools that recognize the cash flow throughout a project's life span. Both methods follow the same calculations and often give the same results based on investment proposals involving cash outflows during the initial project period. The IRR and NPV consider the time value of money. Companies may also use them for capital budgeting or investment appraisal, which is the process that a company uses to evaluate potential investments and significant projects.

What are the differences between IRR vs. NPV?

Here are the most notable differences between IRR vs. NPV:

Rate for investment

When a company uses the NPV method, the presumed rate for an investment of its cash flow is often the cost of capital or the market return on investment (ROI). This allows the company to know the amount it can invest in a project to recover earnings at the current market rate. The IRR method doesn't recognize a market ROI because its percentage returns cannot tell the company the profit it may earn from a project.


The IRR usually focuses on the break-even cash flow of a particular investment or project. This means it represents the scenario of no profit or no loss. IRR aims to determine the rate of discount that makes the current value of the sum of the cash flow equal to the initial cash outlay for an investment. Cash outlay typically refers to the money a company spends on new equipment or uses to pay for its operating expenses. In contrast, the NPV indicates the surplus from a project or an investment.

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Companies use the IRR to calculate the maximum or most likely return on investment, expressed as a percentage. The NPV calculates the actual investment amount, and financial managers can calculate it in absolute terms, as there are more variables taken into consideration. Professionals can use a financial calculator or the NPV or IRR functions in Excel to calculate this method.

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IRR has a complex mathematical formula and is complex and requires extensive financial knowledge, typically calculated by business managers and investors. The IRR also has multiple discount rates that make it difficult for the public to implement it. The NPV method is easier to understand because it discounts each cash flow separately.

Reinvestment rate

With the IRR model, companies reinvest immediate cash flows at the current internal rate of return. With the NPV model, companies reinvest the intermediate cash flows at the cut-off rate. The cut-off rate is the minimum rate that an investor may receive by investing. It's like a return on investment. These cut-off rates are often reliable when companies use them to rank several project proposals.

Decision-making process

Companies find decision-making easier when using NPV because it provides a dollar return. A dollar return is the dividend, interest, or loss on investment. In contrast, IRR estimates the profitability of a company's investment using a percentage value. This may delay a business's decision-making on investment because it doesn't provide information about the money a company can make from a project.

Market rate of interest

The IRR doesn't recognize the market interest rate because it aims to determine the minimum rate of interest that can encourage earnings from a particular investment. In contrast, NPV considers the market rate of interest. This is because it determines the money that a company can invest in a project to make a profit at the current market rate from the amount it invests.

Advantages and limitations of IRR

Before using IRR to evaluate a capital project, a company might consider its advantages and limitations to ensure it benefits its investments. The following are the strengths of the IRR model:

  • Recognizes the time value of money

  • Provides proper guidance on a project's associated risks and value

  • Offers companies the knowledge of the actual returns of the money they invest

  • Provides an immediate idea of the potential savings or value of purchasing new equipment

  • Enables easy selection of investment

The following are limitations of IRR:

  • Challenging to calculate

  • Doesn't include potential future costs that can affect profit

Advantages and limitations of NPV

An understanding of the advantages and limitations of NPV helps companies to make well-informed financial decisions. The following are the advantages of NPV:

  • Prioritizes project profitability and risk factors

  • Recognizes the time value of money

  • Considers investments with higher risks

  • Handles multiple discount rates without issues

  • Maximizes a company's wealth

  • Acknowledges cash flows with an extended life span

The following are the limitations of NPV:

  • Requires estimation of the company's cost of capital

  • Challenging to compare two alternatives or projects of different sizes

Factors to consider when using IRR and NPV

The following are factors a company may consider when choosing between IRR and NPV to determine the profitability of an investment:

Time frame of projects

IRR is beneficial for capital projects with short life spans. This is because when an investment or project has multiple cash flows over a long period, the results of IRR become complicated. The NPV is best for long-term projects and investments because it enables financial managers to analyze their cash flow separately.

Number of projects

IRR and NPV are beneficial for analyzing capital projects over a short period. They're also suitable for evaluating the potential profitability of any proposed project. Most companies often use IRR for assessing one or two projects, but NPV is better for determining the profitability of various similar projects.

Discount rate

The IRR model doesn't require a discount rate to generate an outcome because it uses a trial-and-error method. The NPV is an ideal method to use when a company knows the discount rate of the capital cost of a proposed project. When companies calculate the net present value, they often estimate the discount rate.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions, or organizations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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