Business English Idioms

English idioms are the often silly phrases that all English native speakers use – that frequently have no meaning at all to non-native listeners.  But idioms tend to be interesting, thus many students of English enjoy studying them and they WILL help students understand what is being said.

Here we go . . .

across the board

 MEANING: including everyone or everything

EXAMPLE:  The computer company decided to give the workers an across-the-board increase in their salary.

ante up

MEANING: pay, produce a necessary amount of money

EXAMPLE:   had to ante up a lot of money to get my car fixed.

at all costs

MEANING: at any expense of time, effort or money

EXAMPLE:  he plans to go to school at all costs.

at a loss

MEANING: sell something and lose money

EXAMPLE: We were forced to sell the computers at a big loss.

back on your feet

MEANING: return to good financial health

EXAMPLE: My sister is back on her feet after losing her job last year.

bail a company out

MEANING: help or rescue a company with financial problems.

EXAMPLE: The government decided to bail out the failing bank in order to maintain stability in the economy.

ball park figure/estimate

MEANING: a rough estimate or figure

EXAMPLE: The contractor gave us a ball park figure for the cost of repairing the new building.

bang for the buck

MEANING: value for the money spent

EXAMPLE: We were able to get a big bang for our buck when we advertised on the Internet.

banker’s hours

MEANING: short work hours

EXAMPLE: My sister’s husband owns his own company and is able to work banker’s hours with his large staff.


MEANING: an accountant

EXAMPLE: We asked the bean-counters to look over the figures in the new budget.

 bet your bottom dollar

MEANING: bet all one has on something

EXAMPLE:  I would bet my bottom dollar that the accounting manager will be late again today.

bet on the wrong horse

MEANING: base your plans on a wrong guess about the results of something

EXAMPLE: He is betting on the wrong horse if he continues to support the other candidate for mayor.

big gun/cheese/wheel/wig

MEANING: an important person, a leader

EXAMPLE: The new director was a big wheel in his previous company but is not so important now.

born with a silver spoon in your mouth

MEANING: born to wealth and comfort, born rich

EXAMPLE: The student in our history class was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has never worked in his life.

bottom dollar

MEANING: your last dollar

EXAMPLE: He spent his bottom dollar on some new clothes to wear for his job interview.

bottom fall out/drop out

MEANING: to fall below an earlier lowest price

EXAMPLE: When the bottom fell out of the coffee market many companies had to stop doing business.

bottom line 1

MEANING: line in a financial statement that shows net income or loss

EXAMPLE: The bottom line in the company’s financial statement was much worse than expected.

bottom line 2

MEANING: final result, main point

EXAMPLE: The bottom line was that we were unable to attend the conference because of our busy schedule.

bottom out

MEANING: reach the lowest or worst point of something

EXAMPLE: The value of the stock has begun to bottom out and should soon begin to increase in value.

boys/men in the backroom

MEANING: a group of men making decisions behind the scenes 

EXAMPLE: The boys in the backroom told us that we must close down the factory as soon as possible.

break even

MEANING: have income equal to expenses

EXAMPLE: Our company was able to break even after only six months of operation.

break the bank

MEANING: win all the money at a casino gambling table

EXAMPLE:He broke the bank at the casino and walked away with a lot of money.

bring home the bacon

MEANING: earn the family living

EXAMPLE: I have been working hard all month bringing home the bacon for my family.

budget squeeze/crunch

MEANING: a situation where there is not enough money in the budget

EXAMPLE: We have been going through a severe budget squeeze at our company and must begin to stop spending money in a wasteful manner.

 burn a hole in your pocket

MEANING: money that one wishes or intends to spend quickly (often for something frivolous)

EXAMPLE: The money had been burning a hole in his pocket when he decided to go to the casino.

buy off

MEANING: give money to someone to stop them from doing their duty

EXAMPLE: They tried to buy off the politician but he refused to go along with their plan.

buy out

MEANING: buy the ownership or a decisive share of something

EXAMPLE: The company was bought out by another large company in the textile industry.

calculated risk

MEANING: an action that may fail but has a good chance to succeed

EXAMPLE: They took a calculated risk when they introduced the new computer screen onto the market.

captain of industry

MEANING: a top corporation officer

EXAMPLE: The president of our company was a captain of industry and after he retired he was appointed to many government boards.

carry over

MEANING: save for another time

EXAMPLE: We were forced to carry over the sale to the Monday after the national holiday.

carry over

MEANING: transfer (a figure) from one column or book to another

EXAMPLE: Our company is still facing difficult times and we will have to carry over last year’s losses to this year.

carry the day

MEANING: win completely

EXAMPLE: The president’s new idea carried the day and everyone supported him energetically.

carry through

MEANING: put into action

EXAMPLE: The steel company carried through their plan to restructure all of their operations.


MEANING: selling something for cash only with no delivery

EXAMPLE: We were able to get a good price on a sofa in a cash-and-carry deal at the furniture store.

cash in

MEANING: exchange coupons or bonds for their value in money

EXAMPLE: I cashed in a large number of my savings bonds in order to get some money to buy a house.

cash in on

MEANING: make money from an opportunity

EXAMPLE: The former football player cashed in on his popularity to open a very successful restaurant.

cash in your chips

MEANING: exchange or sell something to get some money

EXAMPLE: I decided to cash in my chips to get some money to go back to school.

cash on the barrelhead

MEANING: money paid in cash when something is bought

EXAMPLE: I had to pay cash on the barrelhead for the used car.

caught short

MEANING: not have enough money when you need it

EXAMPLE: I was caught short and had to borrow some money from my father last week.


MEANING: a person who will not spend much money, a stingy person

EXAMPLE: My friend is a cheapskate and won’t even go to a movie with me.

chicken feed

MEANING: a small amount of money

EXAMPLE: His son always wants to borrow money and says that it is only chicken feed but little by little it adds up to a lot of money.

chip in

MEANING: contribute money or pay jointly

EXAMPLE: Everyone in our company chipped in some money to buy a wedding present for our boss.

clean up

MEANING: make a lot of money, make a big profit

EXAMPLE: I cleaned up at the horse races last year and still have some of the money left.

close out

MEANING: sell the whole of something, sell all the goods 

EXAMPLE: They decided to close out the store and sell all of the remaining stock very cheap.

close the books

MEANING: stop taking orders, end a bookkeeping period

EXAMPLE: They usually close the books at the end of February every year.

cold call 

MEANING: call a potential customer from a list of persons one has never seen

EXAMPLE: When he first started to work at his company he was asked to make cold calls using the telephone book.

cold hard cash

MEANING: cash, coins and bills

EXAMPLE: I paid for the stereo in cold hard cash.

come on strong

MEANING: overwhelm with excessively strong language or personality

EXAMPLE: The salesman came on too strong at the meeting and angered the other members of the team.

company man

MEANING: a person who always works hard and agrees with his employers

EXAMPLE: My father was a true company man and was always putting in an extra effort for his company.

company town

MEANING: a town dominated by one industry or company

EXAMPLE: When the coal mine closed down the company town faced severe economic times.

cook the books

MEANING: illegally change information in accounting books in a company

EXAMPLE:  The accountant was cooking the books for over a year before he was caught.

cut back

MEANING: use fewer or use less 

EXAMPLE: The company has been cutting back on entertainment expenses for over a year now.

cut corners

MEANING: economize 

EXAMPLE: We have been forced to economize on stationary expenses during these severe economic times.

cut off 

MEANING: interrupt or stop

EXAMPLE: The speech of the president was cut off when the electricity went off in the building.

cut one’s losses

MEANING: do something to stop losing money or something

EXAMPLE: We should sell the old machinery as soon as possible and try and cut our losses.


MEANING: sell for a price lower than usual

EXAMPLE: We went to a cut-rate furniture store to buy some new furniture for our apartment.


MEANING: person who never pays the money he owes

EXAMPLE: Recently the government has been making an effort to solve the problem of deadbeat dads who don’t support their families.

deliver the goods

MEANING: succeed in doing well what is expected

EXAMPLE: The new owner of the company is not very popular but he is able to deliver the goods.

dime a dozen

MEANING: easy to get and therefore of little value

EXAMPLE: Used computers are a dime a dozen and have very little value.


MEANING: check something again to confirm

EXAMPLE: We were unable to double-check the costs of the new products before the price list was printed.

down and out

MEANING: have no money

EXAMPLE: My friend was down and out for several years before he got a job and started making money.

Dutch treat

MEANING: something where each person pays their own share

EXAMPLE: We went to the movie as a Dutch treat so it didn’t cost me much money.

face value

MEANING: the worth or price printed on a stamp, bond, note or paper money etc.

EXAMPLE: The face value of the stamp was very low but in reality it was worth a lot of money.

fast buck

MEANING: money earned quickly and easily (and sometimes dishonestly)

EXAMPLE: The company tried to make a fast buck on the property but they actually lost a lot of money.

fair play

MEANING: justice, equal and right action to someone

EXAMPLE: The company is very good to work for as they always use fair play when they are bargaining with their employees.

feel like a million dollars/bucks

MEANING: feel wonderful

EXAMPLE: Although I have been sick for a few weeks I feel like a million dollars today.

figure out

MEANING: find an answer by thinking about something 

EXAMPLE: Everyone in our company is trying to figure out what our boss is going to do with the new equipment.

fill the bill

MEANING: be just what is needed

EXAMPLE: That new machine should fill the bill as to what we need to finish the job.

finger in the pie

MEANING: involved in what is happening, receiving money for something

EXAMPLE: The new manager has his finger in the pie in all aspects of our company’s business.

flat broke

MEANING: having no money, penniless

EXAMPLE: I am flat broke and don’t even have enough money to pay my rent.

foot the bill


EXAMPLE: My sister is footing the bill for her daughter’s education so she is making sure that she studies hard.

for a song

MEANING: at a low price, cheaply

EXAMPLE: We bought the car for a song and will try and sell it for a higher price.

fork over

MEANING: pay, pay out

EXAMPLE: I forked over a lot of money for the painting that is hanging on my wall.

for love or money (usually negative)

MEANING: for anything, for any price

EXAMPLE: I would not want to have to do that man’s job for love or money.

gain ground

MEANING: go forward, make progress

EXAMPLE: Our company has been gaining ground in our attempt to be the best in the industry.

get a break

MEANING: get an opportunity or good deal

EXAMPLE: We were able to get a break on the price of the paint and saved a lot of money.

get off the ground

MEANING: make a successful beginning, go ahead 

EXAMPLE: We were unable to get the new product off the ground and will have to wait until next year.

give someone the green light

MEANING: give permission to go ahead with a project

EXAMPLE: Our boss gave us the green light to begin work on the new sales promotion.

go broke

MEANING: lose all your money, have no money

EXAMPLE: My uncle started a company last year but it quickly went broke.

go public

MEANING: sell shares of a privately owned company to the public

EXAMPLE: The stock of the Internet company rose very quickly when they went public.

go through with

MEANING: finish, do as planned or agreed

EXAMPLE: We have decided not to go through with our plans to launch the new product until we have solved all of its problems.

gravy train

MEANING: getting paid more money than the job is worth

EXAMPLE: The job was a gravy train and I made a lot of money when I was there.

grease your palm

MEANING: give a tip, pay for a special favor or extra help, bribe

EXAMPLE: The waiter was greasing his palm at the restaurant until he was finally fired.


MEANING: a gift of money (usually from the government)

EXAMPLE: After receiving hand-outs from the government for many years they finally had to make money on their own.

hand to mouth

MEANING: having only enough money for basic living

EXAMPLE: My friend has been living from hand to mouth since he lost his job.

hard sell

MEANING: sell something by being very aggressive 

EXAMPLE: The car salesman gave us a hard sell so we decided to go to another dealer.

hard up

MEANING: not have much money

EXAMPLE: His brother is hard up for money and always wants to borrow some.

have sticky fingers

MEANING: be a thief

EXAMPLE: The new employee has sticky fingers and many things in the store have disappeared.

heads will roll

MEANING: someone will be punished 

EXAMPLE: Heads will roll when our boss learns about the money that we have lost recently.

highway robbery

MEANING: charge a high price for something

EXAMPLE: The amount of money that the company is charging for its services is highway robbery.

hit the jackpot

MEANING: make a lot of money suddenly

EXAMPLE: We hit the jackpot at the casino and came home with a lot of money.

in black and white

MEANING: in writing

EXAMPLE: The company refused to deal with the customer’s complaints until they saw them in black and white.

in charge of

MEANING: in control of, responsible for

EXAMPLE:  My sister has been in charge of buying supplies at her company for many years.

in short supply

MEANING: not enough, in less than the amount or number needed

EXAMPLE: Experienced computer programmers are in short supply at our company.

in stock

MEANING: have something ready to sell or use

EXAMPLE: They didn’t have any computer printer ribbons in stock at the store.

in the black

MEANING: profitable, making money

EXAMPLE: Our company has been in the black since it was first started.

in the hole

MEANING: in debt, owing money

EXAMPLE: I think that we are going in the hole in our attempts to make our business prosper.

in the long run

MEANING: in the final result

EXAMPLE: The company has been losing money recently but in the long run they should do very well.

in the red

MEANING: unprofitable, losing money

EXAMPLE: The company has been in the red for several months now and will soon have to go bankrupt.

in the works 

MEANING: in preparation, being planned or worked on

EXAMPLE: The camera company has a new automatic camera in the works but nobody knows about it yet.

jack up 

MEANING: make a price higher

EXAMPLE: The steel companies decided to jack up the price of steel at the beginning of the year.

keep books

MEANING: keep records of money earned and spent

EXAMPLE: The accountant has been keeping careful books of all the transactions in the company.

keep track of 

MEANING: keep a count or record, stay informed

EXAMPLE: They have been making a great effort to keep track of the number of visitors to their store.


MEANING: money paid illegally for favorable treatment

EXAMPLE: The politician received several illegal kickbacks and had to resign from his job.

lay away money

MEANING: save money

EXAMPLE: I am trying hard to lay away enough money to buy a house.

layaway plan

MEANING: a plan in which one pays some money as a down-payment and then pays a little more when one can and the store holds the article until the full price is paid.

EXAMPLE: We brought our furniture on the layaway plan at the store.

lay out

MEANING: spend, pay

EXAMPLE: I had to lay out a lot of money to get my car fixed so now I don’t have any money to go out.

live from hand to mouth

MEANING: live on little money

EXAMPLE: My friend has been living from hand to mouth on his savings from his last job.

live high off/on the hog

MEANING: have the best of everything, live in great comfort

EXAMPLE: My mother and father have been living high on the hog since they won the lottery.


MEANING: have lots of money

EXAMPLE: My uncle is loaded and always has lots of money.

lose your shirt

MEANING: lose all or most of your money

EXAMPLE: I lost my shirt in a business venture and now I have no money.

make a bundle

MEANING: make a lot of money

EXAMPLE: I made a bundle on the stock market and have since bought a house.

make a killing

MEANING: make a large amount of money

EXAMPLE: My sister made a killing when she worked overseas in the oil industry.

make a living

MEANING: earn enough money to live

EXAMPLE: If you want to make a good living it is necessary to get a good education.

make ends meet

MEANING: have enough money to pay your bills

EXAMPLE: I have been having trouble making ends meet because the rent for my apartment is too high.

make money hand over fist

MEANING: fast and in large amounts

EXAMPLE: My cousin has been making money hand over fist with her business.

mean business

MEANING: be serious

EXAMPLE: Our boss means business when he tells everyone to try and work harder.

money to burn

MEANING: very much money, more money than is needed

EXAMPLE: My aunt has money to burn and is always travelling somewhere.

nest egg

MEANING: money someone has saved up

EXAMPLE: I made a nice nest egg when I was working and I am now able to go to school.


MEANING: an accountant, someone who works with numbers 

EXAMPLE: Our president is a good number-cruncher and understands about the finances of our company.

on a dime

MEANING: in a very small space

EXAMPLE: I had to turn my car on a dime when I entered the parking lot.

on a shoestring

MEANING: with little money to spend, on a very low budget

EXAMPLE: He started his business on a shoestring but now it is very successful.

on hand

MEANING: in one’s possession, ready

EXAMPLE: We didn’t have any supplies on hand and were unable to finish the job.

on the block

MEANING: for sale

EXAMPLE: As soon as they purchased the company they began to put some of the equipment on the block.

on the house

MEANING: paid for by the owner

EXAMPLE: We went to the restaurant and all of the refreshments were on the house.

pad the bill

MEANING: add false expenses to a bill

EXAMPLE: The plumber who was fixing our plumbing system was padding the bill so we got another plumber.

pass the buck

MEANING: make another person decide something, put the duty or blame on someone else

EXAMPLE: The foreman is always passing the buck and will never take responsibility for anything that he does.

pay an arm and a leg for something

MEANING: pay a high price for something

EXAMPLE: I paid an arm and a leg for my car but I am not very happy with it.

pay dirt

MEANING: a valuable discovery, the dirt in which much gold is found

EXAMPLE: We hit pay dirt when we got the rights to distribute the new product.

pay off 1

MEANING: pay and discharge from a job

EXAMPLE: The company paid off their employees and shut down for the winter.

Pay-off 2

MEANING: bribe

EXAMPLE: The mayor received a pay-off and was forced to resign from his position.

pay through the nose

MEANING: pay at a very high price, pay too much

EXAMPLE: I paid through the nose when I had to buy gasoline in the small town.

penny for your thoughts

MEANING: tell someone what you are thinking about

EXAMPLE: “I will give you a penny for your thoughts”, I said to my friend who was looking out of the window.

penny-wise and pound foolish

MEANING: wise or careful in small things to the costly neglect of important things

EXAMPLE: My friend is penny-wise and pound foolish and economizes on small things but wastes all of his money on big things.

pick up the tab

MEANING: pay the bill

EXAMPLE: I picked up the tab for my sister and her three children at the restaurant.

piece/slice of the action

MEANING: a share in the activity or the profits of something

EXAMPLE: The inventor wanted a large piece of the action of the profits from the new computer that he had invented.

piggy bank

MEANING: a small bank, sometimes in the shape of a pig for saving coins

EXAMPLE: The small boy saved up much money in his piggy bank.

pinch pennies

MEANING: be careful with money, be thrifty

EXAMPLE: My grandmother always pinches pennies and will never spend her money foolishly.

pony up


EXAMPLE: I had to pony up a lot of money to pay to get my car repaired.

put in your two cents

MEANING: give your opinion

EXAMPLE: I stood up in the meeting and put in my two cents before I was asked to sit down.

quick buck

MEANING: money earned quickly and easily (and sometimes dishonestly)

EXAMPLE: The company is only interested in making a quick buck and is not at all interested in quality.

rain check

MEANING: a promise to repeat an invitation at a later date

EXAMPLE: I decided to take a rain check and go to the restaurant another time.

rake in the money

MEANING: make a lot of money

EXAMPLE: We have been raking in the money at our restaurant and will soon be able to go on a long holiday.

red cent

MEANING: the smallest coin, a trivial sum of money

EXAMPLE: I wouldn’t give a red cent for my neighbor’s car.

red ink

MEANING: debt (red ink on a financial statement)

EXAMPLE: The automobile company has been drowning in red ink since the US dollar began to rise.

 run short

not have enough in quantity

EXAMPLE: They ran short of gasoline at the gas station and had to close early.

saddled with debt

MEANING: burdened with debt

EXAMPLE: Our sister company is saddled with a great amount of debt and should be sold as soon as possible.

salt away

MEANING: save money

EXAMPLE: My father’s uncle salted away thousands of dollars before he died.

scrape together

MEANING: gather small amounts of money (usually with some difficulty) for something

EXAMPLE: We scraped together some money and bought a present for my mother.

sell like hotcakes

MEANING: sell very quickly

EXAMPLE: The children’s toys were selling like hotcakes at the end of the year.

sell out

MEANING: sell all of a product

EXAMPLE: Every year at least one company sells out all of their products which frustrates many customers.

set one back


EXAMPLE: My friend asked me how much my new coat had set me back.

shell out


EXAMPLE: My father shelled out a lot of money to get his house painted.

splurge on something

MEANING: spend more money than one might ordinarily spend

EXAMPLE: We decided to splurge and go to a nice restaurant for dinner.

stone broke

MEANING: having no money, penniless

EXAMPLE: His brother is stone broke and won’t be able to come to the movie with us.

strapped for cash

MEANING: have no money available

EXAMPLE: I am strapped for cash at the moment so I won’t be able to go with you on a holiday.

strike it rich

MEANING: become rich or successful suddenly or without expecting to

EXAMPLE: My grandfather struck it rich searching for gold but when he died he had no money.

strike while the iron is hot

MEANING: take advantage of an opportunity

EXAMPLE: We decided to strike while the iron was hot and began to market the product around the time of the Olympics.

sweetheart deal

 MEANING: a deal made between friends so that both may make a big profit

EXAMPLE: We were able to make a sweetheart deal with our landlord and got the rent greatly reduced.

take a beating

MEANING: lose money (usually a lot)

EXAMPLE: y friend took a beating on the stock market and has now stopped buying stocks.

take a nosedive

MEANING: collapse, fail, decrease in value 

EXAMPLE: The stock market took a nosedive when the earnings of the oil company began to weaken.

take on

MEANING: to give a job to or hire someone 

EXAMPLE: The company took on many new workers during the busy holiday season.

take over

MEANING: take control or possession of something, take charge or responsibility 

EXAMPLE: The government decided to take over the bank after it declared bankruptcy.

take public

MEANING: sell shares in a company to the general public 

EXAMPLE: We decided it was necessary to take our company public in order to raise money to expand our facilities.

take stock

MEANING: count the items of merchandise or supplies in stock, take inventory

EXAMPLE: The department store closes down for 3 days every March in order to take stock.

throw cold water on

MEANING: discourage, forbid

EXAMPLE: The managers threw cold water on the plans to close down the factory for one week in August.

throw money at something

MEANING: try to solve a problem by spending money on it

EXAMPLE: The president of our company is willing to throw a lot of money at the problem in the hope of solving it.

tighten one’s belt

MEANING: live on less money than usual

EXAMPLE: We decided to tighten our belt and save up some money for a holiday.

two bits

MEANING: twenty-five cents, a quarter of a dollar

EXAMPLE: The newspaper was only two bits a copy.

turn over

MEANING: to buy and then sell something to customers

EXAMPLE: The turn-over at that discount store is very rapid.

(not worth) two cents

MEANING: almost nothing, something not important or very small

EXAMPLE: The car that my friend bought is not worth two cents.

two cents worth

MEANING: something one wants to say, opinion

EXAMPLE: I asked the president for his two cents worth but he didn’t want to give us his opinion.

work out

MEANING: plan, develop 

EXAMPLE: I spent the weekend trying to work out the budget estimates for next year.

(not) worth a cent

MEANING: not worth anything, not of any value

EXAMPLE: That antique desk is not worth a cent although everyone thinks it is very valuable.

worth your salt

MEANING: worth what one is paid

EXAMPLE: Our secretary is worth her salt and is a great asset to our company.

write off

 MEANING: remove from a business record, cancel a debt

EXAMPLE: It was impossible for the bank to collect the money so they were forced to write off the loan.


Business English Idioms