Budgeting is a key aspect of Management Accounting and particularly impacts on the areas of planning, control and performance management.


A budget is a quantitative plan prepared for a specific time period. It is normally expressed in financial terms and prepared for one year.

Purpose of budgets

Budgeting serves a number of purposes:

  • Planning

    A budgeting process forces a business to look to the future. This is essential for survival since it stops management from relying on ad hoc or poorly co-ordinated planning.

  • Control

    Actual results are compared against the budget and action is taken as appropriate.

  • Communication

    The budget is a formal communication channel that allows junior and senior managers to converse.

  • Co-ordination

    The budget allows co-ordination of all parts of the business towards a common corporate goal.

  • Evaluation

    Responsibility accounting divides the organisation into budget centres, each of which has a manager who is responsible for its performance. The budget may be used to evaluate the actions of a manager within the business in terms of the costs and revenues over which they have control.

  • Motivation

    The budget may be used as a target for managers to aim for. Reward should be given for operating within or under budgeted levels of expenditure. This acts as a motivator for managers.

  • Authorisation

    The budget acts as a formal method of authorisation to a manager for expenditure, hiring staff and the pursuit of plans contained within the budget.

  • Delegation

    Managers may be involved in setting the budget. Extra responsibility may motivate the managers. Management involvement may also result in more realistic targets.

Budgets and performance management

Budgets contribute to performance management by providing benchmarks against which to compare actual results (through variance analysis), and develop corrective measures. They take many forms and serve many functions, but most provide the basis for :

  • detailed sales targets
  • staffing plans
  • production
  • cash investment and borrowing
  • capital expenditure

Budgets give managers "pre-approval" for execution of spending plans, and allow them to provide forward looking guidance to investors and creditors. For example, budgets are necessary to convince banks and other lenders to extend credit.

Even in a small business, an robust business plan/budget can often result in anticipating and avoiding disastrous outcomes.

Medium and larger organisations invariably rely on budgets. This is equally true in businesses, government, and not-for-profit organizations. The budget provides a formal quantitative expression of expectations. It is an essential facet of the planning and control process. Without a budget, an organisation will be highly inefficient and ineffective.

The performance hierarchy

Firms have a planning hierarchy:

  • Strategic planning is long term, looks at the whole organisation and defines resource requirements. For example, to develop new products in response to changing customer needs.
  • Tactical planning is medium term, looks at the department / divisional level and specifies how to use resources. For example, to train staff to deal with the challenges that this new product presents.
  • Operational planning is very short term, very detailed and is mainly concerned with control. Most budgeting activities fall within operational planning and control. For example, a budget is set for the new product to include advertising expenditure, sales forecasts, labour and material expenditure etc.

The aim is that if a manager achieves short-term budgetary targets (operational plans) then there is more chance of meeting tactical goals and ultimately success for strategic plans.

The achievement of budgetary plans will impact on the eventual achievement of the tactical and strategic plans. However, budgets should also be flexible in order to meet the changing needs of the business.

Behavioural aspects of budgeting

Individuals react to the demands of budgeting and budgetary control in different ways and their behaviour can damage the budgeting process.

Behavioural problems are often linked to management styles, and include dysfunctional behaviour and budget slack.

Setting the difficulty level of a budget

Budgetary targets will assist motivation and appraisal if they are at the right level.

An expectations budget is a budget set at current achievable levels. This is unlikely to motivate managers to improve but may give more accurate forecasts for resource planning, control and performance evaluation.

An aspirations budget is a budget set at a level which exceeds the level currently achieved. This may motivate managers to improve if it is seen as attainable but may also result in an adverse variance if it is too difficult to achieve. This must be managed carefully.

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Conflicting objectives

There are many examples of conflicting objectives that occur in budgeting. For example:

  • Individualism - managers participate in budget setting and so set themselves easy targets
  • Short-termism - managers cut discretionary expenditure such as research and development spending in an attempt to hit short term profit targets. Unfortunately this may erode the firm's long term competencies

Approaches to budgeting

There are a number of different approaches to budgeting, including the following:

Selecting a suitable budgetary system

There are many approaches to budgeting and an organisation will wish to select the system that is most appropriate.

Factors, which will determine suitability include:

  • type and size of organisation
  • type of industry
  • type of product and product range
  • culture of the organisation.

Illustration - Selecting a suitable budgetary system

A hospital operates in a relatively stable financial environment, has a very high proportion of fixed costs and a diverse range of activities. Factors to consider when selecting a suitable budgetary system may be:

  • An incremental approach may be suitable for all routine activities. New ventures may use a zero-based approach.
  • The fixed costs may need close control and therefore some form of ABB may be appropriate.
  • The culture of the organisation may dictate whether a participative or imposed budgeting style is more effective. If there are managers who are trained in budgeting and costs are mainly controllable then it may be preferable to adopt a participative approach to empower and motivate staff. If costs are mainly uncontrollable it may be preferable to use a centrally controlled, imposed budget.

Information for budgeting

Budgeting requires a great deal of information that can be drawn from many sources.

The main sources of information for budgeting purposes are:

  • previous year's actual results
  • other internal sources which may include manager's knowledge concerning the state of repair of fixed assets, training needs of staff, long-term requirements of individual customers, etc.
  • estimates of costs of new products using methods such as work study techniques and technical estimates.
  • statistical techniques such as linear regression may help to forecast sales.
  • models, such as the EOQ model, may be used to forecast optimal inventory levels.
  • external sources of information may include suppliers' price lists, estimates of inflation and exchange rate movements, strategic analysis of the economic environment.

Changing a budgetary system

A change in the budgetary system could bring about improved planning, control and decision making.

However, before a change is made the following issues should be considered:

  • Are suitably trained staff available to implement the change successfully?
  • Will changing the system take up management time which should be used to focus on strategy?
  • All staff involved in the budgetary process will need to be trained in the new system and understand the procedure to be followed in changing to the new approach. A lack of participation and understanding builds resistance to change.
  • All costs of the systems change, e.g. new system costs, training costs, should be evaluated against the perceived benefits. Benefits may be difficult to quantify and therefore a rigorous investment appraisal of the project may be difficult to prepare.

Dealing with uncertainty in budgeting

Budgets are open to uncertainty. For example, non-controllable factors such as a recession or a change in prices charged by suppliers will contribute to uncertainty in the budget setting process.

There are several techniques available to help deal with uncertainty. These include:

  • Flexible budgets : these are budgets which, by recognising different cost behaviour patterns, are designed to change as the volume of activity changes. Flexible budgets are prepared under marginal costing principles, and so mixed costs are split into their fixed and variable components. This is useful at the control stage : it is necessary to compare actual results to the actual level of activity achieved against the results that should have been expected at this level of activity - which are shown by the flexible budget (more on next chapter).
  • Rolling budgets: the budget is updated regularly and, as a result, uncertainty is reduced.
  • Sensitivity analysis: variables can be changed one at a time and a large number of budgets produced. For example, what would happen if the actual sales volume was only 75% of the budgeted amount?
  • Simulation: similar to sensitivity analysis but it is possible to change more than one variable at a time.
Created at 6/7/2012 4:40 PM  by System Account  (GMT) Greenwich Mean Time : Dublin, Edinburgh, Lisbon, London
Last modified at 4/10/2014 10:48 AM  by System Account  (GMT) Greenwich Mean Time : Dublin, Edinburgh, Lisbon, London

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