Is an annual budget really all that important?

“The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations”

Jack Lew – US Secretary of the Treasury

Many small businesses (SMEs) do not have annual budgets. In fact, I have come across some multi-million dollar businesses that do not have budgets, including several of my past clients.

What is a business budget?

A business budget is ‘a financial plan and prediction of future revenue and expenditure’. A budget is a goal for the business over the next 12 months.

Why are budgets important?

They serve a goal, or a plan…with 3 main purposes:

  • To forecast income and expenditure, and by extension profitability; (i.e. where are the costs incurred and where does the revenue come from to make a profit)
  • A tool for decision making that establishes a financial framework for the decision-making process, and assists in determining courses of action that can be either planned or unplanned over the year.
  • To monitor and measure business performance, where the actual business performance is measured against the forecast business performance.

In simple terms, all good businesses MUST have an annual budget, otherwise management and staff will not know what is expected of them, or the business.

How should budgets be compiled?

There are two main ways of compiling a budget; top down or bottom up:

  1. Top down is the less rigorous way of setting budgets and is more suitable for very small businesses. Often last years’ results are reviewed, and a percentage is added to revenue and costs for the following year.
  2. Bottom up entails reviewing costs, customers, revenue, sales and other Profit and Loss (P&L) items at a micro-level and determining what can be and what is likely to be achieved next year.

In my experience based on having my own business and on feedback from my clients, bottom up budgeting is the best method. It is important to invest the time in creating a comprehensive and realistic budget as it will be easier to manage and ultimately more effective than top down budgeting.

What are the suggested steps?

  1. Involve the right people, including financial, sales and operational staff. Their involvement will help gain their commitment to meeting the budget.
  2. Ask them for their estimates on sales, production costs or specific projects based on first principles by referring to each line item and customer in the P&L.
  3. Rigorously question each assumption, get agreement and then a commitment from those team members who are responsible for each part of the business. Ask questions such as:
    • Which customers will increase their purchases next year?
    • Where and how can we increase sales?
    • Will we be able to increase prices?
    • How can we reduce our fixed costs?
    • What staff will get pay increases next year?
  4. Use last year’s figures as a guide only, and do not simply make broad estimates from these figures.
  5. Complete the budget and share it with key staff.

In conclusion, the compiling of the annual budget is an opportunity to review and understand the business more thoroughly. A budget provides structure for the next 12 months, imposes discipline and holds people accountable for the business’ performance. What resources are required? How many staff are required? What customers are the most profitable? Where can we reduce overheads and still increase sales?

Overall budgets must be realistic and achievable and should also be aspirational and not too easy to achieve. A budget should have ‘stretch targets’, to ensure the business grows. In all my years in business, I have never set a budget where revenue or sales were less than the previous year.