How to create a budget for your business

January 16, 2024 | 7 minute read

If you want to increase the odds of having a successful small business, start by creating a budget. A budget is a powerful tool. It helps you understand how much money you have and what you’ve spent where — and provides clues about how much money you’ll need in the short and long term. It can also help shape key business decisions like whether to add staff and equipment or where to cut expenses to avoid cash flow issues.


A budget is critical, particularly at a time when companies are coping with rising costs. Seventy-nine percent of small business owners polled in Bank of America’s 2023 Small Business Owner Report said they are concerned about inflation and 68% said they are worried about commodity prices. Here’s how to create a budget and use it to make the best decisions today, tomorrow and in the future.


What is a business budget?

Simply put, a budget is a spending plan based on your business’ income and expenses. It shows your available capital, estimates spending and assists in predicting revenue. The information in your budget can help you plan your company’s next moves. A budget looks at activities for a specified time. Think of it as a tool to help you allocate resources toward the strategic priorities in your business plan.


What are the benefits of creating a business budget?

Budgeting enables you to allocate financial resources more effectively, track variances and make changes to your spending plan as needed. A budget provides a much-needed assist in maintaining daily operations, giving you the intel to deploy your cash more strategically so you don’t face a cash flow crunch. It can identify when you need to raise financing. Debt is a fact of life in many businesses. A budget can help you manage debts with controlled and planned financial activities.


A budget can also help you stay ready for the unexpected. Staying within your budget and creating a safety net for emergencies will give you a firmer financial foundation.


Types of business budgets

When it comes to business budgets, it’s not one and done. There are several types that may be helpful in your business.


Master budget

This type of budget uses inputs from financial statements, your cash forecast and your financial plan to create a single document you can use to keep your finger on the pulse of your business. Your management team can use it to plan the activities needed to reach business goals. Typically, small businesses use spreadsheets to create their master budgets or consider using budgeting software too, as it may help minimize mistakes.


Operating budget

This budget shows your projected revenue and expenses for a given period. Think of it as a profit and loss report, but for the future. The operating budget includes fixed and variable costs, as well as non-operating expenses. Capital expenditures are usually excluded from an operating budget. Each line item should be backed up with key details.

  • Fixed costs occur monthly.

    Variable costs, like utilities, change depending on factors like usage.

    Capital costs are one-time expenses, such as the purchase of a building.

The operating budget gives you a reality check on whether you’re spending according to plan. While this budget is often prepared at the start of each year, don’t set it and forget it. Update it throughout the year, be it monthly or quarterly, so you always know where your business stands.


Capital budget

Companies sometimes create a capital budget when they are looking to make a large purchase, such as a large piece of factory equipment or a new technology system that will require a substantial investment. This allows the finance team to determine the impact on cash flow and plan accordingly.


Cash budget or cash flow budget

This document will give you an estimate of how money comes in and goes out during a certain time horizon. You create a cash budget using the conclusions you draw from sales forecasts and production, and by estimating payables and receivables.


Labor budget

If you will hire employees, this type of budget is helpful in planning for the money you’ll need to meet payroll, not only for regular employees, but also for any temporary and seasonal staff.


Budgeting methods you can use

There’s more than one way to budget. Here are some common methods:


An incremental budget

This takes the current period’s budget or actual performance, uses it as a base and then adjusts it in incremental amounts to account for any increases in costs. Typically, when you put together an incremental budget, you use the rate of inflation as a guide for fine-tuning the amounts. One plus of budgeting this way is that it is relatively easy to do.


Zero-based budgeting

Here, you’re budgeting from scratch. You must scrutinize every expense or potential expense before deciding to add it to your budget. This helps you align your business goals with your expenses. Unlike other types of budgeting, it doesn’t focus on historical results. A zero-based budget is ideal when you’re looking to reduce expenses.


Activity-based budgeting

Actions speak louder than words. This type of budgeting looks at the inputs required to reach the targets or outputs set by the company. Say your business wants to achieve $5 million in revenue. First, you need to figure out the activities that need to happen to make that revenue a reality and then determine the costs of carrying out those activities.


Participative budgeting

There are more cooks in the kitchen with participative budgeting, which is often used by larger small businesses. Both middle management and lower levels of management share in the responsibility of putting together the budget. The budget begins with lower management then moves to middle managers before top management weighs in and signs off. An upside of this type of budgeting is that information is shared, and when management and staff are on the same page in terms of goals, they’re more likely to achieve those goals.


How to create a business budget

Creating a business budget takes several steps:


  1. Calculate your revenue. Include all your revenue streams, preferably over at least the last 12 months, to determine your monthly income. If your business is new, you can research what’s typical in your industry and use that as a guide to come up with estimates.
  2. Add up your fixed costs. Fixed costs are things like rent, payroll and debt repayment.
  3. Determine variable costs. In addition to utilities, these may include billable labor, materials, transaction fees and commissions.
  4. Subtract your fixed and variable costs. This determines what it costs to produce your product or service. Any change in costs affects your net income — how much the business makes after subtracting all expenses, the cost of producing your product or service, and taxes. The amount left over is money you can use to invest in business growth.


    It’s a good idea to set aside a just-in-case fund for unexpected costs like having to replace equipment sooner than planned.


    Now, you’re ready to create your profit and loss statement. Add up all your income and all of your expenses for the month. Subtract the expenses from the income. Ideally, the resulting number will be positive, signaling a profit, and not negative, indicating a loss.


    There are budgeting templates online and software like QuickBooks®. Templates simplify the process because you’re not starting from scratch.

Using a budget to make better decisions

If you make your budget a regular resource, you’ll be rewarded for your budgeting efforts. As you make spending decisions, consult your budget frequently and use it as a reality check. If you have budgeted for X amount and go beyond it, you’ll have some explaining to do, even if you’re only answering to yourself. Being disciplined can be challenging, but ultimately it will position your business for growth, both today and in the future.

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