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There are four common types of budgets that companies use: (1) incremental, (2) activity-based, (3) value proposition, and (4) zero-based. These four budgeting methods each have their own advantages and challenges, which will be discussed in more detail in this guide.
1. Incremental budgeting
Incremental budgeting takes last year’s actual figures and adds or subtracts a percentage to obtain the current year’s budget. It is the most common method of budgeting because it is simple and easy to understand. Incremental budgeting is appropriate to use if the primary cost drivers do not change from year to year. However, there are some problems with using the method:
• It is likely to perpetuate inefficiencies. For example, if a manager knows that there is an opportunity to grow his budget by 10% every year, he will simply take that opportunity to attain a bigger budget, while not putting effort into seeking ways to cut costs or economize.
• It is likely to result in budgetary slack. For example, a manager might overstate the size of the budget that the team actually needs so it appears that the team is always under budget.
• It is also likely to ignore external drivers of activity and performance. For example, there is very high inflation in certain input costs. Incremental budgeting ignores any external factors and simply assumes the cost will grow by, for example, 10% this year.
2. Activity-based budgeting
Activity-based budgeting is a top down budgeting approach that determines the amount of inputs required to support the targets or outputs set by the company. For example, a company sets an output target of $100 million in revenues. The company will need to first determine the activities that need to be undertaken to meet the sales target, and then find out the costs of carrying out these activities
3. Value proposition budgeting
In value proposition budgeting, the budgeter considers the following questions:
• Why is this amount included in the budget?
• Does the item create value for customers, staff, or other stakeholders?
• Does the value of the item outweigh its cost? If not, then is there another reason why the cost is justified?
Value proposition budgeting is really a mindset about making sure that everything that is included in the budget delivers value for the business. Value proposition budgeting aims to avoid unnecessary expenditures – although it is not as precisely aimed at that goal as our final budgeting option, zero-based budgeting.
4. Zero-based budgeting
As one of the most commonly used budgeting methods, zero based budgeting starts with the assumption that all department budgets are zero and must be rebuilt from scratch. Managers must be able to justify every single expense. No expenditures are automatically “okayed”. Zero-based budgeting is very tight, aiming to avoid any and all expenditures that are not considered absolutely essential to the company’s successful (profitable) operation. This kind of bottom-up budgeting can be a highly effective way to “shake things up”.
The zero-based approach is good to use when there is an urgent need for cost containment, for example, in a situation where a company is going through a financial restructuring or a major economic or market downturn that requires it to reduce the budget dramatically.
Zero-based budgeting is best suited for addressing discretionary costs rather than essential operating costs. However, it can be an extremely time-consuming approach, so many companies only use this approach occasionally.

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