Budgets are the foundation for thriving businesses, and a key tool for understanding performance. It is one of the best financial tools in a company’s toolbox—but they are too often proposed, discussed, accepted, and then forgotten. Instead, business leaders should review and update a company’s budget as well as any differences (or “variances”) on a regular basis. Budget analysis can help identify problems, control spending, and form more accurate forecasts and key performance indicators. Having this information on hand can help better identify points in a company’s profit and loss statements where it either performed really well or went completely off the rails, especially as a company's financial situation will fluctuate over time.
Good managers look at what that difference means to the business to identify problems, control spending, and form more accurate forecasts and key performance indicators. Utilized correctly, a regular budget variance analysis can provide concrete steps to help a company save money, improve efficiencies, and contribute to business growth.
What is budget vs. actual variance?
The term "budget vs. actual" is shorthand for a budget to actual variance review. It refers to the difference between the estimated amount of expense or revenue, and the actual amount. Variances fall into two major categories:
- Favorable variance: When actuals are better than budgeted (e.g., when revenue is better)
- Negative variance: When actuals are worse than budgeted (e.g., when revenue is worse).
Budgets are only an approximation of what the future holds, and a little variance is to be expected. It’s when actuals deviate exceedingly from estimates that business leaders should take a harder look at the numbers to uncover fact from fiction. This is where variance analysis comes in.
Variance analysis typically begins with variance reports at the end of each month, quarter, or year, showing the difference between actual spending and forecasted spending. Sometimes this is as simple as subtracting one data point from the other. Truly evaluating and understanding budget variances takes careful thought, and can sometimes be more of an art than science.
Business forecasting and variance analysis
Variance is a sign that revenues or spending did not go according to plan. Variance analysis attempts to find the reasons that actual figures were over or under forecast.
Keep in mind that there is more to accounting for variances than capturing the immediate impact. It involves analytical research, proactive planning, and strategic decision-making to properly evaluate the significance of any variances. Moreover, while reviewing budgets inherently looks at past performance, the insights gathered provide guidance for future decisions. For example:
- Are budget assumptions correct?
- Is spending under control?
- Are expenses (as a percentage of revenue) where they should be?
- Are margins consistent?
- Is revenue exceeding conversion goals?
- Does the timing of income meet with projections?
If there are significant variances between operating and actual budgets, there are some steps that you should take. First, examine which business activities didn’t perform to the expectations set forth in your budget. Some occurrences are simply beyond our control, such as a natural disaster or downturn in the economy. Other times, losses are related to an internal process or decisions that can be adjusted.
Depending on the nature of the budget variance, it presents leaders with two options:
- Either adjust the future budget to conform to revenue or spending realities
- Recommend changes to bring forecast and actual figures closer together.
Understanding budget discrepancies help business leaders become better forecasters. The more you review your budget and actuals, the better you can become at forecasting your expenses and evaluating business results.
Now that you know where to start, it’s time to put your plan to work.
If you need a hand, Focused Energy's financial and accounting advisers can help you reach your goals. We gather the data, look for opportunities ahead, course correct where needed and can provide actionable insights for your business.