Budget Variance Analysis

Oh No – it doesn’t look like I thought it would!!!

You built a budget, and took the time to get your actuals entered.- Now you can see there are differences between the two – what next?

Understand the process, don’t just stare at your Budget forlornly, get down to working out what the report is telling you so you can take action.

Don’t Panic! – Do a Variance Analysis!

‘Variance’ is just another word for ‘Not as Expected’
‘Analysis’ is just another word for ‘Investigation’
This means you dig deep into the activities behind the information on your Budget to discover the reasons your business is not behaving as you expect. Many many things in business can change on a daily basis, this is a process of narrowing down exactly what has changed so you can understand how it is impacting your business (and profit) and what to do about it.

  1. Was there a good/bad decision?
  2. Did the market change?
  3. Have prices moved?
  4. Are customers’ needs different?

Once you have made an analysis, and drawn some conclusions, you can then make tweaks and changes to get your business on track. The following 5 tips walk you through the analysis path so you can pinpoint your variance and work out what to do next.

What is a Budget Variance?

Tip 1. First and foremost – not all variances are bad things some can actually be good.

For budgeting purposes it is important to consider the budget variance in terms of how it has impacted profits:

1. POSITIVE VARIANCES – anything that boosts profits

  • Better than expected result
  • Costs lower than expected
  • Revenue higher than expected

2. NEGATIVE VARIANCES – anything that reduces profit

  • Worse than expected result
  • Costs higher than expected
  • Revenue lower than expected

NOTE: Budget Variances, and Variance analysis can be VERY confusing if you simply think of negative numbers as bad and positive numbers as good, different reports will set things out in different ways and it can be easy to get caught-out. So stick to the above guidelines to:

  1. check if a positive variance is good or bad and that will really help ensure you always take action when you need to.
  2. check if a negative variance is good or bad and that will really help ensure you don’t worry unnecessarily.

i.e. you always want to be INCREASING your Revenue and DECREASING your expenses (this may sound like telling you to ‘suck eggs’ – but it is the key goal to keep in mind when looking at a variance; don’t let the fact you are looking at numbers overwhelm you, remember there are facts and activities behind the numbers that are trying to tell you their story)

How to Fix Budget Variances:

The short answer is: – use your 4 x W’s – Where, When, Why, and What to do next.

Tip 2. FIND your variance – ask the question “WHERE is there a difference?”

Establishing where there is a variance is important and reviewing what has happened against both what you were hoping for, and what you have done before helps examine how your business is tracking and how accurate your planning is.
Variance analysis is most useful when you undertake a variety of comparisons:
A. Specific variances – actual figures v expected figures – this includes

  • Actual v budget
  • Actual v Forecast

It is unlikely that you will be perfect at budgeting (unless you have a crystal ball), so you are bound to get variances at least occasionally. Generally, small variances are simply part of doing business, large variances need investigating – but don’t get complacent; think of it like testing for lumps, or checking moles – you need to get a foundation of what is NORMALLY a bit over or a bit under before you can understand WHAT IS ODD… and this only comes with practice.

B. Trend variances – small, continual changes over time, that incrementally diverge from expected.

  • this month’s v last month’s
  • August 2010 v August 2011 – both acutals and budgets

What can seem normal, can seem so because we are used to it. Trend analysis is a bit like watching your weight; when you check your scales each day, it only seems like tiny changes, but if you look at this birthday compared to your weight last birthday that is when you notice the few extra kilos have snuck on … Trend analysis puts a spotlight on the changes that creep up on us little by little.

Tip 3. Understand the TIMING – ask the question “WHEN is there a difference?”

Sometimes differences arise simply because of a lack of information entered into your systems.
What typically happens is that a relevant invoice has not yet been received or a payment relating to this period was made in an earlier period. In either case variances will arise in both the month the invoice was expected and not received, and the later month when the invoice is entered but not expected.
The idea of ‘Accrual accounting’ is to recognise all the income and outgoings for the period in that same period, irrespective of whether or not cash has actually passed between customer and supplier.
Timing variances “reverse” because what was short this period will appear in the next, or what was extra in this period will be missing next period. i.e. when the two months are added together, you end up in the right spot overall. As long as they are explainable as “reversing” in the next period, other than ensuring the expected reversal takes place then no further action need be taken.

Tip 4. ANALYSE the reason for the Variance – asking the question “WHY is there a difference?”

The most powerful question you have at your disposal is WHY did this variance occur?. The difference could simply have arisen because of a data entry typo – don’t panic or go yelling and the wrong people for the wrong things! Begin by making sure what you are looking at is accurate.
In all other cases a Budget Variance is the result of either:

* A price that was different from expected/budgeted
* A volume (amount) that was different from expected/budgeted

To be able to take any corrective action you must work out which element, or both, are involved…
TRICK: Ask “WHY” more than once, it can take up to seven times of asking WHY to drill down to the real cause that needs to be addressed – stopping too soon may mean you don’t get to the bottom of the issue and this will mean that any changes you try to make will be targeting an incorrect area. This part requires quite a bit of patience from both the questioner and the answerer, a bit of lateral thinking and investigation, and also an understanding that “I don’t know” simply means more research is needed.

Need to Start a Budget?

Understand and use your Budget Variances to strengthen your business decisions; predicting your business needs accurately is a great way to make more money.

If you don’t yet have a budget in place check out these posts on how to pull your budget together.
* How to Start a Budget and why Bother
* How to Build a Budget (and improve your profits)

Tip 5. Take Action – ask the question “WHAT do I need to do next?”>

So once the root cause of each variance is understood the final step is to take action – Reports should drive profitable decisions and variance analysis is no different.
What you need to do will be guided by the Where, When and Why of each variance. In some cases, especially with trend variances, no action needs to be taken until a pre-determined ‘tipping point’ is reached.
Some things to consider include:

  • BUDGET – Do you need to adjust your projections because your budget was overly optimistic?
  • REVENUE – Do you need to change your prices, volumes or sales process?
  • CUSTOMERS – Do you need to increase your marketing, change product mix, focus on quality?
  • WASTAGE – Do you need to adjust your processes to make them more efficient and effective?

The value of variance analysis lies in your ability to isolate changes and take remedial action quickly. Every business report exists to help you make better decisions; your budget is no different – if your business is not working as planned analysing your budget acts as a window enabling you to see what is going on and take the appropriate actions.

How have you used Budget Variances to empower your decisions?

(share in the comments at the bottom of the page so the 500 or so people that regularly view these posts will benefit too.)

Now that you have a taste of what we can do… here are some more options to improve your business profits: