How to Approach Budgeting in Uncertain Times

If you’re struggling to create a business budget in the current economic climate, you’re not alone. With COVID-19 in play—and the unprecedented economic uncertainty that came along with it—budgeting can be a daunting process. 

A business budget is still one of the best ways to avoid financial disaster when unforeseen challenges arise. Use the strategies below to keep your business on track during these uncertain times.

Annual Business Budgeting Process

Before we dive into creating a business budget in uncertain times, here’s a quick recap of what the annual business budgeting process looks like in simpler, “regular” times.

1. Work With the Best Data You Can Find

Use accurate, historical data to inform your budget—such as your business’s sales analytics, up-to-date books, and accurate financial statements.

2. Identify Key Business Drivers

Figure out which business drivers are having the biggest impact on your business’s performance. These can vary significantly by industry, but common examples include sales leads and quota attainments, internal efficiency, and supplier costs. Find yours by looking at your financial statements and asking: “What drives this line item?”

3. Assess the Financial Impact of Known Upcoming Changes

Are you planning to hire more employees, purchase new equipment, or lease a new physical location? Make sure your budget reflects the financial impact of any known upcoming changes you’ll be making in the next 12 months.

4. Pull It All Together

With all of the above information on hand, it’s time to pull your business budget together. Make sure it includes:

  • Revenue
  • Cost of Goods Sold (COGS)
  • Gross Profit
  • Operating Costs
  • Capital Expenses
  • Net Income

Want a detailed guide on creating a business budget and a downloadable budgeting and forecasting checklist? Check out our Annual Budgeting Guide for Startups.

Annual Business Budgeting During a Pandemic

The catch with creating a business budget in regular times is that it relies on typically predictable variables, many of which have been thrown into flux thanks to COVID-19.

Things like market stability, supplier availability, and even the ability to hire staff and work with customers at a physical location are all no longer guaranteed.

So, as you begin to create a pandemic-proof budget for your business, there’s a list of new considerations that you’ll need to keep in mind.

Expect Long-Term Uncertainty Around Market Conditions

Every industry has been impacted differently by the pandemic. Demand has skyrocketed for some and trickled for others.

While you may be able to forecast how market conditions will impact your business in the months to come, it’s important to accept long-term uncertainty and be prepared for things to change suddenly at any time.

Growth Plans May Need to be Postponed

Given how the pandemic could impact your business, it’s time to ask a tough question: are your pre-COVID growth plans still viable, do they need a slight tweak, or is it time to pivot and create a new growth strategy altogether?

The answer to this question will be different for every business. 

Some things to think about include:

  • Do your growth plans rely on in-person or face-to-face interactions? If so, will COVID-19 regulations (e.g. social distancing) get in the way?
  • What about hiring? Can you source employees?
  • Can you afford to bring on all of the new hires you need to accomplish your pre-COVID growth objectives?

It May Be Harder to Secure New Funding

Investors tend to be more cautious in a downturn. If your business relies on funding, make sure you’re clear on how easy or how difficult it will be to secure investment in the next 12 months.

Addressing Uncertainty in Your Budget

It’s never fun to imagine your business in crisis. But coming up with a plan to deal with financial challenges before they happen can help you course-correct and avoid disaster.

The following strategies can help you plan for future uncertainty in your budget.

Re-Examine Your Key Drivers

You know what drives business in regular times. And based on the last six months, you also have some rough historical data on how the pandemic and economic downturn has affected your industry.

To plan for future uncertainty, use what you know to assess how your key drivers may be impacted over the next 12 months.

Ask the following questions:

  • If COVID-19 regulations change overnight (e.g. lockdowns, social distancing, tighter restrictions on your industry), what impact will that have on any of your key drivers?
  • Will all (or any) of your physical locations (stores, offices) remain open?
  • Is it likely that all of the services/suppliers that support your key drivers will remain fully operational?

Plan for Multiple Scenarios

Based on what could happen to your business drivers, create several versions of your budget and put a plan in place to navigate the best and worst-case scenarios.

Use these questions to get started:

  • What will revenue look like if churn increases by 20%, 30%, 50%?
  • What if sales increase, hold steady, decrease slightly, decrease dramatically?
  • How will headcount and payroll change in relation to the items above?
  • Will utilities, lease, and other operational expenses change for better or for worse?

With a contingency plan on hand for each of these scenarios, you’ll be able to course-correct the second an unforeseen challenge arises.

Recalculate Your Burn Rate. Extend Your Runway.

For better or worse, all of these scenarios are going to impact your business’s financial runway

Make sure you’re clear on your runway needs in each scenario by asking some tough questions:

  • Will your burn rate increase or decrease in each scenario? 
  • When will your business run out of money in each scenario?
  • What does this mean for future fundraising plans? Do you need to find money fast, or can you delay the need for investment by reducing your burn rate?

If you find that your runway is shorter than expected, run the numbers and recalculate your cash burn rate

By extending your runway, you may be able to give your business more time to find its footing again before turning to investors or creditors for support.

Read More: (Re-) Calculating Your Cash Burn Rate in a Downturn

Revisit Your Growth Plans and Adjust Accordingly

Remember those growth plans you had before COVID-19 hit? It’s time to re-examine them and decide if they need to be adjusted, postponed, or shelved.

Use the following questions to assess your growth plans for each of your budgeting scenarios:

  • Based on your current cash reserves and revenue forecasts, what growth plans are you likely to accomplish in the next 12 months?
  • What growth targets do you need to hit to increase revenue by 20%, 30%, 50%?
  • What growth initiatives do you need to invest in to achieve those targets?
  • Do you need to reduce your operating expenses to stay on track and set these initiatives into motion?

It’s challenging to create a business budget in the face of so much uncertainty—but it’s also more important than ever. Adapting your business budget for uncertain times can keep your business on track as the economy recovers in the wake of COVID-19.

Remember: you’ll need to have accurate books and up-to-date financial statements to work through the strategies we outlined above. If you need some help with that, Pilot’s expert bookkeeping and CFO services can set up the foundation you need.

Pilot Team

Articles by Pilot's staff and contributors.

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