Understanding actual budget and variance

Everyone knows that having a business budget is essential, but how can you accurately measure performance to know you're on track?

Business owners contribute significant time and money to building their businesses. The initial contribution is necessary to start a business, but sound financial planning is key to sustaining growth. There needs to be more than just looking at your financial statements at the end of the fiscal year. You should check your budget and its variances to ensure you're on track.

When you understand the actual vs. budget variances, it's easier to know where to allocate resources, and it can also help identify potential problems before they become too costly.

What is an actual budget?

We all understand the planned budget: This is the static budget you make to forecast expected earnings with spending. Having a plan is good, but what if you want to look at your current position?

This is where the actual budget comes in.

The actual budget is the current snapshot of your earnings and spending in time.

It is the calculation of the current expenditure and revenues of a business. It includes the sum of all income, expenses, and other financial activities within a given period, usually done on a weekly or monthly basis, depending on the needs of the business.

How does it fit into the broader financial picture?

The actual budget is a crucial component of your business's financial picture. It gives an accurate snapshot during a period in time so you can act accordingly. You can reference the actual data for two distinct purposes.

To set targets

Understanding budget variances can help set financial forecasts or long-term and short-term goals, such as increasing profits or reducing expenses. Looking at an actual and variance report can help you make more informed decisions, ultimately positively affecting your balance sheet.

To spot potential problems.

If your actual budget is overshooting the static budget, consider adjustments. Identifying potential problems before they become too costly can also be especially useful. For example, spotting a cash flow reduction in projected income can help you plan accordingly.

Factors that can impact an actual budget

The actual budget will rarely be the same as the static budget, which can be due to various factors. These factors are divided into three main categories: errors, external conditions, and business performance.


Errors happen during the process of gathering or managing information. These usually occur due to mistaken calculations, assumptions, or using incorrect data for analysis. You can implement automated software to bypass human error to reduce these issues.

External conditions

This includes anything that is outside the control of the internal business processes. Economic conditions, recession, and natural disasters can cause variance. Although it isn't something you can directly control, you can plan for disasters and include contingencies to deal with them.

Business performance

If there isn't an external condition or data error influencing variance, then you can conclude that the change in the actual budget was due to business performance. Using this information, you can look deeper into what may be working or what improvements you should make. You may also include things like business competitors in this category.

What is the difference between budgeted costs and actual costs?

While the actual budget is the true cost, the planned budget is the business's forecast for a certain period. It usually consists of fixed and variable expenses and estimates future spending, income, and profits.

It's worthwhile then to compare the budget vs. the actual analysis to understand how your business is performing. This process of comparison is referred to as the budget variance analysis. The actual results of budget to essential variance analysis can be used to make appropriate adjustments or change business activities.

Budget variance analysis

For practical budget variance analysis, you can look at the trends, which typically go positively or negatively. When performing a budget vs. actual variance analysis, these can also be categorized as favorable or unfavorable.

Positive variance

Positive/ favorable variance refers to any favorable variances when comparing the budget vs. actual report. These can include a rise in cash flow for a period or a decrease in expenses such as labor expenses due to labor variance. They don't necessarily correlate with a specific direction but represent favorable budget variance.

Negative variance

As you can assume, negative variance is the opposite. Any trend that is unfavorable to the business is considered an unfavorable variance. When comparing the budget vs. actuals, you might see a material variance, an unexpected increase in material expenses, or even a drop in actual revenue.

Categories of variances

There are a few categories of budget variances, the most common including expense, revenue, and profit. While there can be many categories, these three are the primary factors that impact the overall financial performance of a business.

Expense variances

This is the variance between what you planned to spend vs. the actual numbers. To get the expense variance calculations, you look to compare your budget vs. actual expenses. Some of the most common actual costs variances include:

  • Production costs
  • Labor costs
  • Manufacturing costs
  • Material costs
  • Overhead costs

You should check for differences and decide if changes need to be made. This can mean removing any non-operating actual expenses or variable overhead variances from your business processes.

Revenue variances

Revenue variance is when you compare what you expect to make with your actual income. It is found by comparing your revenue projections with the revenue earned during that period. It is particularly useful if you want to examine sales team performance and aim for higher income.

Profit variance

The profit variance is calculated by looking at cash flow minus expenses in your budget vs. actual reports. This is so you can get an accurate idea of profits which additional expenses can alter. It is vital to measure this accurately, as overheads and other costs can create inaccurate results.

How do you calculate the budgets vs. actual?

To calculate budgets and actuals, you need to take a few steps. These include collecting financial data, setting up your budget, forecasting, and creating reports. All this information can easily be gathered using automated accounting software tools or an excel spreadsheet.

Collecting data

You should first collect all the necessary information, including costs, revenue, expenses, profits, and any other relevant data or financial statements that could influence your budget. Make sure that your sources are accurate so you avoid errors.

Setting up your budget

After collecting all the data and financial statements, you can set up your budget by estimating costs and revenues to understand expected performance for the fiscal year. Set realistic goals and work off good data to avoid inaccurate expectations.


You can forecast future business performance changes, which could influence your budget. This is based on past trends and helps identify potential risks or opportunities so you can anticipate future budget variances. Consider manufacturing costs that can change based on demand or modify budgets to include additional financing.

Creating financial reports

Finally, financial reporting is essential to analyze the performance of your budget. Generating the actual and budgeted reports can help you compare the two to understand where there may be any variations.

Managing budgets and variances

Managing budgets and variances is a vital part of running a successful business. It's essential to keep track of both budgeted and actual numbers for any variances so you can make informed decisions about allocating resources for maximum return on investment.

Additionally, analyzing trends can help you spot unexpected large variances and modify budgets before they become too costly. By proactively managing your budgets and variances, you can help ensure that your business runs as efficiently and profitably as possible.

Following these steps will ensure you're profitable in any business climate.

Tips to maximize profits and avoid costly mistakes

You can use several strategies to maximize profits and avoid costly mistakes when it comes to budgeting.

Set realistic budgets

Make sure your budget is reasonable and achievable. This will help you avoid overspending and ensure that you are allocating resources efficiently. For example, lowering budgets for unnecessary expenses and increasing the budget for your sales team.

Track actuals vs. budgeted amounts

Keep track of financial transactions to see how much you spend relative to your budgeted amounts. Regularly checking your actual variances can help you identify potential problems early and make necessary budget adjustments.

Analyze trends

Look for any patterns or trends in your budgeting that could indicate potential issues. This can help you avoid costly mistakes by allowing you to address any problems early on. You can also use accounting software to generate trend reports and perform further financial analysis.

Be proactive

Make sure you regularly check your figures to ensure everything is running smoothly. Setting key performance indicators to manage performance is another good way to be proactive. This can help you anticipate potential problems before they become too costly so you can adjust your budget accordingly.


Both large and small business owners can expect better results by including regular monitoring of actual budgets in their financial plans. Regularly tracking budgets versus actual performance, analyzing trends over time, and being proactive can help you maximize profits.

With the right strategy, you can ensure that you run an efficient and profitable business.

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