What is budget variance, and how it can impact your SaaS spend
A budget variance is an unplanned change between the budgeted spend and actuals. Learn to protect your software budgets from variances with this quick guide.
Your team worked hard to create an accurate budget for the upcoming year. Considerable planning went into the financial model; Finance was confident in its assumptions.
Now it’s mid-year, and your actual figures are off. Potentially really off in some places.
What’s going on here?
Every company — small business and enterprise company alike — deals with budget variances and other FP&A challenges. In a swiftly changing economic and business environment, they’re somewhat inevitable. But you can control their occurrence and impact on the balance sheet.
Today we’ll look at budget variances: How they occur, what to do when you find one, and how to reduce their likelihood and impact on your business.
First, let's fully define what a budget variance is.
What is a budget variance?
A budget variance is a difference between the budgeted amount for a specific department or project versus the actual amount.
Budget variances are a common part of the financial life of most companies. That being said, frequent or extreme variations in the budget can be disruptive to cash flow. Variances may signal a mismatch between expectations and actual results on revenue or planned spending for products and services.
Budget variances can be either positive or negative:
Positive: A positive budget variance (also called a favorable budget variance) means that your company spent less than intended on a specific budget item. There can be several reasons for a positive variance. And while a variance may not be a cause for concern, it pays to research these when they occur. Run a variance report on the business budget to look for any overestimations or changes to liabilities.
A budget variance should always be investigated, even if that variance seems like a windfall.
Negative: Most finance professionals think of this when they hear the word variance. A negative variance (an unfavorable budget variance) refers to spending over the allotted budget. There are several reasons why budget variances occur. While not every variance can be avoided, monitoring can help reduce their occurrence and impact.
Where do you start with an annual software budget?
Check out our webinar: Jumpstart your SaaS budgeting
How a budget variance can happen with a SaaS contract
Software contracts are also subject to the effects of variance. With a standard subscription built on an annual or monthly basis, variances are less common. Variance in a fixed contract usually happens because a department needs to add more licenses or tools after establishing budgets. But other contract structures — usage-based or drawdowns — are likely causes of unplanned SaaS spend.
5 common causes of budget variance
Budget variances aren’t always a matter of errors (though sometimes this is true). Here are the five most common sources of budget variances affecting your budgeting accuracy:
Changing economics: Shifting economic conditions is one of the most common sources of changes to actuals versus budgets. Changes in commodities prices, labor costs, overhead expenditures, and services can create big expense variances between the estimated spending and the numbers at the end of the period.
Budgeting errors: Human error does play a factor in budgeting issues. This can be a matter of underestimating actual expenses or even a simple data entry issue on an Excel sheet or a line item. Variances of this type may be positive or negative, but if they occur repeatedly, it may be time to review your budgeting process and streamline where necessary.
Pricing changes: changes to the pricing of your services or fixed assets can create a variance in a budget. For instance, if insurance premiums at renewal are higher than anticipated for a fixed asset costs have risen as a matter of expansion, variances may be the outcome. It’s important to keep an eye on planned expenditures that diverge from the original budget and make adjustments where necessary.
Process streamlining: Improvements in your operational or financial processes may create a positive budget variance. Implementing streamlined spending approval processes, for example, may result in reduced tail spend that will positively impact the budget for that.
Risk and employee fraud: One unfortunate source of budget variance is risk-based costs such as disaster recovery, legal fees, and procurement fraud. These variances are hard to predict and either and harder to avoid. The best prevention for such budget shortfalls is increased due diligence and robust financial monitoring.
5 examples of budget variance in software
Software budgets are subject to variances just like any other cost. Here are some ways your SaaS buying budget may become out of sync with the actuals.:
Changes in how you use a piece of software may result in fluctuating actual costs associated with that tool. For instance, increasing service level tier mid-contract to better route team or project requirements will consume more of the budget than planned. Building flexible budgets with some play for software changes can help alleviate budgeting issues at the end of the period
Usage-based contracts such as those that charge her credit or her impression may result in higher than expected spending for those tools. When establishing a contract for a usage-based tool, discussing scenarios where usage changes is important. Sometimes, the supplier is willing to work with you for anticipated increases mid-contract. A good rule of thumb is that becoming a better customer should never be more expensive.
Draw-down contracts that rely on a pool of funds, service credits, or use may be subject to early renewal if usage exceeds the anticipated amount or allotment. As with overage fees, it’s important to establish the ground rules with your supplier before you sign the contract. Using more of a product should offer an advantage instead of a penalty.
Incorrect usage estimates
Both overage scenarios above are often associated with underestimating the need for a product at the point of negotiation and contract execution. Building better modeling for expected usage can help reduce the occurrence of this type of variance. Make this a point of negotiation when dealing with a new supplier for a usage-based or drawdown contract.
Sometimes growth requires spending. One source of budget variance is the need for more licenses or seats of a specific software tool throughout the contract. This happens when hiring cadences increase or new projects get underway. This is another point where a successfully negotiated supplier relationship can benefit when you realize your needs have changed.
How budget variances can impact your bottom line
Budget variance can be an insidious drain on revenue if left unchecked. Overages in your budget, especially those overages which cannot be tied to a product or project, must be mitigated wherever possible.
Budget issues that affect cash flow can affect your financial statements and creditworthiness as a downstream impact if ongoing problems are left unresolved.
What to do when you notice a budget variance
Research the variance cause: granular access to data is your best ally in tracking and resolving budget variances. When you discover an issue between your budget in your actuals, take the time to dig into the numbers and establish that the variance has occurred (that it’s not the result of a data entry error or oversight) and the root cause, if any.
Plan a course of action: Once you establish that a budget variance has occurred, you need to decide how you will handle the variance going forward. There are a few possible scenarios for handling discrepancies between your budget and your actuals.
- Increase or decrease the budget to align with new information.
- Divert from other budget lines to satisfy a shortfall.
- Find ways to boost actual revenue to align it with expectations.
If you find these adjustments are becoming frequent, it pays to investigate and improve budgeting or estimating criteria.
4 ways to avoid unforeseen variances in your budget
Regular review and maintenance of your budget are the best ways to avoid changes in your actuals outside budget parameters. A streamlined process and help from technology can also improve budget outcomes.
Perform budget variance analysis
Regular cost performance and budgeting review are essential to reducing or eliminating variances. Some research is a routine part of your financial cadence. For example, large variances may show up during the month and closing activities for flux analysis.
As an added precaution, quarterly budget reviews are a tried and true way of heading off variances in your budget before they can become a more significant issue. Touch base with your department heads to understand changes to the spending plan before they occur and make necessary adjustments as a proactive measure.
Perform scenario analysis
For instances where you’re budgeting parameters may change, consider running scenario analysis and creating contingencies for possible outcomes. By building a budget that can absorb a variety of outcomes, you establish more confidence in the budgeting process and smooth the path for later analysis.
Consider rolling budgets
If your industry or business is subject to variable costs, seasonality issues, or other changes, consider moving away from a static budget. Rolling budgets, which are adjusted monthly or quarterly, may give your financial reporting the flexibility it needs for more accurate, agile financial planning.
Tracking software usage, especially in usage-based or drawdown SaaS pricing models, can help you avoid overages in your software spending before they get out of hand. Create regular calendar events to check usage numbers or set up notifications within your platform that can alert you to changes between planned and actual usage. The small step will translate to big savings and cost avoidance if your project plans or scope of work changes.
How Vendr can manage your SaaS spend and put fears of budget variance to rest
Tracking your spending on SaaS tools is the best way to avoid discrepancies in your budget vs. actual costs. Spend management software centralizes your data, creates metrics for evaluating spending, and allows you to keep track of usage-based contracts before they can spiral out of control. By getting a better grasp on the day-to-day life of your tech stack, you can avoid surprises at the end of the quarter or year.
Get an inside look into the platform where you can discover and buy new tools, see how much you're saving on software, and stay up to date on your IT stack with our free guide to the Vendr SaaS buying platform.