The Purposes, Advantages and Disadvantages of a Line Item Budget

by Marilyn Lindblad - Updated September 26, 2017

Establishing a budget helps an organization allocate its resources for the coming fiscal period. As the organization disburses funds, it traces its disbursements to the amounts it budgeted and adjusts the budget to meet unexpected expenses. Involving managers in the budgeting process helps managers understand the financial operations of the business and makes them accountable for their department's expenditures. A line item budget is just one approach to making a budget.

Purpose

The line item budget serves several purposes. First, it helps a business understand whether its income is sufficient to cover its expenses. Second, a line item budget makes it easy to verify when a single item exceeds the budget or comes in under budget. Finally, a line item budget helps finance managers obtain information about which detailed expenses roll up into each of the major functions of a business.

Advantages

A line item budget is easy to prepare and monitor. Each organizational unit itemizes its expenses and allocates a precise amount for each expense. Managers use the budget from the last fiscal period to create the budget for the next fiscal period and adjust expenses to account for cyclical differences, seasonal differences and inflation. Over time, the use of line item budgets creates valuable statistical information that demonstrates trends and opportunities to save money.

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Disadvantages

The disadvantages of the line item budget demonstrate that it is not necessarily the best budgetary model. For example, this type of budget does not demonstrate the return on investment. A line item expense that grows over time may seem excessive and invite scrutiny when, in fact, a manager can justify the increase for the item by pointing to increased revenue or increased performance. Adjusting individual items in the budget can also encourage inefficient micro-management. Tying the budget to performance and revenue information can mitigate these shortcomings.

Alternatives

An organization may decide to consider alternatives to line item budgeting. Performance budgeting, for instance, is a useful model for routine processes that are easy to measure, such as paying invoices. Zero-based budgeting is another alternative. This approach starts from scratch in each fiscal period. Rather than automatically carrying a budget item forward, management must provide justification for each item before adding it to the budget, even if the prior budget included the item. Zero-based budgeting is useful to identify and eliminate obsolete expenses.

About the Author

Marilyn Lindblad practices law on the west coast of the United States. She has been a freelance writer since 2007. Her work has appeared on various websites. Lindblad received her Juris Doctor from Lewis and Clark Law School.

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