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  • Writer's pictureVjeko Skarica

How Zero-Based Budgeting Can Transform Your Company's Financial Management

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

Looking for a better way to manage your business budget? Zero-based budgeting (ZBB) can be a great choice. This guide covers what ZBB is, how it's different from traditional budgeting, and how it can help manage costs and resources better. With easy steps to get started, real-world examples, and helpful tips on using tools like Farseer, it's all about making budgeting simpler and more effective for your business.

1. What is Zero-Based Budgeting

Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) is a way of planning a budget where every cost has to be explained and approved from the start, every time a new budget is made. Unlike traditional budgeting, which often just adjusts last year's budget a little, ZBB begins at zero and looks at every cost to see if it's needed. Each part of a company has to build its budget from scratch, explaining why each expense is necessary, to make sure money is spent wisely and in line with the company's goals.

1.1. History of Zero-Based Budgeting

Zero-based budgeting (ZBB) began its journey in the corporate world in 1969, thanks to the ingenuity of Peter A. Pyhrr, a manager at Texas Instruments. The new budgeting approach, which required every expense to be justified from a zero base each budgeting cycle, quickly gained traction. When Jimmy Carter assumed the presidency in 1977, he was inspired to implement ZBB within the federal government to foster fiscal responsibility and efficiency. Although the complexities of government budgets presented challenges, the ZBB method had already planted its seeds in the realm of financial management.

Peter A. Pyhrr, the original author of Zero-Based Budgeting (Image Source: The Wall Street Journal)

In the 1980s, more companies used Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) to manage costs better, especially in tough economic times. But, it was seen as time-consuming and possibly hindering creativity. Still, many found its core principles useful for improving efficiency and managing resources. Recently, 3G Capital, known for cutting costs, brought ZBB back in the spotlight by using it in companies like Kraft Heinz to improve operations and attract investors. Although this stirred interest, financial issues at Kraft Heinz also showed potential downsides, especially for established or consumer-focused businesses, sparking mixed feelings about ZBB's effectiveness.

1.2. Comparison with traditional budgeting

Zero-based budgeting (ZBB) mainly aims at cost-cutting by reviewing all expenses to remove unnecessary costs, making resource use more efficient.

Traditional budgeting can miss past mistakes and inefficiencies, while ZBB, though needing more resources, helps in being cost-aware and optimizing resources.

The choice between these depends on a company's situation. ZBB is often picked for strict cost control and better operations, while traditional budgeting fits stable conditions and ZBB adapts well to changes.

1.3. The Benefits of Zero-Based Budgeting for Companies

Zero-based budgeting offers multiple benefits that contribute to an organization's financial and operational robustness:

  • Cost Consciousness: ZBB instills financial discipline, fostering cost awareness.

  • Efficient Resource Allocation: By identifying unnecessary expenses, it directs resources to valuable activities.

  • Management Engagement: It encourages managerial involvement, improving operational insight.

  • Transparency and Accountability: ZBB promotes spending visibility, cultivating departmental accountability.

  • Improved Financial Performance: Through cost management, it can boost financial health.

  • Adaptability: ZBB's agile budgeting adapts to business changes, maintaining relevance.

  • Strategic Alignment: It aligns the budgeting process with strategic goals, aiding focused financial planning.

2. How Zero-Based Budgeting Works

2.1. Identifying and Evaluating Costs

In Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB), the initial step involves a meticulous review of every expense. This process transcends mere cost analysis; it's about questioning each cost, understanding its necessity, and evaluating its impact on organizational goals. Unlike traditional budgeting, there's no carried-over budget; every expense must be justified as if it were new. For instance, if a company spends $10,000 annually on printing materials, under ZBB, instead of automatically allocating $10,000 again, the company would analyze this cost from the ground up. They might discover that transitioning to digital documents could halve the need for printing materials, saving $5,000. This scrutinizing process helps in identifying savings opportunities and ensuring that every expense aligns with the current organizational needs and priorities. This stage is fundamental to ZBB, laying a solid foundation for setting priorities and allocating resources in the subsequent stages of the budgeting process. Through this detailed evaluation, companies can align their spending with strategic objectives, ensuring every dollar spent is justified and contributes to the company's overall performance.

2.2. Setting Priorities and Allocating Resources

Here, the emphasis is on aligning the identified costs with the organizational goals. For instance, if a company aims to expand its online presence, priority might be given to expenses related to digital marketing, website enhancement, and online customer service.

With a clear set of priorities, resource allocation becomes a strategic exercise. Instead of distributing resources evenly across different departments, the company might allocate a larger portion of the budget to the digital marketing department. This way, funds are channeled towards areas that align with the strategic goal of online expansion.

The process is systematic and data-driven, ensuring that decisions are made based on objective assessments rather than historical spending patterns. Each allocation is scrutinized to ascertain its contribution towards achieving the company's objectives. For instance, a proposed budget for a social media advertising campaign would be evaluated based on its potential to drive traffic to the company's website and generate leads.

Through this rigorous approach, resources are utilized where they can offer the maximum value in achieving the company's goals. It's about making every dollar count.

2.3. Monitoring and Adjusting the Budget

Post-allocation, Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) emphasizes continuous monitoring and adjustments to ensure alignment with organizational goals amidst changing circumstances. For instance, if a marketing campaign is outperforming expectations, reallocating additional resources could amplify success. Conversely, underperforming projects might see a reallocation of funds. This dynamic nature of ZBB allows for a budget that evolves with real-time conditions, ensuring resources are optimally utilized. Continuous monitoring against set targets, coupled with the flexibility to adjust allocations, helps in maintaining a budget that's not only disciplined but also adaptable, steering the organization closer to its strategic objectives with every financial adjustment.

General phases of the zero-based budgeting process

3. Implementing Zero-Based Budgeting in Your Company

Now, we will delve into the step-by-step process of integrating ZBB within your organization, from garnering stakeholder support to educating employees on the new budgeting approach. By following a systematic implementation plan, you can align your company's financial practices with its strategic goals.

3.1. Getting Buy-In from Stakeholders

To successfully implement Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB), it is important to engage stakeholders and gain their support. One effective way to do this is by organizing interactive sessions where stakeholders can learn about the benefits of ZBB, ask questions, and provide feedback.

During these sessions, it is important to use real-world examples to illustrate how ZBB has helped other organizations cut costs and allocate resources more efficiently. By doing so, stakeholders can better understand the benefits of ZBB and will be more likely to support its implementation.

Additionally, it is important to address any concerns that stakeholders may have and provide clear plans for how ZBB will be implemented. This will help to build trust and support among stakeholders, laying the foundation for a successful implementation. By using a clear communication strategy, being transparent about objectives, and fostering an open dialogue with stakeholders, organizations can effectively implement ZBB and drive growth and success.

3.2. Defining Objectives and Scope

Setting clear goals is the first step in Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB). For example, a business may aim to cut costs by 10% with ZBB.

Next is deciding the scope of ZBB, meaning which parts of the business it will cover. For instance, a company might apply ZBB to its sales department to better manage travel expenses.

With set goals and scope, everyone knows what to aim for and where to focus. This clarity helps in executing ZBB effectively, ensuring the budget aligns with the company's goals.

Defining objectives and scope is the key part of ZBB

By being specific in your objectives and clear on the scope, the process of implementing ZBB will be structured and focused, contributing to a smoother transition.

3.3. Choose the Right KPIs to Track Budget Performance

Selecting universal Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) is a cornerstone for measuring the effectiveness of Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) across any company. Cost savings, budget variance, and Return on Investment (ROI) are three fundamental KPIs relevant to every organization. For instance, measuring cost savings involves comparing the current budget to the previous one to ascertain the percentage saved. Say, if a company reduced its marketing budget from $200,000 last year to $180,000 this year through ZBB, the cost savings would be 10%. In budget variance, the actual spending is compared to the budgeted amounts, helping to track any discrepancies. Suppose $50,000 was budgeted for a project, but the actual expenditure was $45,000, the favorable variance is $5,000. Lastly, ROI helps in understanding the return generated compared to the investment made, providing a clear picture of the financial gain. If a project costing $20,000 generates $30,000 in revenue, the ROI would be 50%. While these are universal KPIs, there are numerous other metrics companies might choose to track based on their specific needs and objectives.

Tracking and monitoring

3.4. Creating a Zero-Based Budgeting Team

Assembling a dedicated Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) team is crucial for smooth implementation. This team should include individuals well-versed in the organization’s finances, operations, and ZBB principles. Key roles could include a Project Leader, Financial Analysts, and Department Coordinators.

Begin by appointing a Project Leader with a strong financial background to guide the team. Financial Analysts are vital for analyzing costs and evaluating budget proposals. Department Coordinators ensure smooth communication between the ZBB team and various departments, promoting alignment and understanding across the organization.

For instance, a manufacturing firm aiming to implement ZBB might form a team with members from finance, and operations, and a coordinator from each department. This team is responsible for developing, communicating, and monitoring the ZBB process, ensuring alignment with organizational objectives, and fostering a collaborative approach to budgeting.

3.5 Training and Education for Employees

Implementing Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) requires a shift in how employees approach budgeting. It’s vital to provide training and education to ensure everyone understands the principles and practices of ZBB.

Begin with creating comprehensive training materials that explain the ZBB process, its benefits, and how it will be implemented in your company. Organize workshops where employees can learn and ask questions.

For instance, a healthcare company transitioning to ZBB could hold monthly training sessions to ensure all staff are on the same page regarding budgeting practices.

Continuous education is key. Establish a regular schedule for training updates to keep everyone informed as the ZBB process evolves within your organization. This not only helps in smooth implementation but also in cultivating a culture of cost awareness and financial responsibility across the organization.

4. Zero-Based Budgeting in companies: real-world examples.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of how Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) was implemented in three companies: Kraft Heinz, Unilever, and Diageo, along with the benefits they derived from this approach.

Some of the companies that leveraged Zero-based budgeting

Kraft Heinz

Kraft Heinz adopted ZBB under the influence of 3G Capital, which led to substantial cost savings and operational efficiencies. Here are the steps and results:


  • Created a culture of cost-consciousness through rigorous review processes.

  • Established clear cost targets and continually benchmarked performance against these targets.

  • Incorporated ZBB into their operating model which led to the identification and elimination of non-value-added costs.


  • Achieved savings of $1.7 billion by the end of 2016, which funded investments in brand building and innovation.

  • Improved the operating income margin from 23% in 2015 to 30% in 2016, a significant increment that showcased the power of ZBB in driving operational efficiency.


Unilever initiated ZBB to improve brand and marketing investment productivity across the entire company, aiming to save approximately €1 billion per year by 2018.


  • Incorporated ZBB as part of cost-reduction measures, particularly focusing on brand and marketing investments.

  • Reduced overheads and eliminated waste in areas where traditional media channels were over-saturated.


  • The initiative led to positive sales in emerging markets, paving the way for up to 10 years of growth.

  • Despite a slight dip in net profits, the company saw a 4.1% increase in full-year sales and was on track to drive efficiencies in marketing.


Diageo aimed to create a more disciplined culture around costs and resource allocation through ZBB.


  • Adopted ZBB to scrutinize marketing and overhead expenses, ensuring they were directed toward the most value-creating opportunities.

  • Engaged with stakeholders to explain the benefits and the process of ZBB, gaining their support for the new budgeting approach.


  • The initiative was expected to deliver £500 million of savings over three years, which would be reinvested to drive growth.

  • Created a more disciplined culture around costs, which contributed to improved business performance and shareholder value.

These examples illustrate how ZBB when implemented with a clear strategy and engaged stakeholders, can lead to significant cost savings and operational efficiencies. Through rigorous review and reallocation of resources, these companies were able to better align their expenditures with strategic priorities, ultimately contributing to improved financial performance and business growth.

5. Challenges and Limitations of Zero-Based Budgeting

Transitioning to Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) presents opportunities for organizations, but there are also challenges businesses should be vary of. Here, we will delve into the common hurdles and inherent limitations of ZBB.

5.1 Potential Resistance and Change Management Issues

Implementing Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) can be a significant shift from traditional budgeting practices, often met with resistance. The fear of change is a common reaction. For instance, a department accustomed to discretionary spending might dread the stringent cost control under ZBB. Alleviating such fears through educational sessions explaining the benefits of ZBB can pave the way for acceptance.

The perceived additional workload is another concern. Managers might worry about the time required to justify every expense from scratch. Demonstrating how Financial Planning and analysis (FP&A) tools can streamline the ZBB process may help alleviate concerns about additional workload.

Budget cuts are a real concern too. A marketing department might worry that ZBB could lead to cuts in their advertising budgets, impacting campaigns. Ensuring a clear understanding of the rationale behind budget allocations and creating channels for feedback and adjustments can help address these concerns.

Lastly, a communication gap can exacerbate resistance. Lack of clear communication about the ZBB process and its benefits can lead to misinformation. Establishing clear communication channels, regular updates, and interactive sessions can help bridge this gap, ensuring a smoother transition to ZBB.

5.2 Time and Effort Required for Implementation

The rigorous nature of ZBB can be time-consuming and may require a significant amount of effort from all involved departments.

This could mean numerous meetings, data collection, and analysis, which can be daunting and time-consuming.

However, the time and effort invested can lead to more precise budget allocations and potentially significant cost savings. Leveraging modern budgeting tools and software can significantly streamline the ZBB process. For instance, budgeting software that automates data collection and analysis can reduce the time spent on these tasks, making the ZBB process more manageable.

Through the right blend of technology, training, and dedicated resources, the challenges of time and effort inherent in ZBB can be effectively managed, paving the way for a smoother implementation and sustainable cost management.

6. Leveraging FP&A Tools for Zero-Based Budgeting

Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) tools are instrumental in alleviating many challenges associated with Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) discussed in the previous chapter. By automating and streamlining various aspects of the budgeting process, these tools not only enhance accuracy but also save time, making the transition to ZBB smoother for organizations.

Quicker and Easier Budgeting

Modern FP&A/budgeting software can automate data collection, analysis, and reporting, which are central to ZBB. For instance, software that automates the collection of expense data, categorizing, and analyzing it can significantly ease the ZBB process.

Real-Time Monitoring and Adjustments

FP&A tools can provide real-time data, enabling quicker decision-making and adjustments to the budget as necessary. This real-time insight is particularly crucial in dynamic business environments where timely budgetary adjustments can be a game-changer.

Scenario Analysis

These tools often have capabilities for scenario analysis, allowing organizations to model different budgetary scenarios and understand potential impacts before making decisions. This feature can be invaluable in foreseeing the financial implications of various budgeting decisions under ZBB.

Integration with Other Systems

FP&A tools can often be integrated with other organizational systems like ERP systems, ensuring a seamless flow of data. This integration is crucial for an effective ZBB process as it facilitates better coordination and consistency in data handling across different departments.

Analytical Tools

Analytical tools provide valuable insights into spending patterns and help identify areas for cost reduction. They also assist in setting and monitoring budgetary goals, offering a visual representation of spending across different departments to identify cost-trimming areas.

Collaboration Tools

Collaboration tools facilitate communication and coordination among various stakeholders involved in the budgeting process. For instance, a platform allowing for real-time updates and discussions on budget matters can foster better understanding and coordination.

Training and Support

Effective training on the use of these tools is crucial for success. Additionally, having a support structure in place to address any issues arising during the ZBB process can be beneficial. Regular training sessions and a helpdesk for addressing queries related to the budgeting software can ensure smooth operation.

Through the effective utilization of FP&A tools, organizations can significantly streamline the ZBB process, ensuring a smoother implementation and sustainable cost management.

7. Conclusion

This guide explored what Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) is, how it differs from traditional budgeting and its advantages for companies. It provided a step-by-step breakdown of adopting ZBB and highlighted how tools like Farseer can ease the process. Through real-world examples, the effectiveness of ZBB in better budget management for companies was demonstrated. Whether aiming to cut costs, manage resources, or enhance financial planning, ZBB and the right tools can make a significant impact.


If you think that your budgeting process is overgrowing spreadsheets, and you need a better financial modeling tool, Farseer might be for you:   
- Budgeting in Farseer is centralized, fast, and consistent. 
- You won’t need to worry about errors and mistakes.  
- Natural language formulas are intuitive, error-proof, and cannot be deleted by accident.  
- Sharing and exporting your work is granulated - you can share only parts of your model relevant to your user 
- Built-in hierarchy makes modeling transparent by default 
- Reorganize models by simply dragging and dropping entire spreadsheets to a specific location in the model.


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