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Zero-Based Budgeting: The Pros and Cons You Need to Know in 2024

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  • Post last modified:June 4, 2024

When it comes to budgeting methods, zero-based budgeting (ZBB) takes a unique approach compared to traditional incremental budgeting. With ZBB, rather than basing a new budget on the previous period’s numbers, every single expense must be rejustified from scratch each cycle. 

This zero-based budget plan scrutinizes costs to pinpoint bloat and align spending with current goals. While it’s a more rigorous zero-based financial planning process, it also promises benefits like lower costs and smarter resource allocation. However, ZBB has its drawbacks too. In this guide, we’ll explore the key advantages and disadvantages of zero-based budgeting to help you decide if this approach is right for you.

Skale Money Key Takeaways

  • Zero-based budgeting (ZBB) requires building a budget from scratch each period, and evaluating every expense based on current goals and needs.
  • Advantages include increased cost awareness, better spending prioritization, identification of inefficiencies, reallocation of funds, and encouragement of innovative cost-cutting ideas.
  • Implementing ZBB involves communicating objectives, compiling detailed expense data, evaluating costs against goals, allocating budgets from zero, and reviewing and adjusting as needed.
  • Disadvantages include its time-consuming nature, risk of underfunding essential operations, difficulty in quantifying benefits, lack of historical data for baseline, and potential disruption and lack of buy-in.
  • ZBB can be effective for cost-cutting periods, startups, or organizations facing strategic shifts, but it requires careful consideration of its challenges and resource needs.

What is Zero-Based Budgeting?

Zero-based budgeting forces managers to build their zero-based budget plan from zero each period, rather than using last year’s numbers as a starting point. Every line item must be reevaluated and justified based on current needs, costs, and objectives.

Unlike traditional budgeting methods where managers simply increase or decrease their prior budget, with ZBB, nothing is automatically approved or carried over. The goal is to reset priorities, shed bloated spending, and maximize efficiency.

Zero-based budgeting vs traditional budgeting represents a key philosophical difference in approach:

  • Traditional budgeting uses an incremental approach building on past figures. Zero-based budgeting starts from a “zero base” each period
  • While ZBB requires more work upfront, it promises to deliver a lean, need-based budget rather than one propped up on legacy expenditures.

Advantages of Zero-Based Budgeting

The core advantage of ZBB is that it forces an organization to scrutinize all costs and realign budgets with evolving priorities. Some key benefits include:

  • Increased cost awareness and control
  • Better prioritization of spending
  • Identification of inefficient operations
  • Reallocation of funds to highest-value activities
  • Encouragement of innovative cost-cutting ideas

By taking a hard look at every expense through a zero-base lens, ZBB techniques can uncover opportunities to eliminate waste and non-essential costs. It’s an effective method for keeping budgets lean while focusing resources on core objectives.

How to Implement Zero-Based Budgeting (A Step-by-Step Guide)

While the concept is simple, it does require substantial planning and buy-in to execute properly. Here’s a general overview of how to create a zero-based budget:

  • Communicate the ZBB process and objectives to stakeholders
  • Compile budget packages with detailed expense data
  • Evaluate each cost against current goals, needs, and alternatives
  • Rank expenses by priority level for funding
  • Allocate budgets accordingly, starting from zero
  • Review, negotiate, and finalize the zero-based budget
  • Track actuals against the ZBB plan and make adjustments as needed

For individuals or small businesses, this process can be relatively straightforward. For larger enterprises, it’s more complex and labor-intensive but also promises bigger savings potential.

Disadvantages of Zero-Based Budgeting

While appealing in theory, implementing a zero-based accounting approach comes with significant disadvantages too. Some of the biggest cons include:

  • Extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive
  • Risk of underfunding truly essential operations
  • Difficulty quantifying benefits and long-term impacts
  • Lack of historical data as a budgeting baseline
  • Potential disruption and lack of buy-in from employees

Due to the tedious evaluation required for every line item, ZBB represents a huge administrative burden, especially for large organizations with many cost centers. This can lead to burnout and suboptimal decision-making in some cases.

At the end of the day, whether ZBB’s advantages outweigh its disadvantages comes down to an organization’s goals, resources, and budgeting needs. But it’s wise to consider the very real challenges of successfully implementing and sustaining a zero-based approach long-term.


When is zero-based budgeting most appropriate?

ZBB is often a good fit for cost-cutting periods, startups, or organizations facing major strategic shifts where priorities need realignment. It helps shed unnecessary overhead.

How often should a zero-based budget be developed?

Most experts recommend updating zero-based budgets annually, though some businesses may do it quarterly or monthly for even greater scrutiny.

What are the ideal characteristics of a ZBB process owner?

An effective ZBB leader should be analytical yet pragmatic and have strong communication skills to drive buy-in across the organization.

Can zero-based budgeting be used for personal/household budgeting?

Yes, the ZBB methodology of reevaluating needs from scratch can absolutely be applied to personal and family budgeting as well.

What are some alternatives to zero-based budgeting?

Other budgeting methods include traditional incremental budgeting, value proposition budgeting, activity-based budgeting, and priority-based budgeting.