It is the first month of the calendar year and for many, the start of the fiscal year as well. The first month for you to start measuring the results you assuredly planned and documented in a budget for the year.
Each of you has a different relationship with your budget. Each of the components of this relationship can lead to great results or negative ones, depending on how you react to them. Your reactions can impact your personal career as well as the health of the company you own or work for.
Read more about some of the pitfalls of budgeting and how to enhance your relationship with the budget to achieve the great results for which you planned.
CEOs, Presidents and Executive Directors
If you created the budget while sitting with your accountant, made sure you were comfortable with the revenues and expenses, but have not communicated it to the managers and leaders of the organization, you have just cheated on your budget. My counsel is to get the budget in a presentable format to communicate to those who have a chance to manage day-to-day to help you achieve the results forecasted in the budget.
The message to your managers should include your overall strategy, backed by practical, measurable goals. Your leaders need to believe in your strategy because if they do, your job of leading the organization to positive results will be so much easier.
I repeatedly hear, in large and small organizations, from managers, supervisors and those on the front line, that they have no idea what the monthly budget is for repairs to equipment, printing costs, etc. They are spending money based on one decision at a time without the benefit of the overall strategy. Without involving your managers in the process, you are not benefitting from their knowledge and experience.
Nonprofit Executives and Finance Committee Members
Can you answer these questions? If not, your budget package needs work.
- How much does it cost the organization to run each program? Of that total cost, how much is covered by actual funding commitments and how much has to be raised to maintain the program(s)?
- How much of your administrative cost – Finance, Accounting, Development, etc., is funded by direct reimbursement and/or the de minimis administration expense reimbursement in grant budgets? How much money has to be raised to cover these costs?
- Does the budget package have one column for the Net Change in Assets/Income Statement and no backup schedules to show the Revenues and Expenses by program and grant? If your answer is yes, the budget package is one-dimensional. In other words, it does not provide the fundraisers and the Board the needed information to interact with potential donors and speak intelligently about the real needs that are met through fundraising. Many nonprofits go under when they issue one dimensional budgets to Finance Committees year after year. There is no clear understanding of the true funding requirements. Your fiduciary responsibility should lead you to ask for more transparency regarding where the needed funds for programming and administration costs will come from.
Finance and Accounting Professionals
Did you manage the budget process so that the budget is constructed the same way the detail accounting entries are made month-to-month? Most non-finance professionals hate to deal with anything that has “Budget to Actual Variance” in the description; add to it that you are explaining that the variances are because the budget has one type of accounting and the actual has another, and you are sure to cause irritation that is just not necessary. It is like a spouse putting the toilet paper on the roll backward – it is irritating and just not necessary. It is your job to keep the conversations and analyses about real differences and tie those differences to a real discussion that empowers the team to react and strategically move the direction as planned or make a decision to pivot. Here are some pitfalls to avoid:
Differences Between Finance and Payroll Practices
Large and small organizations find themselves with the ineffective comparison of budget-to-actual salaries, caused by Finance dividing the total annual salary by twelve for the monthly budget. Payroll records the true payroll expense. Month-to-month variances result, as Finance budgeted for a full twenty-eight to thirty-one days and Payroll budgeted for twenty-eight or forty-two days depending on whether it’s a two or three pay period month.
Insurance is typically paid in advance for the quarter or year. If it is material, it should be set up in a Prepaid Account. If insurance bills are expensed as paid, the month variance could be a result of those payments and not an actual expense overage.
Annual payments for subscriptions
These payments should be reviewed to determine materiality; determine if they should be set up in a prepaid account when paid, or if they are immaterial and should be expensed. When you mirror the actual accounting and the anticipated expense pattern in the budget you can avoid unnecessary variances and questions.
A company that is anticipating a large increase in revenue should determine how the increased sales and related cost of goods should be spread throughout the year in the budget. Consider the current pipeline and sales cycle when budgeting sales revenue. If your sales cycle is 120 days and there is $1 million in your pipeline at the end of the year, you will not realize $3 million in sales in the first quarter. A fast-growing entity could possibly reach $12 million in sales for the full year, but it should not be spread evenly to each month. Patterns such as this will frustrate executives and sales staff and make them feel like failures. This would be the equivalent of us expecting our spouse to be Jeff Bezos and to increase our family’s net worth at the same rate.
Make sure you are empowered with the right information to effectively run your department. Do your best to work with accounting to submit invoices and information within their deadlines so they can process the data into information that you can review and use to communicate effectively with the leaders of the organization.
Try to manage potential budget cuts made throughout the year so the troops can stay focused on driving the overall strategy of the business.
Think of it like this great example in the Netflix series House of Cards (spoiler alert if you have not begun your binge watching of the series – sorry).
In this episode, Frank becomes President and wants to take funds from FEMA to fund a jobs program to put people to work. The head of FEMA does not resign and tells his colleague he is not going to resign, as he is the only one who can manage the reduced funds and help those in need if a hurricane does hit after Frank took all the budget money. While the drama is critical for a successful Netflix series, you don’t want a similar drama playing out in your company!
Good luck with your relationship with the budget. Use my advice to help manage your fiduciary responsibility to the organization, as well as your duty to manage your career. Avoid the many aspects of “marital irritation” I have discussed by correctly managing Budget-to-Actual variances.
If you would like to discuss your relationship with your budget directly with me, please sign up for a complimentary 30-minute session through the contact link here.
Heading Off Unintended Consequences
In recent emails, I’ve updated you on regulations going into effect this year as well as consequences we realize from previous legislation (namely, SOX). The legislation was enacted because of the erosion of accountability in this country. How do you hold your company accountable while also raising the bar for maturity of processes? Here are my recommendations, based on my experiences in private equity firms, for-profits and nonprofit organizations. It means going back to the basics that technology may have allowed inexperienced staff to circumvent.
Assess Your Procedures for Payments and Bank Reconciliations
Paper checks – Get rid of them; but if you must have them, make sure to use Positive Pay through the bank. Positive Pay uses information from a file that you provide to the bank each time you process checks. As checks are cashed or deposited, your bank compares the checks they receive against the checks you wrote to ensure they match and are not duplicated.
ePayments. If you can eliminate paper checks, consider using an ePayment service. Such services provide a comprehensive payment process with built-in controls. The due diligence process to determine which service will work for you can be overwhelming, but you can request a free ePayment vendor selection checklist I put together with the information you will need about your company and the questions to ask potential vendors during the evaluation phase.
I applaud companies who had the foresight to move to the ePayment process. Make certain the IT department has proper documentation on how the process works. With low unemployment and the resulting turnover, you do not want to find yourself with no one who knows how to push the buttons and fix this if something goes wrong with the process.
The checkbook is a thing of the past, and many young accounting professionals would not know what one looks like. I have asked many accountants, as they are processing a stack of checks, how do you know you have enough money in the bank account to cover those checks? Most of the time they put a very proud smile on their face and report, “I checked the online bank account balance this morning and there is plenty of money to cover the checks.”
After I hear this, I work to control my facial expression. I should become a poker player so I can practice the poker face I need when I hear this response.
So, I ask, “What about the outstanding checks that have not cleared the bank account? What about the auto draw of ongoing expenses like rent and other items? How do you account for that? Do you maintain a checkbook?”
The responses or reactions run the gamut from blank stares, to statements such as, “I keep a running total in my head,” “The checks we issue get cashed quickly.” These answers only serve to challenge my poker face so that I can keep good customer relations. Rarely does the person I am asking show me the checkbook kept in the general ledger system and a proper cash reconciliation they prepared for the previous month. I find this lack of process in organizations of all sizes.
Bank reconciliations. In general, if the organization has escaped the Sarbanes Oxley controls, which, as I stated before, more and more are doing to escape the enormous and overreaching regulation, there is no timely bank reconciliation.
Make sure that, at a minimum, these controls are in place:
- Blank checks are locked in a secure place and only check processors and checks signers have access to them.
- Ensure there is a review of the bank reconciliation and the bank statement two times a year by a C-Level executive, Finance Committee or Board member or investor. Request a free step-by-step bank reconciliation checklist on how to do this here.
This is a true story. I received a check for payment from a large, publicly-traded company. I was shocked when I received the same check number for the same amount twice in the mail. I called the insurance company to report it, but they never called me back. I received a letter about the duplicate check weeks after I had received the second check and made the phone call. The letter I received was very factual and did not offer an apology or do anything to try to mitigate the branding impact. This was a shocking revelation to me that the lack of controls over payments was everywhere.
Get Corporate Credit Card Usage Under Control
Credit Cards – If the US government ever creates a Corporate Credit Card office, I am going to run for the position and work myself out of a job. Corporate credit cards are a nightmare to manage in all companies, from small to large.
Large, publicly traded companies hide behind the fact that they are audited to ignore credit card controls. Yes, you are audited, but the corporate credit card balance is small and immaterial, which means it does not meet the audit criteria for detail testing. Remember, the outside auditors are focused on what the SEC is going to ask them about – the corporate credit card is not on the list. Many small, fraudulent credit card transactions can add up and instill a culture of weak financial responsibility in an organization.
In small organizations, the office manager, bookkeeper, (remember the one who figured out how to print a check out of QuickBooks?), or even the receptionist has a company credit card. This usually happens when a C-level person realizes they may have to pick up the toilet paper at Sam’s Club with their credit card and they do not want to. It’s OK to delegate that responsibility as long as controls are in place to prevent fraud and misuse.
In my work with all sizes of organizations, I have found that often they do not have a credit card policy. Get a policy, even if it is short and sweet, and have each employee sign it who is holding a company card. Email me for a free credit card policy template to get you started.
Fraud on corporate credit cards is running rampant. Often the employee is incurring small, unauthorized charges that add up to a significant number. The Accountant, Purchasing Manager or whoever oversees the corporate credit card may be faced with ethical dilemmas every day when executives in higher positions are the guilty parties. Such situations make it difficult to manage and monitor effectively without a signed policy as backup.
Small organizations and nonprofits tend to have no automation of the credit card process, relying instead on cardholders to provide receipts for accounting purposes. When cardholders are late in providing the receipts, accountants set up a holding account in the General Ledger, (which is often QuickBooks), where they charge the payment of the credit card to avoid paying late. With no accountability for the balance sheet reconciliation, the account just grows. If the accountant responsible for collecting the receipts takes their job seriously, they will walk around the building asking for the receipts and, as an added bonus, hit the goal of 10,000 steps on their Fitbit – the search for the receipts will take care of that!
Tighten up controls on the use of corporate credit cards with these process improvements:
- If you work for a public company and have authority over credit cards, set up a process where the Audit Committee of the Board has someone designated to review a monthly or quarterly report of corporate credit card usage. Internal Audit should be reviewing executive expense reports and corporate credit card statements annually. I suggest they pick randomly from the group for about 10% coverage each year and always review the CEO and CFO.
- Nonprofit Board – make sure there is a policy that each cardholder signs. Review how the process works and suggest implementing automation of credit card receipts. Expensify, or a similar technology tool, can serve that purpose.
- Private company – Set up automation of collecting credit card receipts and a review process like the one described for nonprofits.
Readers of this email who work for well-organized companies with mature practices in place may be thinking, “Surely there are not companies operating without these fundamental business practices in place.” My response is that if that was the case, I would not be writing on this topic or asked repeatedly to present these concepts to audiences!
You can easily implement the actions from this post. I’ve made the tools available for you for free.
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· Free ePayment vendor selection checklist
· Free step-by-step bank reconciliation checklist
· Free credit card policy template
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If one of your 2019 goals is to build up your company infrastructure with financial process improvements, Barker Associates can help. Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org
Find the other related articles here:
Unintended Consequences of Regulation,
ASC 606 Revenue Recognition