What is Zero-Based Budgeting?

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Contributor, Benzinga
October 13, 2023

Zero-based budgeting (ZBB) is a financial planning approach that requires every expense to be justified in each new budgeting period. Unlike traditional budgeting, where past expenditures set the baseline for future budgets, ZBB starts from a "zero base." You allocate funds only to the activities and needs that are justified for the upcoming period. This method can lead to more efficient use of resources, as it forces you to scrutinize every cost.

How Does Zero-Based Budgeting Work?

In ZBB), every line item starts from scratch at the beginning of each budgeting cycle. You don't carry over any budget allocation from the previous period; instead, every expense must be justified and approved anew. This is a meticulous process, requiring you to evaluate the necessity and ROI of each cost, whether it's an operational expense, a departmental budget, or an investment in new technology.

The core idea behind ZBB is optimization. It pushes you to reevaluate ongoing commitments and to question whether the money could be better spent elsewhere. This is particularly useful for companies or individuals looking to cut costs or reallocate resources more effectively.

But keep in mind, ZBB can be time-consuming. The detailed analysis of every cost component demands significant time and effort from you or your financial team. It's not just about cutting costs; it's about making smarter, more efficient use of your financial resources. 

The Step-by-Step Process of Implementing Zero-Based Budgeting

If you're considering implementing zero-based budgeting (ZBB), get ready for a detailed, albeit rewarding, financial exercise. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the process effectively.

Step 1: Identify Budget Categories

Begin by identifying all the different categories where you incur expenses. This could be as broad as "Marketing" and "Operations," or as specific as "Office Supplies" and "Utilities."

Step 2: Analyze and Justify

For each category, assess the costs associated with it. Justify why each expense is necessary and how it contributes to your overall objectives. The goal here is not merely to trim costs, but to understand the value generated by each dollar spent.

Step 3: Rank by Importance

Once you've justified your expenses, rank them in order of importance. This will give you a clearer picture of where your money should go when resources are limited.

Step 4: Set the Budget

Based on your ranking and justifications, allocate funds to each category. Remember, every dollar needs a reason to be there. Any cost that doesn't make the cut should be eliminated or reduced.

Step 5: Monitor and Adjust

Implementing ZBB isn't a "set it and forget it" exercise. Throughout the budgeting period, track your actual expenditures against your zero-based budget. Make adjustments as necessary, always requiring justification for any change.

Step 6: Review and Update

At the end of the budget period, review the outcomes. Did you achieve the efficiency or cost savings you aimed for? Use this data to inform your next ZBB cycle.

By following these steps, you'll not only gain a deeper understanding of where your money is going but also ensure that it's being used in the most effective way possible.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Zero-Based Budgeting

As you consider adopting ZBB, understanding its advantages and disadvantages is crucial for making an informed decision.


  • Cost efficiency: ZBB forces you to scrutinize every expense, leading to the elimination of unnecessary or redundant costs. This can result in significant savings over time.
  • Resource allocation: By justifying each expense, you gain a clearer picture of what's truly essential. This helps in reallocating resources to areas that offer the best ROI, ensuring that your money is well-spent.
  • Strategic alignment: ZBB makes you revisit your organizational or personal goals during each budgeting cycle. This keeps you aligned with your overarching objectives, making it easier to pivot when needed.
  • Financial awareness: The thorough process of ZBB boosts financial literacy and awareness. You become more cognizant of how money flows in and out, which can be empowering in making financial decisions.


  • Time-consuming: ZBB is not a quick process. The level of detail required can be time-intensive, which may not be feasible for all organizations or individuals.
  • Complexity: For larger organizations, the number of items requiring justification can be overwhelming, potentially leading to decision fatigue or oversights.
  • Employee morale: In a corporate setting, ZBB can sometimes be perceived as micromanagement, affecting employee morale if not handled delicately.
  • Short-term focus: The need to justify every expense each period may deter long-term investments, as their immediate benefits might not be easily quantifiable.

Comparing these pros and cons will help you determine if ZBB is the right fit for your financial planning needs.

Is Zero-Based Budgeting a Good Idea?

Zero based budgeting can be a good idea in certain situations. It involves starting the budgeting process from scratch each year, rather than basing it on previous budgets. This approach can help organizations identify and eliminate unnecessary expenses, as every expense must be justified from the ground up. It encourages a thorough review of all costs and can lead to more efficient resource allocation. 

However, zero based budgeting can also be time-consuming and resource-intensive, requiring significant effort and analysis. It may not be suitable for all organizations, especially those with stable and predictable expenses. 

Frequently Asked Questions


How does ZBB differ from traditional budgeting? 


In traditional budgeting, last year’s budget is the starting point for the new budget. ZBB starts from scratch, requiring justification for each line item, making it more time-consuming but often more accurate.



What are the benefits of using ZBB?


ZBB can lead to cost savings, as it forces you to evaluate the necessity of each expense. It also aligns spending with organizational goals, ensuring that resources are allocated efficiently.



Who typically uses ZBB?


While ZBB started in corporate finance, it’s also used by non-profits and governmental organizations. Some individuals use it for personal finance, although its detailed nature may be too cumbersome for some.