How to use purchase approvals for budget management

Are the departments staying within the allocated budgets? 

Do you always know whether any department will go over budget before making the purchase?

Or you might be a non-for-profit and worried if you have sufficient funding from grants to do what you do. 

Do you have to wait for the month-end to see if you are over or under budget?

As a CFO, these are the last things you should worry about, assuming you have proper controls in place.

If you are dealing with any of the above issues, you probably don’t have a purchasing process that aligns with your budget management process. 

Or you don’t have a purchase approval or procurement process. 

In this article, we will cover 

  1. How to use purchase approvals to stay under budget.  
  2. How to set up internal controls to ensure robust budget compliance.
  3. How to review spending with the budget owner, so there are no surprises on how allocated budgets are spent.
  4. How Finance can collaborate with the stakeholders in the review process to pre-approve over budget items. 
  5. How to use the granular spend visibility for better budget planning. Forecasting vs. Zero cost model.  

Challenges with Budget Management 

Why is budget management a challenge for many companies? 

Based on our experience working with many small to midsize companies, here are some challenges.

Challenges with Budget management

Missing Proactive Cost controls 

A common challenge is missing proactive cost controls. 

What do we mean?

Proactive cost controls include measures to review the cost before the purchase happens. 

The idea is to control what is purchased instead of reacting to surprise spending. 

You have a purchase requests process for employees and managers with a proactive control process. 

With a requisition approval process, you have control over the spending. This is very helpful for large purchases. 

Why is this a problem?

Generally, this is how companies have evolved. 

If there was no purchasing process initially, employees are used to using the most convenient method for purchase.

 That includes

  1. Using credit cards for purchase instead of a PO and Invoice process.
  2. Just call the vendor, and the vendor sends the invoice after the product is shipped.
  3. No control over who should sign a contract. A missing purchasing policy could be the cause of this.

The first thing you should do is to set up a purchasing policy so that employees have a clear direction on the purchasing process.

Your purchasing policy should answer the following questions for your employees:

  1. What is the purchasing process?
  2. Who needs to approve the purchase, and how a typical approval workflow works.
  3. How long is the approval cycle?
  4. What are my approval limits, and what is the approval authority of managers?

Excessive use of credit cards

The second issue we see with companies is using credit cards for most company purchases.

 We already mentioned this, but I feel it is worth repeating it.

Even though credit cards are easier to maintain and you don’t have to worry about paying the vendors, you lack cost control. 

Since employees are purchasing without any written approvals, you could have small or large cost overruns. 

And that could lead to you going over budget.

Since you don’t have visibility into budgets while using credit cards, you won’t know if you are under or over budget until all employees submit their expense reports. 

 So should you stop using credit cards?

 Well, stop it if you can. However, if you are a small business, you might not get a line of credit from the vendor.

In that case, you have to pay using a credit card.

 We recommend the following:

  1. Stop using credit cards wherever possible and move to a purchase order-based process. It gives you better cost control.
  2. If you can secure favorable payment terms, for example, Net 60, then that is better than the Net 30 you are getting with your credit card vendor.

 Set up a requisition process to authorize the purchase; if you have to use a credit card, 

 For example, Let’s say you are paying for online storage (Dropbox or something else), and your average monthly bill is $100.  

You can still create a blanket purchase order and approve the annual cost. 

 This allows you to ensure that the budget owners have the opportunity to review the cost.

You can also use this process to allocate costs to the correct budget.  

Lack of granular spend data

Most companies have visibility into the total spending. 

It is not difficult to pull a spending report by the chart of accounts or spend by the vendor. 

 But most companies lack the granularity on the line item level visibility. 

 For example – we spent $100,000 on Advertising.


We spent $100,000 on advertising. Out of that, $10,000 was spent on online ads, and $90,000 was spent on direct advertising channels. 

The granular visibility lets you ask better questions to understand how budgets are spent.

The finance teams can use this granular data to understand the ROI for these items, which helps you establish a baseline for budget.

Most companies used last year’s actuals to build next year’s forecast. 

There is nothing wrong with that!

But a data-based approach lets you set up accurate budgets. 

If you want to lower your operating cost, you should use the granular data for better budget planning using Zero-based budgeting.

Types of Budgets and Cost Control Mechanisms

In our experience, companies have two types of budgets. 

  1. Fixed budget for ongoing expenses.
  2. Project budgets for the different capital projects.

The type of budget varies from industry to industry too.

 We could go with a broader classification of capital expenses and operating expenses.

 For example – if you are a manufacturing company, then you have COGS budgets, Opex Budget, and Capex budget for improving capital assets, for example, replacing old machinery, 

 On the other hand, if you are a services company – A marketing agency, you probably would rely more on a project-based budget so that the project’s cost doesn’t exceed the agreed-upon cost with the customer.

So the first step in the budget control process is to decide on the type of budget. 

 Here are some examples of budgets:

Yearly Budget Examples – Opex

 Here is how you would set up a typical budget and schedule for operating expenses:

Expense Budget example

For example, you are purchasing office supplies.  

In this example, there is a budget hierarchy. So for example 

  1. The budget for office supplies is for Finance and then type Operating Expenses.
  2. This type of structure allows you to set up projects by the department and have granular control over expenses.
  3. The type of budget is Expense since this is an operating expense. 
  4. The interval defined is monthly, so there is a monthly budget setup for office supplies. 

 In this case, the budget controls should also be monthly to check the monthly budget for consumption. 

 In some instances, you can let the purchase go over budget. 

You can set it up to route the approvals to the budget owners for those exceptions. 

 That way, you have complete flexibility and control.

Yearly budget example – Capex

 The second type of budget is for capital projects, where you might spread out the cost over a couple of months or a couple of quarters. 

 Following is an example of the capital budget for building repairs:

Budgets for projects

In this example

  1. The budget schedule is yearly. If you don’t know the exact timelines for expenditure, it probably makes sense to set up a yearly budget.
  2. The type of budget is Capital. That could very well be an expense depending upon the type of building—maintenance for Construction vs. cleaning services.
  3. As you can see, there is only value instead of budget values over multiple months.

In this case, the budget control process should check the purchases against the annual budget, and till the time it is under the annual budget, employees can make purchases.

Project-based Project

 In some cases, you need project-specific budgets. This type of budget is suitable for cases where you need to track different expenditures within a budget.

Let’s explain with the help of the following example:

Budgets for projects

In the example above, this is a budget for a marketing agency working on behalf of their client. 

The agency wants to track project costs because they would be hiring contractors for content or something else. 

So, in this case, you create a project and then individual lines for cost control.

When the user tries to purchase against this project, you can control cost at the line item level.

 These types of projects are prevalent in construction projects.

Purchase Approvals 

Once the budgets are defined, let’s look at the cost controls you need to put in place so that the purchases are always within the budget.

To do so, you need to ensure that all purchases are tied to a budget for approval. Let’s take a few examples to show you how to purchase can be linked to budgets. 

Purchase order approval and budget controls

Here is an example of how the purchase can be tied to budgets to ensure that you don’t go over budget:

Budgets and purchase order approval process

In this example, when the user is trying to create a purchase order, the system continuously checks for the available budget. 

 As you can see in the example below, the office supplies budget is ~90% consumed.

 Since the purchase amount is under the available amount, the user can purchase of product or service.

Here is another example of project-based purchases:

Purchase orders and projects line budgets

In the screenshot above, as you can see, the individual line items are tied to the budget line from the project. 

If you choose to have project-based budgets, you should tie the purchases to the individual budget lines within the project.

Invoice only expenses and budget control 

Even though we recommend that all purchases have a purchase order, it is not always practical to have a purchase order.

For example, you might not have a purchase order for every project for legal services:

Budgets and non PO invoices

In that case, the legal firm might send you an invoice for the services rendered in a given timeframe.

Now, if you have a budget for legal services, how do you ensure that you don’t go over budget.

In this case, we recommend having the cost controls implemented at the invoice level. 

Here is an example of budget controls implemented at the invoice level:

The goal should be to have budgets tied to all the different purchase mechanisms you have in the company.

I.e., purchase orders, expenses, and invoices. 

 We strongly recommend that companies move away from non-standard processes like credit card purchases because it is challenging to implement proactive budget controls for credit cards.

 You only get to know about the Spend when the expense report is submitted, which is too late to control Spend.

Staying with the allocated budget 

If you implement the purchase controls that are tied to the budgets, you can ensure that the purchases stay under the allocated budget.

 However, that is not always the case. In some cases, you need to go over budget.

 Let’s say you purchase products to service the customers. 

 You might be allocating an operating budget as a % of the revenue. Let’s say in one year; your sales team breaks all the revenue records. 

 So as your revenue is growing, you would land up spending more than the planned budget.

 In other cases, you might want to keep a close eye on the spending so that you don’t run out of budget.

 You can achieve both these cases by implementing these additional budget controls. 

 Proactive spend review by budget owners – setting up a threshold 

 One way to ensure you always keep an eye on the budget is to set up a review process during your purchase. 

Budget owner approvals for purchase

 For example, In the screenshot above, we see a review process for amounts greater than 1,000.

 These approvals are over and above your standard approvals for purchase. 

 In this case, we assume Andrew Warner is the owner of a budget for which the purchase is made.

 In summary, set up an approval process so that the budget owner can review the purchases to control the Spend if need be. 

 You should set up the review process so that the budget owner is approving all large purchases. 

 Proactive alerts 

 Another way to ensure that you stay under budget is to use proactive consumption alerts. 

The budget owner is notified when the budget consumption reaches a certain threshold.

Budget_Consumption_AlertsIn the example above, the system would notify Alicia when the specific budget hit the 80% budget limit. 

This is helpful for the budget owners because now they can take proactive measures to manage the budget. 

For example, if the annual budget for office supplies is $50,000 and you have already consumed 80% of the budget in the first three months of the year, that is a cause of concern.

On the other hand, purchasing might purchase certain items in bulk so that the budget usage patterns will be different for that budget. 

Block the purchase 

Another option for budget control is to block the purchase if the purchase order amount is greater than the available budget amount.

Block purchase order approvalsFor example, the remaining IT budget for the year is $5,000, and the user is typing to purchase an Apple MacBook Pro for $6,000. 

In some instances, you probably are ok going over budget, so in those cases, you can set up a tolerance level or allow the user to proceed with a warning. 

Using Spend data for better budget planning

In the above sections, we have talked about setting up adequate budget controls so that you stay under budget. 

Having budget controls gives you peace of mind and helps avoid over-budget surprises. 

But how do you set up adequate budgets so that the purchases stay close to the allocated budgets?

We recommend that you use Spend data to understand the usage patterns and set up budgets for the next year accordingly.

Spend data for understanding usage patterns 

 If you have granular spend data, you would have better visibility into how the allocated budget is spent. 

Spend_By_DepartmentIn the chart above, you can see that marketing has the most spending. 

This is just an example; we are not suggesting that marketing spends most of the money in a company!

It is a good starting point, but you should go one level deep and understand the usage patterns.

 So rather than using the actual Spend as the baseline for the next year’s budget, use the usage patterns to set up next year’s budget.

Let us explain with an example:


In the case above, as you can see,“IT Hardware & Software” category has the most Spend. 

 Let’s say this is the total amount spent by the IT department, they had a major IT refresh this year, and that is why the Spend is higher in this category. 

 By understanding the category spend, you can quickly assess whether the spend is recurring or one-time. 

 We are oversimplifying a bit but better spend data lets you ask better questions. 

Cost reduction initiatives 

 You can use spend data for setting up better budgets, but you can also use this information to reduce total purchasing costs. 

 With the data in one place, you can quickly check how much you are spending, where you are spending, and at what price point. 

 You can then use this information to get a better price from your vendors. 

Spend By Supplier and category

 For example, you are purchasing IT supplies from three vendors. In the above example – Staples, CDW, and New Age Tech.

 A simple approach might be to consolidate the purchases to one vendor and get a better overall price.

 If you do that at the beginning of the year, you can adjust the budget based on the negotiated savings.

 So if you have better and granular data, you can use that to drive cost reduction efforts and reduce the overall budget.


For effective budget control, you need to link the budgets to the point of purchase – for example, the purchase order process.

That allows you to control spending and avoid any over-budget surprises. 

The key is not to overcomplicate the process but give users the ability to see what is available in the budget and how their purchase will impact the budget.

In the long term, this helps with cost control and building a cost-conscious culture across the company.

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