Zero-based budgeting is a very useful and common budgeting tactic that you should get to know before working with QuickBooks 2012. Zero-based budgeting is the opposite of top-line budgeting. A zero-based budget works from the bottom up.

A zero-based budget starts with individual revenue, expense, asset, liability, and owner’s equity accounts. It examines a specific account — postage expense, for example — and then tries to apply common sense and logic for coming up with a good postage expense budget amount.

For example, the budgeter may guess that the firm will send out 1,000 letters over the year and that the average postage per letter will equal \$0.50. In this case, the zero-based budgeting approach determines that postage expense for the coming year will probably equal \$500. The zero-based budgeter calculates this amount by taking 1,000 letters and multiplying this amount by \$0.50 postage cost per letter.

The advantage of zero-based budgeting is that it tends to fix poorly figured, previously budgeted amounts. It doesn’t simply perpetuate bad budgeting decisions of the past. New budgeted amounts are based on the application of common sense and simple arithmetic; the combination of these two items often produces pretty good numbers. That’s really cool.

Another neat feature of zero-based budgeting is that it makes people who benefit from or use some budgeted amount responsible for that budgeted amount. For example, if some manager spent \$50,000 on travel expense last year, top-line budgeting states that she gets to spend \$50,000 this year.

Zero-line budgeting, in contrast, makes the manager prove through the application of common sense and simple arithmetic that \$50,000 of travel expense is reasonable for this year.

However, zero-based budgeting isn’t perfect; it possesses a weakness in that it’s easy for budgeters to forget numbers or make calculation errors. Previously, the example was used of a budgeter guessing that postage expense for the coming year will be \$500. That estimate comes from a guess about the number of letters sent for a year (1,000) and an estimate of the average postage expense spent on each letter (\$0.50).

If either of those numbers is wrong, or if (heaven forbid) the budgeter incorrectly multiplies the one number by the other, the postage expense budget number is wrong. If the budgeter is budgeting hundreds or even thousands of budgeted amounts, she will undoubtedly make a few errors in the process. And she probably won’t be able to fix or find those errors because of the volume of budgeted amounts.