The ultimate guide to zero-based budgeting (ZBB)



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Learn what zero-based budgeting (ZBB) is and why finance organizations use it to align company spending with strategic goals.


Zero-based budgeting (ZBB) is the process of building your annual budget from zero each year to verify that all components are cost-effective, relevant, and drive improved savings.

Implemented effectively, ZBB is a cost discipline enabling businesses to improve resource planning, employee engagement, and organizational collaboration. Although ZBB is often credited with measures to reduce costs, its approach doesn’t exclusively focus on savings. It can also help test assumptions, solve problems, and ensure spending is aligned to your company’s growth objectives. 

Organizations using an effective approach to ZBB report a multitude of benefits. In addition to increased cost savings, here are six benefits ZBB can provide:

  • Improved business margins through cost savings and alignment of spending to strategic objectives
  • A cost discipline created and focused on operational execution to support business growth
  • Forward-looking resource plans aligning to the projected future business state
  • Enhanced staff engagement in budgeting for impact and thinking about what “moves the needle”
  • Increased manager accountability for spending and a continuous culture of cost awareness
  • Conversation and collaboration among all managers and planners to work together toward a common goal of expense budgeting

Done right, ZBB can translate into cost savings that fund future strategic initiatives and drive growth. Continue reading to learn how you can effectively implement ZBB to improve your organization’s financial health. 

How is zero-based budgeting different from traditional budgeting?

Traditional annual budgets are often produced by taking the previous year’s actuals and adding a few percentage points to account for wage rises and inflation. This simplified and incremental budgeting can lead to inefficiencies and missed opportunities for greater cost savings.

Here is a brief outline of the principles of both traditional cost-cutting and a zero-based approach. 

Traditional cost-cutting approach Zero-based budgeting approach 
Justify what to remove


Justify what to keep
Focus scope on a narrower set of costs or cost reduction tools Examine every cost area for the broadest set of cost-reduction tools 
Improve how activities should be performed (efficiency and effectiveness) Consider which activities should be performed (i.e., doing less) and how they should be performed 
Create focused initiative planning and execution Develop detailed and comprehensive initiative design, planning, and execution 

Be sure to download our paper on ZBB. We’ve broken the key factors down into short, easy-to-understand concepts so you can quickly share it with your stakeholders and fast-track your ZBB implementation.

What are the advantages of zero-based budgeting?

Traditional budgeting approaches begin with the previous year’s budget and look for areas to tweak. They don’t necessarily take the time or ownership for thoughtful reflection on the impact of those expenditures.

With ZBB, managers are challenged to identify the most cost-effective way to deliver their activities, programs, and levels of service, while keeping their resources in step with changing workloads and eliminating extraneous expenses not aligned with strategy.

Why were approaches to ZBB difficult to achieve in the past? Those were simply too complex for spreadsheets and manual planning environments. Legacy planning systems added further complications with architectures that grappled to provide the flexibility needed to amend models.

Advancements in planning technology enabled businesses to re-evaluate the opportunity of ZBB and successfully implement within the organization. By leveraging modeling platforms not limited to specific or expected financial line items, businesses can model any process required for their planning needs, and implement ZBB quickly and effectively for fast, agile, and dynamic budgeting cycles.

Companies using ZBB report cost savings between 10 and 25% — vital savings companies can use to bolster their margins or invest in future growth. Unlike top-down across-the-board cost-cutting initiatives that can compromise service levels and damage revenue, ZBB focuses on doing the right things in the most cost-effective way. It can provide a low-risk approach to transforming the cost base while leaving companies adequately resourced and well-financed for future growth. 

Zero-based budgeting in five simple steps

Your business can develop or modify its own unique approach to ZBB, and the following five steps can provide a baseline for implementation.

  1. Start. Begin at ground zero. Create a new annual budget from scratch without using last year’s actuals as a baseline.
  2. Evaluate. Review every cost area. Eliminate and reduce unnecessary activities or services.
  3. Justify. Account for all components of the budget. Identify cost-effective, relevant, and cost-saving areas.
  4. Streamline. Determine what activities should be performed and how. Automate and standardize processes where possible.
  5. Execute. Roll out comprehensive planning and execution processes. Communicate clear plans, roles, and responsibilities. 

Zero-based budgeting best practices

  • Adopt a positive approach. ZBB is more than just slashing costs. It’s a necessary step for freeing the resources and funds needed for business renewal and growth initiatives. Working with business leaders, you can use internal and external benchmarking to illustrate profitability gaps and explain exactly what will happen to the savings.

  • Identify the quick wins. Initially focus your ZBB initiative either on the larger and more stable business units struggling with profitability, or selected areas of overhead (such as sales, general, and administrative expenses) where there are large indirect costs not clearly understood. Not only will such choices reinforce the rationale for undertaking ZBB, but they will also deliver the largest cost savings with minimal disruption

  • Don’t do it alone. Assemble a cross-functional project team with members from finance, IT, and other relevant business units, and preferably chaired by a C-level executive. The core of ZBB is the challenge and review process — scrutinizing every activity a department undertakes to see if it can be stopped or done more cheaply. 

  • Select the right planning platform. The success of ZBB depends on having detailed insight into the operational drivers of costs such as activity volumes, productivity ratios, and input costs — none of which are contained in traditional planning and budgeting software. These older systems only contain highly aggregated financial data and need to be supplemented with considerable amounts of data from elsewhere such as spreadsheets. Manipulating this data in ancillary spreadsheets increases both the complexity and workload involved in any ZBB initiative. A better alternative is to hold all the detailed operational and financial data on a single financial planning and analysis platform

  • Plan for sustainability. Once you implement a successful ZBB project, keep your skills fresh by moving on to other business units or expense categories and revisiting previous projects to ensure the savings stick. Don’t mothball your ZBB model either. Because it contains the causal relationships between various activities, the resulting resource needs, and the expenses of those needs, the ZBB model can easily be developed into a driver-based planning and budgeting model that could beneficially supplement or replace existing FP&A processes. Successful ZBB projects should result in a heightened awareness of cost control. Keep in mind awareness won’t happen if the organization returns to the traditional incremental approach for annual planning and budgeting once the implementation is over. 

How to get started with zero-based budgeting

  • Integrate ZBB with core FP&A. ZBB should not be seen as an alternative to current planning and budgeting cycles, but as an auxiliary process carried out every couple of years to refocus spending on strategically important activities and initiatives.

  • Focus ZBB initiatives for maximum returns. Many companies limit their ZBB initiatives to SG&A and other areas of overhead where there are large amounts of indirect costs less well understood. This allows targeting specific parts of the organization and gaining major benefits for a limited investment without overly disrupting customer-facing business functions. Others choose to limit their use of ZBB to new business initiatives and requests for additional funding while using other methods of budgeting for ongoing activities.

  • Unify operational and financial data on a single platform. The success of ZBB depends on managers having a deep understanding of and visibility into the operational drivers of costs. Providing such visibility means having granular details of cost (right down to an individual employee, a business trip, or a marketing campaign) and easy access to data around activity volumes, productivity, and resource consumption.

  • Make modeling easy. The ability to model the causal relationship between activity volumes and the resulting resource and headcount requirements is critically important. Managers need to make informed decisions about how changing activity volumes and different service levels impact costs.

  • Re-use ZBB models for routine FP&A process. If an organization uses an incremental approach to planning and budgeting based on the previous year’s actuals, the ZBB model will be the first enterprise-wide model of causal relationships linking activities of different business functions. FP&A teams should adapt the model as needed to support the annual budgeting process and rolling re-forecasts, which will become more efficient and deliver greater insight. Repurposing models in this way means ZBB is no longer a standalone exercise, but an initial step in transforming enterprise planning and budgeting that could lead to fully integrated business planning. 

For ZBB to be successful, it needs to be modeled and delivered through a capable and flexible planning solution. The Anaplan Connected Planning platform, a cloud-native solution, can enable, support, and execute effective ZBB methodologies even in today’s increasingly volatile business environments. Justify what to remove


Learn more about zero-based budgeting with Anaplan