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REVIEW: Budgeting Software 2014

budget art orange man.Budgeting is a pest. It's one of those detailed, fiddly tasks that every manager has to do at least once a year. Tabulating the previous year's expenses and comparing them to estimates is tiresome, and generating estimates about new projects and associated costs is not much better.

Spreadsheets are good for basic budgeting for a single department or a small company, but the work for tracking expenses for even a medium-sized company becomes prohibitive. Worse, spreadsheet budgets don't scale easily, nor do they have canned tools for analyzing past performance. Most significantly, if you're budgeting across departments or companies, you have to do a lot of manual entry and multi-sheet calculations to compare and summarize results.

Budgeting software provides you with the tools to analyze your date effectively as well as work with multiple departments, divisions, and companies. This article introduces you to a number of popular budgeting packages, ranging from products aimed at small companies with modest budgeting needs to enterprise-level software for companies with global offices. Each of these packages has attractive features and options worth considering.

What Should You Expect in a Budgeting Application? You can expect that any budgeting application will let you start with data from the previous year or even years and let you analyze the cost trends. This data can be imported from your accounting system so you don't have to re-enter hundreds of amounts. (Real-time importing, offered by many budgeting applications, lets you keep track of your budget versus actuals as the year progresses so you can review and revise your budget.)

Most budgeting software will provide charting features. Some packages have very sophisticated charting and analysis features. You can also expect to see the ability to consolidate budget information for departments or divisions, which is enormously helpful both for rolling up budget information for a summary as well as dealing with real-life situations where groups have been merged.

Like most other accounting software, budgeting applications will let you drill down on accounts, amounts, departments and other information on screens and online reports to get more details. Data entry and review is usually done using some kind of spreadsheet-like grid.

A fairly common feature of budgeting software is driver-based budgeting. Driver-based budgeting lets you set up very sophisticated budgeting calculations that you previously had to do on a separate spreadsheet. In driver-based budgeting, you set up a series of "drivers" that define your criteria and then have this trigger other budget amounts. For example, if you wanted to do a certain number of advertising mailings in the coming year, you could define such criteria as the basic cost of the mailing, the anticipated statistical ROR per 1000, the additional production or labor costs to service the anticipated orders, and so on, all of which would show up in the various budget amounts. Even small companies can use this to great advantage to improve their forecasting and enhance the accuracy of their budgets.

Most budgeting applications let you import and export information to Excel and other spreadsheets. This lets you extend your budgeting capabilities by using Excel's many charting and data manipulation features. You can try before you buy through online demos, videos, and webinars, as well as guided walkthroughs that let you ask questions and see how the budgeting software works.

And finally, you can expect that cloud-based budgeting products are available as client-server and/or SaaS.

AccuFund Budgeting Module
Needham, Mass.
(877) 872-2228 or (781) 433-0233
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Price: AccuFund Accounting Suite starts at $2,995 for a single user. AccuFund Budget Development module, $1,295 (Standard edition); $1,695 (Professional edition).

AccuFund Budgeting Module
The AccuFund Budget Development module is an optional add-on to AccuFund's full-featured accounting software for non-profit and government organizations. The Budget Development module lets you create driver-based budgets for individual cost centers, programs, or departments.

For enterprise-level budgets, managers can create individual budgets that are then rolled up into the master budget. You can lock the budget at any point to freeze changes while the budget is being discussed or approved. The budget can be unlocked subsequently to make further changes or it can be posted to the AccuFund GL.

The Budget Development module comes with both a "quick report" feature for printing screens and a specialized report writer. It also allows you to set up budget distribution periods to fit your organization's needs as well as create tables that show the budget distribution. The soon-to-be-released 5.01 version of AccuFund accounting software is slated to have a number of features that will benefit users of the Budget Development module, such as significantly faster performance, import/export features that support many open source spreadsheet products, and an enhanced task scheduler that will help move processes off your desktop.

Budget Development is available for the Standard and Professional Editions of the AccuFund Accounting Suite. AccuFund users who need budgeting software will find everything they need in the Budgeting Development module.

Adaptive Planning
Palo Alto, Calif.
(650) 528-7500
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Price: Subscription-based, ranging from $10,000 to $500,000.

Adaptive Planning
Adaptive Planning, a cloud-based, driver-based product designed for medium and large companies, has been integrated with more than 75 GL and enterprise systems, including Intacct, Sage 100, Microsoft Dynamics, Oracle Financials, NetSuite, PeopleSoft, Workday, and SAP. Data is pulled from the sources in real time, giving you up-to-the-minute information.

You can create your business forecasts based on such factors as cash flow, revenue, expenses, allocations, capital expenditures and projected personnel needs. Features of interest to large companies include multiple currency support, account attributes, which allow multiple rollups of account structures and give you new ways to classify and group accounts, and good workflow, collaborative planning and approval features.

The biggest recent enhancements are to consolidation and expanded analytics. Adaptive Consolidation, completely unified with Adaptive Planning, partitions and tracks the actuals data and also differentiates imported actuals data from adjustments. An elimination rule manager lets you automate intercompany eliminations (which can be viewed in journal entry format).

Minority business ownership can also be tracked in consolidations and you can run what-if analyses to identify changes in ownership interest. In addition, the consolidation features handle multiple currencies, account reclassification, and allocation planning.

Adaptive Discovery provides dashboards, key performance indicator management, exception analysis, and trending. It also lets you build custom dashboards with data from Adaptive Planning and Consolidation as well as from external CRM, ERP and other sources.

Adaptive Planning can be used with a variety of popular accounting packages. The product's price tag and features may make it a bit much for smaller companies, but mid-to-large sized companies should definitely take a look at it.

Alight Planning
El Dorado Hills, Calif.
(800) 960-7717
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Price: SaaS pricing starts at $10,000 annually. On-premise pricing starts at $25,000, plus 20-percent support.

Alight Planning
Alight Planning, a driver-based product aimed at mid-to-large sized companies, offers a variety of tools for budgeting and forecasting (including rolling forecasts with integrated actuals and several types of variance analysis), and long-range planning with financial drivers and market analysis. For organizations that need the greatest amount of flexibility in their budgeting, you can also do agile planning, which lets you integrate actuals, scenarios, and ad hoc line items.

This application has a lot to recommend it. There are good data-entry options, including an intelligent cut and paste option that maximizes manual data entry efforts. You can create and make changes to scenarios individually or in groups. There are also good analysis tools, with integrated P&Ls and balance sheets.

Other features include customizable dashboards, building linked financial models, collaborative planning, and comprehensive multi-level security and process controls. The product manual is extensive and there are several training options available. The product also comes with a strong range of report options and features, such as flexible time periods, ad hoc reporting, point-and-click reporting options, and customizable user interfaces.

Alight Planning is a richly featured product that compares favorably with any product in this review. Smaller companies may find the cost and level of sophistication to be more than they need at first, but medium and large-sized companies should be sure to look at this when shopping for budgeting software.

Budget Maestro
Natick, Mass.
(800) 366-5111
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Price: Standard Edition, $5,000 (one user); Advanced Planning Edition, $10,000 (one user). Additional users about $2,500 each (or less depending on volume).

Budget Maestro
Budget Maestro is a driver-based budgeting and forecasting application available in a Standard Edition, aimed at smaller companies, and the Advanced Planning Edition, aimed at larger firms and which allows user-definable drivers, multi-level security, unlimited scenarios and users, and more granular revenue and cost of goods planning.

Full-featured product, the application integrates directly with many major GLs, such as Microsoft Dynamics, Sage, Syspro and QuickBooks. You can set up views to display information by any criterion: organization, manager, tree, function, and so on. You can also roll up views in a custom tree structure. The Based Upon Dependency Tracker lets you right-click any data record and trace the information based upon the record's sources. Budget Maestro then displays the dependencies in a tree format.

You can create individual payment terms for customers in the budget and assign different payment and receivable terms to each assumption in the P&L statement. Budget Maestro also lets you enter deferred revenue sales. There are good data consolidation features for combining multiple GLs, multicurrency support and adding or reorganizing departments.

Integrated P&L, income statement, and cash flow reporting are available right out of the box. Analytics Maestro (sold separately) provides extended reporting features, based on Microsoft Analysis Services cubes, predefined blocks of information and attributes used to analyze data. It supports custom dashboards, automated custom report formatting and templates, and custom members: user-created and shareable metrics, financial ratios, and other information that can be added to dashboards and distributable reports. (Analytics Maestro can also be used as a standalone reporting and analysis product.)

A solid product, Budget Maestro comes with a wealth of features that will be of interest to medium and large-sized companies in need of a comprehensive budgeting solution.

Plan Guru LLC
White Plains, N.Y.
(888) 822-6300
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Price: PlanGuru 2013 Basic, $399.95, Enhancement Package, $799.95. Additional users are $249.95 and networking is an additional $399. PlanGuru Advanced Reporting Add-in, $199.95 per user. Cloud hosting starts at $35 per month and $89.95 per month to lease in the cloud. PlanGuru Analytics, $19.95 per month per user.

PlanGuru, a driver-based budget application aimed primarily at small- and medium-sized businesses, is written for CPAs, CFOs, and other financial professionals who need a strong budgeting and forecasting tool.

PlanGuru Basic lets you budget and forecast for up to 10 years using up to five years of historical data from Excel or QuickBooks. You can produce forecasted balance sheets, income and cash flow statements. The PlanGuru Enhancement Package gives you additional exporting options, budget subtotaling, and lets you consolidate analyses and do business valuations.

People unfamiliar with budgeting software, who want some handholding, will enjoy working with this package. The user interface is very clean; for example, when you select a menu option, the product displays a description as of what you use that option for. PlanGuru also comes with good printed documentation and video tutorials.

There are several add-on modules that extend PlanGuru's capabilities. The Advanced Reporting Add-In lets you use Excel to perform additional analysis and to create custom reports. You can also create multi-analysis reports that compare multiple budgeting scenarios. The new Analytics module greatly expands the product's capabilities for charting, graphs, and dashboarding. You can view a wide variety of key performance indicators in a number of formats to get a customized at-a-glance view of the business.

PlanGuru has a wide range of budgeting features and it handles small to large for-profit and non-profit organizations effectively. Its many features and options at a low price make it a good choice for anyone who needs a budgeting product they can grow with.

Up Your Cash Flow
Tarzana, Calif.
(800) 873-7789
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Price: XT2 Professional $ 749 (one-time charge). Service and training $ 249 per year.

XT2 Professional
XT2 Professional from Up Your Cash Flow, a driver-based budgeting and forecasting application aimed at accountants and financial consultants, can be used to create budgets, financial forecasts and projections.

Budget data can be entered manually or you can use CSV files to import and export information. XT2 Professional has a dashboard for viewing budget indicators and other key information. It also supports data consolidation and multiyear budget forecasting for for-profit and non-profit organizations. There are many reports and a wide range of financial analysis tools included with the product. You can examine the product by viewing the many video tutorials for specific budgeting tasks available on the website.

Up Your Cash Flow XT2 Professional is currently being offered at a sale price of $749, making it a good value for the price. It is very affordable for companies of any size as well as for financial professionals who want to add budgeting and forecasting services to their practice.

Sure, you can use a spreadsheet to create a budget, but the right budgeting application will speed up the budgeting process. By interfacing with your accounting software to directly access your data, you minimize the chance for data entry errors. The many analysis and charting tools offered by budgeting applications also give you greater flexibility for forecasting. Driver-based budgeting software also lets you experiment with various budget scenarios so you can create the most accurate budget possible.

The descriptions in this review are only scratching the surface of the features and options for each of these products. No matter what the price range you may be looking at, all of these products are worth considering if you're in the market for a good budgeting application. Buying the most expensive product on the list may give you features that save you many times more than buying a more modestly-priced product. It's also possible that you can buy an inexpensive product that does everything you need. And no matter what, looking at all these products will give you a strong idea of the features that are important to you and you'll be able to make a more informed decision when you finally make your purchase.

Almost any company that has a formal budgeting process is likely to benefit from buying a budgeting application. Regardless of the type or size of your company or organization, you can find a budgeting product in this review that will suit your needs and price range.

John Hedtke

John Hedtke is the award-winning author of 26 books. He has more than 30 years in the software business and technical writing, and seven years in technical publications management. John has developed and written documentation and books for many leading software products, and has received 26 writing awards to date. (A complete list of books, articles and projects can be found online at his web site, www.hedtke.com.) John owns a company that offers writing, business, and disaster preparedness consulting services for private, public, and governmental clients. He became a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication in 2003. When not otherwise occupied, John writes magazine articles and sleeps late as much as possible.

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