How Should a Company Budget for Capital Expenditures?

The process of budgeting for capital expenditures (capex) is essential for a business to operate and grow in a healthy and profitable way. Capital expenditures are expenses a company makes to sustain and expand its business over a period of years.

A capital expense is the cost of an asset that has usefulness, helping create profits for a period longer than the current tax year. This distinguishes them from operational expenditures, which are expenses for assets that are purchased and consumed within the same tax year.

For example, printer paper is an operational expense, while the printer itself is a capital expense. Capital expenditures are much higher than operational expenses, covering the purchase of buildings, equipment, and company vehicles. Capital expenditures may also include items such as money spent to purchase other companies or for research and development. Operational expenses are just what their name signifies, the expenses required for the company to operate from week-to-week or month-to-month.

Capital expenditures carry both benefits and risks. Investing in capex can improve the efficiency of a firm, can allow firms to gain a competitive edge, while at the same time they may fail to perform as expected, resulting in losses that could have been allocated elsewhere.

It's important to create a sound capital expenditure plan to avoid any expense overruns. Because capital expenditures represent substantial investments of cash designed to show a return on the capital investment over a period of years, they need to be carefully planned. Taking into consideration all costs, market expectations, and business growth, is crucial when drafting a capex plan.

Capital Expenditure Planning

Preparing a capital expenditure budget varies from one company to another depending on such factors, such as the nature of the company's business and the size of the company.

Separating Expenditure Budgets

Most companies budget their capital expenditures separately from other expenditures. Having a separate budget from operational expenses, for example, makes it simpler for companies to calculate the respective tax issues. For operational expenses, deductions apply to the current tax year, but deductions for capital expenditures are spread out over the course of years as depreciation or amortization.

Department Input

Much of the need for capex comes from the assessment of department heads, who run the day-to-day operations of a certain group. They are well aware of any issues within their group that would need updating or replacement. This bottom-up approach assessment helps determine whether any capex expenditures are beneficial for long-term growth, what is economically feasible, and what the return on the investment will be. In the end, capital expenditures are inevitably determined by upper management and owners.

Implementing a Budget Limit

Determining the max spend on capital is a crucial early step in capex planning. Making a thorough assessment of capex needs, whether this is for maintenance, new acquisitions, or growth, from different departments, determines the range in how much to budget for capex. Once a company decides its spend limit, it can shape a plan around that.

Measuring Capital Expenditure Returns

Once the input from different departments has been assessed, a budget decided based on need and business growth, and capital expenditures completed, it's imperative a company determine the returns on their capital expenditure. This will allow them to determine if their valuations were correct, whether or not the investments are paying off, what went right and what went wrong, so during the next capex cycle, these decisions are continued or improved.

Many financial tools are available in assessing the returns of capital expenditures, particularly the timeframe in which the investments will start to payback. Return on investment ratios, hurdle rates, and payback periods are areas to analyze when determining the benefit of a capital expenditure.

Management's Role in Capital Expenditures 

For one thing, capital budgeting involves very large expenditures, and it is management that must make the evaluation as to whether the investment in assets is worth the cost. Capital expenses almost always impact operational expenses as purchased items need to be maintained and the "big picture" needs to be considered.

Management must make the call on whether capital expenditures come directly from company funds or if they must be financed. Financing increases the debt level of a firm, which also needs to be taken into consideration. Leasing is an option as well, one that becomes appealing if a company is purchasing assets such as computers or other technology equipment—items that can quickly become obsolete.

In deciding on capital expenditure for a certain item, a company's management makes a statement about its view of the company's current financial condition and its prospects for future growth.

Capital budgeting decisions also give an indication regarding what direction the company plans to move in the years ahead. Capital expenditure budgets are commonly constructed to cover periods of five to 10 years and can serve as major indicators regarding a company's "five-year plan" or long-term goals.

The Bottom Line

Capital expenditures are a large cost for a company but usually necessary. They come with many benefits and many risks, which is why it is imperative to create a sound and thorough capital expenditure budgeting plan that takes into consideration all variables. If a company can do this correctly and execute capex investments appropriately, it will lead to positive growth and success for the firm.