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Five Tips for How to Prepare and Justify a Budget

by | Jun 19, 2017 | Advice, Funder and Award Spotlight, Proposal Writing 101, Proposal Writing Advice

It does not matter if you are a scientist, humanist, or social scientist; at some point you will be asked to write and justify a budget, whether for conference travel, a fellowship, or a research grant. In order to write an accurate and realistic budget there are several things to keep in mind:

1) Ask for exactly what you need

There are two common mistakes that graduate students make when writing down their budget for a grant or fellowship. The first one is that they ask for too little funding. This may happen because some students do not take the time to prepare an itemized list of expenses, or because they underestimate the needs of their projects and/or living costs, leading students to request less than what they will use.

The second, but less common, mistake is that students may ask for too much. There is often an average amount that funders are willing to cover, based on expected costs for a particular project (if this amount is not specified by the funder, you may ask the program director). If the requested amount is way over their expected average, they will not consider the budget realistic and may ask for a resubmission or reject the budget entirely. The best way to avoid these two outcomes is to do research on estimated expenses and provide the most exact figure possible. For instance, when looking up tickets for travel, please take into account that these change depending on the season and how close to the date you buy your tickets. Therefore, do not write down the discounted flight/bus/rail ticket price you found six months before the trip, because it is likely that the cost of the ticket will increase significantly, especially if you buy it close to the travel date. Submitting this price in your budget will result in your being awarded insufficient funds for travel expenses. Similarly, you should not include the price of a first class ticket because most organizations to which you apply will only fund coach tickets.

2) Carefully read the funder’s guidelines on what they are willing to support

This is crucial, especially when the funder’s call for proposals has a specific section detailing what they cover and what they do not cover when supporting a research project or applicant. You do not want to include expenses that the funder clearly states they do not cover. You also do not want to leave out an expense that can be covered by the funder, which might once again leave you underfunded. It is also important to know the maximum amount that the funder offers. However, do not be discouraged by this maximum and choose just to include the minimum expenses. As stated in tip number one, ask for what you need. Make sure that you request the maximum allowed amount if this is what you need. If the maximum amount they offer is not enough to cover your expenses, then try to apply to several funders for your project, something that you should consider doing regardless.

3) Make sure that your statement or proposal agrees with your budget request

Double and triple-check your statement or proposal to make sure that there are no disparities between what you wrote in your proposal and your itemized budget.

4) Think about all the types of expenses that you may encounter while pursuing your project

Some examples include: tuition, travel expenses (including transportation fare, insurance, gas, parking, and luggage fees); exchange and bank transfer fees; computer services (printing, photocopying, internet time, scanning); meals (per diem); research assistant(s); translators; lab materials and lab equipment; participants rewards (monetary incentives paid to participants in a sample study); housing and utilities, etc. Please see our advice on budgeting from our Proposal Writing 101 Tutorial for a more detailed series of questions.

5) Save all of your receipts for your own records and for reimbursement purposes

You may think that your credit card statement may be sufficient evidence, but many funders require original purchase receipts and proof of payment in order to reimburse the costs. You may also need to save boarding passes, travel itinerary, and ticket numbers. You may want to keep a notebook or folder with receipt clippings and financial notes throughout the duration of the fellowship/award.

For an example of how to manage expected expenses on transportation, meals, and lodging and how institutions and/or funders classify these costs, you may want to take a look at Rutgers’s policies regarding travel-related expenses.

These steps may at first seem overwhelming, but preparing and justifying an itemized budget is rather simple if you take the time to think about what you need for your project. It is essential to have the right amount of money at hand to be able to work efficiently without creating financial hardships. This is why preparing an accurate budget for fellowships and award applications is so important.

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