Budgets are critical in any organization. From the smallest startup to the most massive corporate entity, the most humble nongovernmental organization to giant economies such as the United States itself, things can go very wrong without an accurate and adhered-to budget.
Shockingly, more than 60 percent of businesses failed to create a budget in 2018. Admittedly, “This problem is more prevalent with businesses that have 1 to 10 employees as 74% in this group did not create an official budget. The number goes down to 21% for businesses with more than 10 employees, a difference of more than 50 percentage points.” This makes sense, as larger organizations tend to have better-implemented workflows that already account for budgeting.
Still, that doesn’t mean that the budget is optimized or used to best effect, even at very large organizations. When it is, it’s the product of huge effort on the part of people like budget analysts, who work endlessly to ensure that it is realistic, accounts for both money in and money out, reflects the latest numbers, and can help the company move forward. Without such people, bad outcomes are far likelier.
If you’ve got a head for numbers and a heart for ensuring such bad outcomes don’t happen, you might have the soul of a budget analyst. This relatively little-known career path might not be one you’ve yet heard of, though, so before considering how you get there, first take a look at what exactly the job entails.
What Is a Budget Analyst?
“Budget analysts help public and private institutions organize their finances,” explains the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). “They prepare annual and special reports and evaluate budget proposals. They analyze data to determine the costs and benefits of various programs, and they recommend funding levels based on their findings.”
They may work in this capacity for businesses, institutions such as universities, or for government organizations. Their duties include:
- Organize the firm or organization’s budget to direct those that make use of it in everyday decision making and activities
- Combine the budgets of individual departments to reflect an overall budgetary reality
- Recommend future budget decisions
- Advise on funding requests, sales decisions and organizational spending
- Monitor daily inflow and outflow of cash
- Estimate what the budget will look like in the future
- Procure, groom and use data to inform all budgetary decisions, make recommendations and ensure the financial health of the organization
It is this last duty that particularly applies to budget analysts. In order to create the best outcomes for their companies, analysts must find and use trustworthy data from the past to inform the present, and data from the present to inform the future. This is an extremely valuable skill, reflected in the average salary this position commands: $76,220 per year or $36.65 per hour, also according to the BLS. That’s with only a bachelor’s degree, mind you; those who hold a master’s can ask for far more.
But first, you’ll need to get the degree. Fortunately, there are many options available to help you become a budget analyst.
Master of Data Science
At its root, budget analysis is all about data science. This is the field that deals with organizing data. That means collecting the data from a variety of sources, whether that’s online or off, public or private, commercial or academic. Once you have the data, though, you still have to sort good data from bad, clean it to remove background “noise” that might impact its veracity, combine it with like data, make sure it plays nicely with data between departments in an organization, and otherwise turn it into something valuable. As you can see, it’s not really a grab-and-go situation, which is where the master of data science comes in. Benefits of this degree are numerous:
- You will earn a range of skills. With a master’s degree in data science, you’ll be able to do more than analyze budgets. You can also analyze operations, sales, marketing and more. All these play their role in budgetary decisions as well as the overall financial health of the organization.
- You will learn to write algorithms and programs. Harnessing data isn’t the only challenge; you also need to collect it in the first place. A data science degree can teach you how to do that.
- The program is relatively short. Compared to four-year computer science degrees, a master of data science takes only 12 months if you go full-time, or longer if you do it part-time. This makes it easier for working adults to fit it into their schedules and their own budgets.
Master of Business Analytics
Similar to the data science degree, a master of business analytics places strong emphasis on the numbers. As a discipline, this focuses on using data to a number of ends, but all within the business environment. If you’re interested in commerce, finance, accounting or other budget-related fields, and want to drive smart financial decisions through accurate budgeting, this is a great degree. With it:
- You will become an expert at finding, analyzing and using data. Since these skills are pretty much the entire job description of a budget analyst, it’s a great option.
- You can use your skills on a more widespread basis as well. Because this program focuses heavily on business as a subject, you can expect to learn about foreign markets, sales and marketing, product development, and other commercial interests. This will bring a more well-rounded approach to your budget analyses and recommendations.
- It is also a short program. Achievable in a year or so, you don’t have to devote your life to increasing your career value.
Master of Accounting
Today, old school degrees such as accounting take a newfangled approach. While the main thrust of an accounting degree is still bookkeeping, today’s courses place a heavy emphasis on using data. Whether that means writing routines to help collect and manage numbers or creating formulas to increase the efficiency of spreadsheets, accountants have a number of tools with which to effect positive change in the budget. Plus:
- It’s a degree that commands recognition. With an accounting degree, organizations are bound to take notice of you. This master’s is not easy to get, and the fainthearted do not come out the other end with degree in hand. Earning it signals to potential employers that you work hard and can get the job done.
- You can sit for the CPA exam. If you want to become a Certified Public Accountant, you’ll almost certainly need a master’s in accounting. Since CPAs are well primed to become budget analysts, this is a smart career step to take.
- You will have all the necessary tools to understand a budget inside and out. The entire point of an accountant is to provide a well-rounded picture of the financial health of an organization or individual. They are capable of taking and synthesizing all budget-related information and turning it into viable budget recommendations.
Master of Finance
For obvious reasons, finance and budget go hand in hand. Moreover, today’s finance programs are often cutting-edge, giving you every tool you need to become a proficient analyst without having to go to school for a specifically data-related degree. Finance degrees are highly respected, and can provide a leg up for future career goals as well. You will receive such benefits as:
- You can try for a job in the C suite. Chief Financial Officers often have master of finance degrees. If your goal is to become an executive, this is a good route.
- You will have no trouble understanding the budget. If your computer science skills are strong but your finance skills need work, you might want to get a master’s in this area instead, strengthening that half of the necessary budget analyst skill set.
- It combines well with data-related undergraduate degrees: If you earned a bachelor’s in software engineering, programming or computer science, a finance degree could complete the puzzle to help you become a budget analyst.
Master of Computer Programming
Sometimes the most valuable skill when trying to analyze the budget is an ability to develop software to get the job done for you. If you have a head for code, the computer programming (or the closely related master’s, software engineering) might be appropriate. With this knowledge base and skill set, you can identify the problems with procuring data, write programs to help rectify those problems, and get the cleanest possible numbers for use in analysis and recommendations. This is a good move for several reasons:
- Many organizations will hire budget analysts with a programming background. At the root of any budgetary recommendation is cold, hard facts. At the root of those facts is data. And at the root of data is a solid understanding of programming. Ergo, many institutions and companies are looking for people with a programming background.
- This is a useful degree in many fields. If you decide that budget analytics isn’t for you, then you will still have many options. Computer programming is a great skill, with a wide market and an almost endless opportunity to advance. There’s no downside.