What is capital budgeting?

Prophix ImageProphix May 21, 2024, 8:30:00 AM

Capital budgeting can transform how your company plans and executes its investment strategies.

This blog will guide you through understanding what capital budgeting is, methods, and the benefits it can offer your business. We'll also share how to navigate the challenges and practical steps for implementing capital budgeting effectively.

Whether you're looking to refine your approach or starting fresh, you can learn more about capital budgeting in this article, including:

What is capital budgeting?

Capital budgeting is an approach to corporate budgets that evaluates the profitability of new projects or investments. The capital budgeting process involves evaluating the cash inflows and outflows of potential projects (e.g., a new manufacturing plant) to determine if it will have a positive impact on the company’s bottom line. Capital budgeting can also be referred to as investment appraisal.

What is capital in business?

Capital in business refers to the financial assets or resources available to a company for funding its day-to-day operations and supporting its future growth. It includes not only cash but also other assets like investments and funds in bank accounts that are utilized for productive or investment purposes.

Why is capital budgeting useful?

Capital budgeting is useful because it enables executive leadership to evaluate potential investments or projects based on their expected returns, costs, and financial impacts. This process involves estimating the future cash flows from the investment, comparing them to the initial and ongoing costs, and assessing the project's profitability and risk. As a result, capital budgeting helps companies make informed decisions about where to allocate their resources to maximize returns and support strategic objectives.

Who should do capital budgeting?

All companies, including non-profits and public sector entities, planning to spend significant funds on new investments or projects should engage in capital budgeting. This process is vital for evaluating plans against expected returns, costs, and financial impacts. Typically, this responsibility falls on financial analysts, senior management, and executives within the organization who are tasked with ensuring that resources are allocated efficiently and strategically to support the organization’s goals.

What is the primary purpose of capital budgeting?

The primary purpose of capital budgeting is to assess projects or investments that could improve the company’s value in the long term. Capital budgeting can also be used to identify projects that would generate more cash for the company than it takes to sustain the project or investment, while also considering the timing of cash flows, the project's contribution to the company's risk profile, and its overall impact on the financial health of the organization.

Capital budgeting vs. working capital management

Working capital management focuses on the day-to-day financial activities, ensuring the business can cover its short-term costs and is adding value. In contrast, capital budgeting is about making long-term investment decisions to grow or improve the company's operations and assets. Essentially, working capital management keeps the business running smoothly today, while capital budgeting plans for the company's future growth.

How does capital budgeting work? What are the main capital budgeting methods?

Let’s cover some of the most common capital budgeting methods, so you can find the one that would work best for your business:

Discounted cash flow analysis (DCF)

Discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis is a way to figure out how much a project is worth by looking at the money it will cost to start it, the money it will make, and the costs to keep it going.

Here's how it works: You take all the future money the project will bring in or cost, and then "discount" or adjust those amounts back to their value today. This is because a dollar today is worth more than a dollar in the future due to inflation. The key result of this analysis is called the net present value (NPV), which helps decide if a project is worth the investment.

When choosing a project, it's important to think about what else you could do with the money. This is known as opportunity cost. The project should not only cover its costs but also be better than other ways you could have used the money.

To do this, future cash is adjusted using a "discount rate," often the risk-free rate like that of U.S. Treasury bonds, which are very safe investments. This rate helps ensure the project's returns are at least as good as this safe investment.

If a company borrows money for a project, it needs to make enough to cover this borrowing cost, known as the cost of capital. This cost typically combines the interest on loans and the expectations of shareholders and is used to find the "hurdle rate" – the minimum profit a project needs to be worth it.

By comparing projects using DCF, managers can pick the most profitable ones. They look for projects with the highest NPV but also need to weigh any risks involved.

Payback analysis

Payback analysis is one of the simpler methods of capital budgeting. Payback analysis is based on the concept of understanding how long it will take to pay back the initial investment in a project.

Payback analysis can be helpful for companies that have limited funds to invest in new projects, and need to understand how long it will take before the investment is profitable.

The drawback of this method is that it doesn’t consider the opportunity cost of a new project or the potential cash inflows after the payback period. As a result, payback analysis is most often used to evaluate how fast an investment can be recouped, rather than how profitable the project might be.

Throughput analysis

Compared to payback analysis, throughput analysis is one of the most complex approaches to capital budgeting. It looks at the whole company as one system that makes money by moving materials through it.

In this method, almost all costs are seen as day-to-day expenses, and the goal is to make as much product go through the system as possible to cover these expenses. The best way to make more money, then, is to get more product through the part of the system that slows everything down, known as the bottleneck. So, when choosing where to invest, managers should focus on projects that help more products get through this bottleneck faster.

Net present value analysis (NPV)

Although a key part of discounted cash flow analysis (DCF), net present value analysis can be used independently. Net present value analysis calculates how much an investment or project is worth in present terms (as the value of a dollar decreases over time because of inflation). To do this, you discount future cash inflows and outflows to their present value using a specific rate of return, then subtract the initial investment cost. This provides a net value that represents the project's contribution to the firm's value.

A positive NPV indicates that the projected earnings (in present dollars) exceed the anticipated costs (also in present dollars), suggesting that the project is likely to be profitable and a good investment.

Equivalent annuity method

The Equivalent Annual Annuity (EAA) approach is used to compare projects that last for different lengths of time. It works by figuring out the steady yearly income each project would give if it were spread out evenly over its life, like a regular payment from an annuity.

When comparing projects that don't last the same amount of time, you look at their EAA values. The project with the higher EAA is the better choice because it means that project will, on average, generate more income each year. This method is helpful because it makes it easier to compare the financial benefits of projects when they don't end at the same time.

Internal rate of return (IRR)

Internal Rate of Return (IRR) is the discount rate that makes the net present value (NPV) of all cash flows from a particular project equal to zero. In other words, it's the rate of return that a project is expected to generate. A higher IRR indicates a more profitable project.

Modified internal rate of return (MIRR)

Modified Internal Rate of Return (MIRR) is a variation of the traditional Internal Rate of Return (IRR) used in capital budgeting. While IRR calculates the discount rate that brings a project's net present value (NPV) to zero, MIRR provides a more accurate reflection by assuming that positive cash flows are reinvested at the firm's cost of capital, and it also accounts for the initial investment being financed at a potentially different rate.

Essentially, MIRR determines the annualized yield of a project under these more realistic conditions. A higher MIRR suggests a more profitable project, but it offers a clearer picture of the project's potential returns by addressing some of the limitations of the standard IRR calculation.


Profitability analysis, a method of capital budgeting, ranks projects according to their profitability. Profitability is determined by calculating metrics such as net present value (NPV), internal rate of return (IRR), or profitability index (PI), which compare the project’s cash inflows against the initial cash outflows to fund the project.

PI is defined below:

  • Profitability Index (PI) is a ratio that compares the present value of future cash flows generated by a project to the initial investment cost. A PI greater than 1 indicates that the NPV of future cash flows exceeds the project's initial cost, signaling a potentially profitable investment.

By ranking projects according to these ratios, companies can identify which projects or investments will be the most profitable.

Constraint analysis

Constraint analysis helps companies identify projects or investments that can address operational or market limitations. The goal of constraint analysis is to identify which processes would benefit most from an influx of cash, based on where bottlenecks currently exist, to improve profitability and efficiency.

Cost avoidance analysis

Cost avoidance analysis uses the concept of opportunity cost in capital budgeting. This approach involves estimating costs that can be eliminated if the project or investment were to be undertaken. For example, automating a portion of a company’s manufacturing plant could save future costs on laborers. With cost avoidance analysis, projects that would reduce or eliminate costs are prioritized over others.

Real options analysis

Real options analysis is a method used in capital budgeting to figure out how valuable it is to be able to make changes to a project as it goes along. Think of it like an advanced version of the net present value (NPV) calculation, but with added flexibility for making decisions based on what might happen in the future. This could involve choices about when to invest, whether to expand, or even when to stop a project, and it considers how uncertain or changeable these future conditions are.

What are the advantages of capital budgeting?

There are several distinct advantages of capital budgeting, including:

Capital budgeting provides a long-term perspective

Capital budgeting evaluates the initial and ongoing costs against a project's benefits. Capital budgeting uses calculations like net present value (NPV) to give companies a long-term view of their investments. This supports strategic alignment with corporate objectives, aiding in future planning and sustainability.

Capital budgeting reduces risk

By considering the time value of money, as well as the potential risks and uncertainties, capital budgeting can reduce financial and operational risks for organizations considering new projects or investments, making it a critical tool for informed decision-making.

Capital budgeting promotes the effective allocation of resources

Identifying the bottlenecks or areas for improvement with capital budgeting can help companies better allocate and utilize their resources. This approach ensures that resources are directed towards projects that align with company goals and promise the greatest return, enhancing overall efficiency and effectiveness.

Advantages of capital budgeting

What are the challenges associated with capital budgeting?

Now that you’re familiar with some of the benefits of capital budgeting, let’s discuss the challenges.

Capital budgeting can be based on inaccurate estimates

One of the challenges of capital budgeting is that it relies on future projections estimates, such as the time value of money and discount rates, which can change over time. This can lead to inaccurate investment decisions, which have a negative impact on corporate objectives.

Capital budgeting can be complex

Capital budgeting can be time-consuming and complex to implement, which can hinder a company's ability to adapt and make decisions regarding new projects or investments, affecting agility and responsiveness.

Capital budgeting has limited scope

Capital budgeting is primarily a financial exercise that can fail to consider qualitative factors like environmental impact, social responsibility, and the effects on brand reputation. This limitation can result in a skewed view of a project's overall value and implications.

How to do capital budgeting at your company

Let’s breakdown the step-by-step approach to capital budgeting, so you can implement it at your company.

  1. Identify the project or investment – The first step to capital budgeting is identifying the project you plan to undertake, or the investment you’d like to make.
  2. Review proposed investments – After all proposed projects and investments have been submitted, you must review each proposal to identify which one you’d like to move forward with.
  3. Estimate implementation and operating costs – Capital budgeting involves evaluating the potential costs of implementing and operating a new project.
  4. Estimate cash flows and benefits – Consider the benefits the proposed project will bring to your organization and estimate how much cash flow it will generate. If the project won’t generate cash inflows, it still may be beneficial by eliminating other costs.
  5. Use capital budgeting techniques - Apply financial evaluation techniques such as NPV, IRR, Payback Period, and MIRR to analyze the project's financial viability.
  6. Consider financing options - Determine how the project will be financed, considering both internal and external funding sources.
  7. Evaluate risk – Now that you’ve determined the cost to implement and operate your new project, as well as the potential cash inflows or other benefits, you need to evaluate risk. Consider whether your company could withstand the project failing or not producing the desired results.
  8. Implement the project – If you’re comfortable with the level of risk, begin implementing your new project. Implementation should include some way to track the amount of funds invested, how much cash flow the project is generating, and key milestones.
8 steps to implement capital budgeting

Conclusion: Successful capital budgeting

In wrapping up, we've seen how vital capital budgeting is for your company's growth and success. By digging into what it is, how it works, and how to reap the benefits, you're better equipped to make smart investments.

Use what you've learned here to boost your company's future, making every investment count towards a more profitable tomorrow.

Want to see how capital budgeting measures up to other approaches? Check out our other blogs on different budgeting methods:

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