Money Matters

How to create a payroll budget for your business

A payroll budget is key to ensuring you have the cash to pay employees—and plan for growth. Here's how to create one from scratch.

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A good business is built upon good budgeting. And that’s the case for payroll, as much as any other area in the business.

Budgeting means you can peer into the future, and be better able to deal with problems that come hurtling towards you—along with opportunities, too.

At the very least, you should be using a cash flow budget.

This might include an amount set aside for payroll costs. But best business practice is to split that cost into its own yearly payroll budget plan.

After all, for many businesses, payroll is one of the biggest fixed costs. Get it wrong and you’re very quickly in hot water. And that’s not just in terms of your own cash flow woes, or employee dissatisfaction.

If you don’t provide HMRC with the payroll taxes and National Insurance contributions (NICs) it demands then that water quickly reaches boiling point.

Creating and using a payroll budget will help you to stay on top of your people finances. In this article, we cover how to make one work for your business.

Here’s what we cover:

What is a payroll budget?

A payroll budget reveals the total projected costs of employing people across a defined time period.

Payroll budgets are used by managers within businesses, including owner-operators of smaller businesses. In larger businesses, they’re typically used by human resources (HR) managers, and feed into the main budget planning.

The period detailed in the payroll budget is typically a year, thanks to the fact payroll taxes such as PAYE are applied in line with the tax year (from April to April).

A good payroll budget will let you calculate costs by month, or even per week if the nature of your business requires it.

Individual payroll budgets can also be created for short-term projects if they require separate recruitment or even the secondment of existing employees.

The costs listed on a payroll budget might be for full-time employees, as well as part-time workers, contractors, temporary/agency workers, and so on.

The payroll budget isn’t a document HMRC legally requires you keep as part of your payroll documentation, and it’s extremely unlikely it’ll ever ask to see it.

But it’s a good idea to keep them around.

Doing so helps you monitor payroll payment increases/decreases between years, and also building a new year’s budget on the data from the previous year lets you get started much more quickly.

Any payroll budget shouldn’t be considered to be set in stone. It can be revisited part way through a year if there are changes in the business.

For example, a big new customer may deliver growth opportunities, which requires an increase in staffing. The payroll budget can therefore be revisited and updated by way of exploring the feasibility of such an outlay.

Why you should create a payroll budget

Payroll budgets have a variety of uses, as follows.

Cash flow

The most basic purpose is an attempt to ensure the cash will be available when required for payroll runs.

A classic definition of insolvency is when a company can’t afford to pay its employees so, clearly, this situation is to be avoided.

Furthermore, you can ensure the money is available for yearly pay rises—and remember that some pay rises, such as those for National Minimum Wage employees, are legally mandatory each year.

Discovering efficiencies

Using a payroll budget, you can test to see if it’s less costly to hire temporary employees, for example, compared to full-time employees.

You can test the viability of part-time employees for a given role, or agency workers.

Growth/expansion planning

If you want to grow your business, there’ll almost certainly be a payroll cost. Even if you don’t intend to hire new staff, you may have to promote existing staff and accordingly give them pay rises.

A more sophisticated payroll budget will let you test the feasibility and efficiency of growth plans, and might also be submitted as part of a proposal shown to lenders such as banks.

Ensuring legal compliance

With each pay run, you tell HMRC immediately via Real Time Information (RTI) within your payroll software how much you owe in terms of employment taxes, NICs, and more.

You then have less than a month to get this money to HMRC (assuming a monthly pay run).

If you fail to do so then penalties and interest are automatically applied. A payroll budget ensures you’re able to account for your contributions.

Occupational benefits

A competitive employer is one that offers perks to employers, such as additional pension contributions, sick pay schemes, and more.

A payroll budget lets you check the cost of schemes such as these against the available budget.

What to add to a payroll budget

What’s listed below can be added to the payroll budget, depending on the complexity you need.

At the very least, though, the budget should list wages and additional contributions you as an employer must pay as part of this.

We cover how to create a payroll budget document below, but you should create a separate line for each employee within your business.

Don’t forget to include yourself if you receive a salary (if you take dividends instead then that should be accounted for elsewhere, typically on your profit and loss sheet).


The wage cost you add for each employee line is typically the gross wage cost for the employee.

You might list this as a yearly figure if you want to keep things really simple, but often it’s calculated by treating the hours worked as a unit quantity and then multiplying this by an hourly rate.

For example, if an engineer works 35 hours per week at an hourly rate of £15, then that comes out at £525 per week gross.

Using hours and weeks in your calculations is best because it avoids issues around having to account for weekends when working with monthly or yearly salary figures, and subsequently, it also avoids calculation issues presented by leap years.

Do focus on gross salaries to keep things simple.

There’s no need to split out income tax here because, although you’re responsible for remitting this to HMRC, it’s deducted from employee salaries once paid.

Therefore, it’s not of consequence to your payroll budget (although you do need to account for employer NICs and similar deductions—see below).

Nor should you account for holiday entitlement within the budget. This means there’s no need to account for bank holidays either.

After all, periods when the employee uses annual leave allowance are still at full pay, as if the employee was working, so it’s of no consequence to your payroll budget.

However, if it’s necessary to hire temporary or agency workers to do the work during the individual’s absence then this might be added to your payroll budget.

Overtime, bonuses and commissions

Projecting variable payments such as bonuses or commissions can be tricky to calculate, but it’s wise to feature them within your budget if they are paid from payroll.

When doing so it’s useful to remember two things.

First, you can use previous years’ data as guidance. For example, if a salesman calls John Smith typically earns 50% commission on his base salary then there’s a reasonable chance he’ll do so again, within perhaps a 10% variance.

Alternatively, you can consider an average likely commission for the entire sales team and apply that to your budget.

Similarly, if the seasonality of your business meant that 100 hours of total overtime were worked in August last year, as one example, then there’s a strong chance this will repeat this year.

Secondly, remember that this is a budget only for your use and, literally by definition, a budget is an estimate. It’s not legally binding and doesn’t commit you to actually making the payments.

For example, if there’s a 10% yearly bonus potential, dependent on company performance, then you might add that in with a view to potentially downgrading or removing it when more information becomes available.

Taxes and National Insurance contributions

While there’s no need to account for the deductions that employees pay out of their wage, a variety of taxes are paid by employers. The key examples of these are as follows and should be featured in your budget.

  • Employer National Insurance Contributions (NICs): As an employer, you typically must pay a contribution to Class 1 NICs for each employee under retirement age. For the 2022/23 tax year, this is 13.25% deducted from monthly salary payments above £1,048.01, and up to £4,189. Any earnings above this have a rate of 3.25% applied. Because the NIC amount varies depending on each individual employee’s circumstances, it should be applied as a unique value on each employee line of your payroll budget.
  • Health and Social Care Levy: As of the 2023/24 tax year, employers will pay 1.25% of an employee’s gross salary cost to the Health and Social Care Levy. The criteria for whether or not this should be applied for a given employee are identical to those for NICs (with the exception that it applies to those over state pension age), so again this should be applied on a per-employee basis in your payroll budget document.
  • Apprenticeship Levy: Businesses with payrolls of more than £3m per year have to pay the Apprenticeship Levy. For the 2022/23 tax year, this is 0.5% of the total payroll cost, with a £15,000 allowance available before payment is due. Because of this, it’s unfortunately not quite as straightforward as applying a 0.5% addition to each individual wage, so it’s better to apply the deduction to the total wage calculation.

Auto-enrolment pension contributions

Auto-enrolment pensions should be provided for employees aged between 22 and 67 that earn over £10,000 per year (beginning on their third month working for you).

For all those employees that do not opt out, you should add 3% as a pension contribution payment to the budget line for that individual (pension contributions are not typically applied automatically to commissions or bonuses).

The contribution is applied before tax, so is applied to the gross salary figure.

Because some employees will opt-out, auto-enrolment pensions can’t simply be applied as 3% of the entire salary payments.

Of course, if you voluntarily contribute more than 3% as employer pension contributions then this should be added to the budget.

Any opted-in employee will also need to contribute a minimum of 5% of what they earn, but once again that’s outside the scope of your payroll budget, which details only payments your business must pay.

Statutory payments

As an employer, you’re potentially liable for statutory payments, such as the following:

  • Maternity pay
  • Shared parental pay
  • Paternity pay
  • Adoption pay
  • Sick pay.

Whether you include contingency planning for statutory payments is up to you.

Needless to say, predicting these in order to create a budget allowance is difficult and the same advice as mentioned above applies.

Check any historical payroll data you have, and remember that the payroll budget is an estimate for your own purposes, so has room for error and adjustment over time.

Other costs

Depending on the complexity of your payroll budget, there are other things you might choose to include. Here are some suggestions, but the list is not exhaustive.

  • Temporary and/or agency workers: You might split out in your payroll budget any temporary cover you need for employee absences, for example, or for busier-than-usual periods. Obviously, this will have to be listed in your budget document by position (and duration), rather than by employee name.
  • Agency and recruitment fees: You might include any fees that you have to pay an agency to recruit employees, including the aforementioned temporary workers.
  • Payroll software: You might include the costs of payroll software, including if the cost increases because of growth within your business should you take on more employees.
  • Outsourced payroll/financial services: If you use an outsourced payroll provider then you’ll want to include any fees you pay.
  • Occupational benefits: If you use third parties to provide occupational benefits to employees, such as dental care or cycle-to-work schemes, the cost of these might be included too.
  • Pension providers: If your business is small and you’re taking on your first employees then there might be a cost attached to setting up a pension provider. There’s unlikely to be an actual cost attached to signing up with a provider, but there will certainly be costs around admin time in choosing a provider or seeking advice from a professional such as an accountant.
  • Employment liability insurance: You may wish to include the cost of mandatory employment liability insurance, which is likely to vary depending on the number of employees and their place of work. This may change as your business grows, and your budget might reflect this.

The importance of good payroll software in payroll budgeting

Needless to say, any payroll budget is supported by good cloud payroll software that allows you to administer and understand your payroll easily.

Payroll software will provide the data you require—such as the number of employees, base salaries and more—to create your payroll budget in the first place.

It will also allow you to easily and periodically check your budget against the real-world bottom line to ensure things are running smoothly.

While the payroll budget might be created as a spreadsheet (see below), no other component of your regular payroll run should be run from a Microsoft Excel document.

That’s just making life significantly more difficult than it needs to be.

Filing pensions, issuing P60s and payslips, accessing accurate reports and more can be done with your payroll software, making the job of running an effective payroll much easier and less stressful.

How to create a payroll budget

Typically, people use a spreadsheet to create a payroll budget.

There are several template designs available online, although most tend to originate from the US, so lack many of the data fields discussed above.

The source data can be taken from your payroll software for the previous year, which can be extracted using the reporting functionality.

You might find there are integrations available for your payroll software that can give a hand, so you avoid using a spreadsheet other than perhaps when outputting reports.

As well as extracting the data more seamlessly, these integrations sometimes include additional functionality, such as visualising data so you can see cost projections at a single glance.

Regardless of how you create it, the budget can be as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be.

At its most simple, you can simply be a table into which you type in the aggregate yearly costs for a given department or team.

But spending some time creating a more complicated document is likely to pay dividends in terms of insight.

Although it may be tempting to list only job titles rather than the individuals who fulfil the roles, the nature of taxes and pension contributions are often personal to an individual’s circumstances.

Therefore, you will need to consider your budget on an employee-by-employee basis, and potentially amend it should somebody leave the business and be replaced.

It’s good practice to split out full time, part time, agency and other kinds of workers within the budget, so they have their own sections and you can see how these affect your bottom line.

Finally, remember that payroll data is highly confidential and contains personally identifiable data that’s protected by law. The payroll budget is therefore a document that you must ensure is secure at all times.

At the very least you should apply a password to the document, but you should also ensure it’s stored in a secure location, too.

Final thoughts on payroll budgets

Getting expert advice before you sit down to create a payroll budget is a great idea.

Bending the ear of your accountant, tax professional or a payroll professional can pay huge dividends in terms of time saved and mistakes avoided.

They might even have template documents you can reuse.

Speaking to other business owners you might know is also a great idea, and you can see how they structure payroll budgets and use them within their day-to-day business.