Writing Budget Justifications

A Budget Justification is the narrative that accompanies your budget and can be up to five pages in length. This is where investigators validate and explain the dollar amounts they requested in their line-item budget. Justifications explain pay rates, duties of personnel, time commitments, materials and supplies, and other things necessary to complete the proposed work.

While writing your Budget Justification, you should ensure you are answering these questions:

  1. Why are the requested funds needed?
  2. How does each item in the budget help meet the proposed deliverables?
  3. How were these requested funds estimated?

As always when preparing a proposal, it’s important to follow guidance in the PAPPG. In addition to the details provided there, here are three general pieces of advice to write the best Budget Justification:

  1. Use Parallel Formatting with the Budget template

You can easily organize and format your Budget Justification using the same letter and number system used in the budget template. This also helps your Program Officer locate specific items and amounts.

Using Senior Personnel as an example, your budget template will look something like this:

Then, your budget justification should follow this order:

A. Senior Personnel

  1. Pomona Sprout- Principal Investigator, # months work/year, list specific responsibilities and explain how she arrived at this calculation. Year 1 $$$$, Year 2 $$$$, Year 3 $$$$, Year 4 $$$$
  2. Indiana Jones- Co-Principal Investigator, # months work/year, list specific responsibilities and explain how he arrived at this calculation. Year 1 $$$$, Year 2 $$$$, Year 3 $$$$, Year 4 $$$$
  3. Budgeting Salaries: Time and Rates

For all personnel, show what amounts you are asking for and state how you calculated those salary amounts. If you are not requesting salary, you can  provide a brief explanation of why. Give a monthly breakdown and include any fringe rates. If you are requesting more than two months of salary for any senior personnel, provide clear rationale. Some commonly seen exemptions include that the person has a soft money position or that the project scope requires buying out of teaching time (as might be the case at an undergraduate institution). Also keep in mind that the two-months of salary for an individual is counted across all NSF awards that person is associated with.

  1. Avoid common mistakes in Section G. Other Direct Costs

Section G is often where confusion happens. The best way to avoid confusion is to start in the PAPPG, which clearly defines which costs should live in lines G1-G6. Some key points to keep in mind:

  • Section G.1 (Materials and Supplies): Materials and Supplies that will be used by students or trainees listed under Participant Support Costs can be (but are not required to be) included in G.1, allowing for the application of indirect costs.
  • Section G.3 (Consultant Services)If you are using the consultant category, the PAPPG requires information about each individual’s expertise, primary organizational affiliation, normal daily compensation rate, and number of days of expected service. You can include consultant travel cost, but will need to justify them.
  • Section G.5 (Subawards): For each subaward, a budget and budget narrative need to be prepared and submitted. Please make sure that the subaward budgets list the subawardee institution and PI (and not the information of the lead institution and PI again).
  • Section G.6 (Other Direct Costs – Other): This is a catch-all category that will always attract scrutiny, so especially for this section be sure to be explicit about what you’re requesting, why, and how much it will cost.
  • Graduate student tuition goes in G.6. Other.
  • Double check the indirect-cost (overhead) rates

If most of your work is off-campus, check with your Authorized Organizational Representative about whether the off-campus indirect cost rate applies. Different institutions have different policies on when the off-campus rate is appropriate and sometimes Sponsored Research Offices simply assume that all work is on-campus.  Because the off-campus rate is typically about half of the on-campus rate, it will make a big difference in your requested budget.

In Conclusion

Justify everything. Assume nothing. If necessary, clarify the NSF budget guidelines with your Authorized Organizational Representative prior to submitting a proposal. This is especially important for rare or unusual expenditures, such as foreign subawards or consultancies or salary requests beyond two months for any senior personnel. It’s also important for normal expenditures like travel.

For example, don’t just write, “I need $8,000 for international travel to go to two meetings in Europe.” Use an airfare estimator and show the breakdown of costs.

Again, make sure your Program Officer will be able to understand how you came up with the total number you’re requesting in each category. There’s no harm in adding a table to show calculations. And this may seem obvious, but make sure the numbers in the budget justification match the numbers in the budget.

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