Four Ways to Think About Trimming Your Budget

For a period of years, I sported a combover. I was resistant to losing those strands that separated me from baldness. One day, as soon as I sat down in the chair, the stylist grabbed a fistful of long hairs flowing from the right side of my scalp and made two quick scissor snips. It was done. Over. Cut was made, painful decision done with.

One of the inconveniences of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders has been the limited availability of barbers and hair stylists. The value of my baldness has never been quite so appreciated. My friends have taken to letting their hair grow, which has resulted in frustration, embarrassment and/or a sense of futility. Some of my friends have trimmed their own hair (often with disappointing results). It’s been interesting to observe how hair and its need for cutting has played out in the past few months…

…Which naturally leads me to think about institution-wide budgeting for the next and coming years. Natural segue, right? Like hair, it’s very likely you are thinking about (or being told to think about) trimming back on your budget. Recognizing the almost inevitable potential for income shortfalls, most institutions are now moving into plans for cutting budgets. The wisdom of looking ahead can’t be overstated. Your continued success depends on your ability to be flexible with resources. 

As you consider how you make cuts, let us describe four approaches for consideration:

1. The bowl cut

You may remember this cut from your youth. The Beatles made the bowl cut cool in the 1960s, and it’s made appearances as a fashion statement in the years since. Historically, the bowl cut was typically given by the father-barber or mother-barber due to the ease of delivery: simply place a bowl upside down over the head and trim off the hair that falls beneath the rim. Easy peasy.

When it comes to budget cuts, the bowl cut is popular; there’s a standard cutback across the board. Every department trims by a certain percentage. This cut is fairly easy to manage institutionally (though more painful for some departments than others) and the entire community shares equally in the cuts. The down side is that it can be made unattractive because not every department has the capacity for an equal cut; some resource-generating services are unnecessarily disadvantaged at a time when perhaps more resources are required (think enrollment and advancement vs maybe student services); and some departments who’ve been “stashing” contingency funds may have unfair advantage over those who may not have been tucking extra away for such a time as this.

2. Leave the bangs alone

In contrast to the bowl cut described above, some institutions will opt for cutting in areas that seem more backstage than others. Publicly facing areas like marketing, recruitment and fund-raising may not be reduced given their ability to generate needed income. While this approach may be considered in the best interest of the institution, departments that are asked to reduce budgets may grow resentful or worse, laissez-faire, about their roles in ensuring the success of the institution. Be certain when choosing this haircut that you communicate the value of all departments and the importance of delivering well despite reductions in resources. You want to present a coherent look between the front and the back, after all.

Perhaps a more dramatic option of leaving the bangs is a buzzcut. You may consider this an opportunity for eliminating departments and programs that are not generating support or customer interest. While a buzz may appear easy, it’s not. The ramifications of a buzz cut can have a deleterious effect on the entire community. Before you lift your razor, be certain you have studied carefully the ramifications. If you’ve ever had a buzz cut, you know the anxiety that accompanies the decision for one. But once it’s done, it’s done. The upside of the buzz cut is the immediate cost benefit of eliminating an entire expense path. Another benefit comes from the process and experience of evaluating all your deliverables for their efficacy for the institution. (For that matter, this is a process you should undertake whether you need to make reductions or not.)

3. Shampoo and a blow dry

You do have another choice, but it’s an option for only a few. You can choose to do nothing; no cuts, no trims, no restyle. If you’re really fortunate, you can move forward with the resources you have. Your current hair may carry you forward. Your choice is to be sure your hair is clean and properly brushed or combed. Lucky you to be so well-groomed—go forth with confidence.

4. A whole new ’do

This odd period of time we’re experiencing gives rise to amazing opportunities for innovation. So much of what you deliver has been disrupted and turned on its head. You’ve discovered capabilities you didn’t know you had. You’ve found new strength in your community. You identified things you can live without. You’ve seen possibilities you might not have considered under “normal” circumstances. You’ve flexed muscles you didn’t know you had.

So as long as your hair is a bit long, it may be time to consider a whole new hairdo. Could you emerge from this disruption better and stronger? Likely. Use your imagination to build on both your old and new-found strengths to re-invent.

Of course, be certain to bring your community and customers with you. You’ll have to invest in careful marketing efforts and loads of communication so everyone recognizes you with your new style.

Given global circumstances, some budget considerations and, most likely, reductions are inevitable for you and your institution. Weigh carefully your options before you start cutting (remember the adage: measure twice, cut once!). You want to look your best on the other side of the cut. But then, be quick about it.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.