Saving the pennies

So, you’ve finally got your grant money and you’re raring to get started on your research – but first you’ve got to budget!

Budgeting is unlikely to be your favourite part of your job but it’s unavoidable. After all the hard work (and possibly missed sleep too) you’re bound to want to make the most of your grant money.

If you’re new to lab budgeting, or simply feel you could do with some extra pointers, we’ve put together our top tips to help:

Buying your lab equipment

First, you’ll need to make that all-important decision about the equipment you need to do your work.

Once you’ve identified which equipment is essential to your research, it is worth finding out what is already available in your institution. You might find you can share certain equipment, or perhaps there’s some which is no longer being used and is simply gathering dust. You might be surprised what you can find by simply asking around.

When you know what you need to buy, make a checklist of the key features you’re looking for and do your research before speaking to a sales rep. It will help you have a more productive conversation with them. When you speak to manufacturers and suppliers, you’ll soon get a sense of the ones who know their stuff and are therefore more likely to prove helpful later on.

Ask colleagues for recommendations and try to find out as much as you can about the equipment and manufacturer you are considering.

In some cases, it certainly pays to spend more. You may not need state of the art equipment for everything you do but if it helps increase your productivity, it may be worth it. Newer equipment may also be more energy efficient and therefore cost less to run. They may have features like lab automation which can save you time – and time is money after all!

You may also want to consider getting servicing and maintenance contracts for equipment you are particularly reliant on. Such contracts will give you peace of mind from knowing your equipment will be prioritised for repairs, so you won’t be held back by downtime. They may even entitle you to discounts on spare parts. Making sure your equipment is well maintained will help it last longer and save you money in the long run.

Budgeting for supplies and consumables

Next, you need to budget for the supplies and consumables you’ll be using daily, such as reagents and glassware. Buy these in bulk, if possible.

Consider whether setting up a standing order may be helpful, so you’re less likely to run out of your essentials and you’ll have a fixed cost, which will make budgeting easier.

After you’ve been doing your research for a while, you’ll have a better sense of how much you need to spend on consumables. You can then adjust your budget as necessary.

Employing the right staff

Employing technicians and postdocs may be costly but the right ones will prove to be a real asset to your lab.

Some of the post docs may have their own grant money but you’ll still need to make sure they are a good fit for your lab. The wrong person can be a costly mistake – so don’t rush into this!

Even if you’re feeling the pressure to produce results, don’t be tempted to employ lots of people from the very start in an attempt to increase your productivity. Take time to think about which skills will make a difference to your lab. More experienced staff may cost more but they may be invaluable, especially if they can work with minimal supervision and help more junior staff.

Be thorough during your recruitment process, so you have the best possible picture of the person you are employing. Speaking to their referees, particularly their past supervisors, is essential. Inviting them in to meet the rest of your lab staff is also worthwhile because they might be more relaxed speaking to them and may therefore open up more.

Aim to assess their commitment to the role and try to uncover any valuable qualities they have that might not be immediately obvious. For example, will they take a creative approach to solving problems? How much of a team player are they? You could do this by delving a little deeper into their published work to get a true sense of their involvement.

Be sure to set aside budget for staff training too, like attending conferences.

Day to day budgeting tips

It pays to budget like a business. Even if you don’t feel like accounting is your strong point, it is worth getting to grips with some basics. If you really want to get in-depth, you could learn to calculate your burn rate and the ROI of the money you spend. Take the time to calculate your fixed and variable costs. Your variable costs will increase with your productivity but your fixed costs won’t. Look for ways to keep fixed costs down.

Record every penny you spend from day one and review your costs regularly, so you can work out where waste is creeping in. Rather than doing this manually, you may find software like a chemical management system is helpful.

Look for little ways you can save costs while doing common tasks, then monitor what impact your cost saving measures are having. For example, taking measures to use less energy in the lab won’t just be good for the environment, it will help save money too. Make energy saving part of your lab’s culture by encouraging everyone to make a habit of doing simple things like turning off lights and computers they don’t need on. Aim to recycle and reuse supplies whenever you can.

One last thing…

Don’t be shy about asking colleagues for budgeting tips too. The vast majority will be happy to help, since they’ll have been where you are at some point.

Do you have your own money saving tips? We’d love to hear them! You can let us know what they are by tweeting us @Radleys.