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Budget Planning 101: How to make the money you spend “count" in nursing education.

For many of us working in undergraduate nursing education, some of what we are expected to do on a daily/weekly/monthly basis is not even remotely related to nursing. That can’t be true, you might be thinking. Educating nurses is about two things: education and nursing. And if I know about those two fields, I can be successful in my career journey…right? Not necessarily so. 

Consider the plight of the undergraduate Nursing Lab Manager or Undergraduate Nursing Simulation Coordinator. One of the most critical aspects of this role is managing an often-limited and sometimes wildly fluctuating budget. To complicate things even more, securing grant funding is frequently expected. I don’t know about all of you, but economics, budget planning, financial management, and grant writing were not part of my undergraduate or graduate nursing curriculum. 

Managing a budget in an undergraduate nursing program laboratory requires careful planning and resource allocation.

Here are some tips to help you effectively manage your nursing education budget:

  1. The Devil is in the Details:

  • Identify all the expenses associated with running the laboratory, including supplies, equipment maintenance, utilities, and any other recurring costs.
  • Categorize your expenses to have a clear understanding of where the money is being allocated.
  • Your finance department may have “block out” periods when you are not able to spend money—even if you have it in your budget! For example, when I worked as a simulation manager in the government, the last 2 weeks of each quarter were times when the department credit card was off limits so that the statements and quarters could be reconciled and “closed.” While working at a community college, the end of the fiscal year was a time when we needed to spend down the lab budget to make sure that any residual funds were not “swept.” So, I always had a list of potential ways to quickly spend any given amount of money. Make sure you know the rules about whether or not the orders need to be received before the fiscal year ends.
  1. Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize:

  • Distinguish between essential and non-essential supplies. Prioritize the items that are crucial for maintaining the lab's functionality and meeting educational objectives.
  • Ensure that you always have an adequate stock of essential supplies to avoid disruptions in lab activities.
  1. Be a Bargain Hunter:

  • Look for opportunities to buy supplies in bulk, which can often result in discounts or reduced per-unit costs. This is particularly useful for items that have a longer shelf life. 
  • Sometimes bargains may be a little challenging to purchase…in my community college years, I was able to make small purchases under a certain amount with my personal credit card and submit the receipts for reimbursement. That makes the dollar discount stores potential places to shop.  If your institution is tax exempt be sure to take a form with you, or you may not be able to be reimbursed for the sales tax.  Check with your finance department before making any bargain shopping purchases. When I was in a government hospital-based sim role, we had everchanging regulations on where we were allowed to spend government funds… Sometimes Amazon and Walmart were fair game, and, other years, they were off limits!  Please stay up to date on your guidelines, and when in doubt, ASK!
  1. Fear Not the Elusive Grant:

  • Research and apply for grants or funding opportunities specific to nursing education or laboratory development. Many organizations provide financial support for educational programs. Find out if your school has a grant writer or a foundation that can assist you. See the Sim2Grow blog post on grant writing for more help!
  1. Collaboration is Key:

  • Explore partnerships with other departments within the college, university, or nearby institutions. Sharing resources or purchasing collectively can lead to cost savings for everyone involved.
  • Donations are your friend.  In both my academic and clinical practice simulation experiences, people often donated outdated or no longer needed supplies.  I found it easier to accept all the donations and sort through them to decide what to keep and what to pass on. You never know what’s at the bottom of that box- it might be an expired supply that is just what you were looking for to use in your simulations! Make sure you dispose of sharps or real medications in accordance with your policies.
  1. What’s in a Name:

  • Research different suppliers for your laboratory needs. Sometimes, alternative suppliers offer similar quality products at a lower cost. But be sure to maintain quality standards when considering alternatives. 
  1. All Hands on Deck:

  • Encourage a culture of resourcefulness and cost-consciousness among faculty and students. Implement measures such as turning off equipment when not in use, proper maintenance practices, and efficient use of supplies.
  1. Be a Bean Counter:

  • This one takes discipline but will “pay” in the end. Regularly monitor your budget and track actual expenditures against the planned budget. This will help identify any discrepancies or areas where adjustments may be needed.
  1. You Get What You Pay For:

  • While it might seem cost-effective to opt for cheaper equipment, investing in quality and durable items can save money in the long run by reducing maintenance and replacement costs.
  • Purchasing refurbished equipment can be the difference between giving your students “real” experiences in the lab and needing to cross your fingers and hope they see it in their clinicals.  The refurbished IV pumps I used in a community college were reliable and provided a great experience for the students to practice in the lab.  On the other hand, I felt like some of the refurbished beds I purchased were a giant thorn in my side. I cannot count the times I needed the service tech to come and repair them… again and again. (Technically, I did count the times because that data is how I was able to justify replacing some of the beds with new unused ones and which specific beds were the first to go!).  When you purchase refurbished items, make sure you have documentation about how the company will support you when you have issues and for how long that support will be available.
  1. Think Outside the Box: 
  • Explore alternatives to traditional procurement routes. Look for open educational resources that can supplement your lab materials. OER can be a cost-effective way to enhance the educational experience without the need for expensive textbooks or resources.
  1. Put Their Money Where Their Mouth Is:
  • Get buy-in from everyone on the team. Ensure that all staff are aware of the budget constraints and involve them in the decision-making process. Training them to be mindful of expenses can contribute to overall budget management.
  1. Close the Loop:
  • Engage students in the budget management process. They may have valuable input on cost-effective practices and may even be able to contribute ideas for fundraising or securing additional resources. And you’re creating. A generation of cost-conscious practitioners in the process. 

By following these tips and maintaining a proactive approach to budget management, you can optimize the use of resources in your undergraduate nursing program laboratory and simulation center. What are your budget questions?  Ask them here and see if our community can lend you a hand.