Preparing a Budget

  • Direct Costs

    PI identifies direct costs necessary to accomplish the proposed work.

    PI identifies any cost share required by the sponsor.

  • Indirect Costs

    SPA applies allowable indirect cost rate and calculations based on sponsor requirements.

  • Total Project Costs

    SPA confirms budget for allowability and proper application of all rates including tuition, fringe, and indirects.

    PI confirms budget aligns to the proposed scope or makes adjustments as necessary.

The budget includes both the sponsor and non-sponsor share of the total project cost. Proposed project costs are comprised of allowable direct costs, indirect costs, and cost-sharing.

  • Direct costs - specific line items in a budget directly attributable to the project such as salaries and fringe benefits, equipment, and travel.  
  • Indirect costs - these costs (also called facilities & administrative or overhead) are real costs the university incurs for the general support and management of the project. Indirect costs are calculated as a percentage of direct costs.
  • Cost Share - specific line items in a budget (direct and indirect) that will be paid for by the university or other non-sponsor source but are necessary for the project. Generally, NIU only offers cost share when required by the sponsor.

Allowable Costs

Allowable Costs are those that are:

General Budgeting Principles

General Budgeting Principles

The budget is the financial plan for your project or program. Ideally, this means you should consider your budget as you are developing the project. This is important for two reasons:

  1. Developing your budget alongside your narrative assures that the budget items are specifically related to activities described in the proposal.
  2. Reviewers often examine the budget in the context of the program narrative, evaluate whether sufficient and appropriate personnel to perform the work have been included, and match the overall budget to the work proposed.

Estimating the cost of a research project can be an inherently unpredictable exercise, primarily because the manner in which a research endeavor progresses is itself unpredictable. Experience makes budgeting easier and reasonable estimates are essential, however flexible re-budgeting authority from sponsors (when provided) makes precise estimating less critical.

Common Direct Costs

Salaries and Wages

Salary, wages, and fringe benefits should be budgeted for faculty and staff who participate on a sponsored project. Salaries and benefits are determined by the amount of time to be spent by the individual on the project (effort). Effort is expressed as either a percentage of time or person month.

Salaries for to-be-named positions should reflect market pay rates for the type of position and geographic area. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, and colleagues in your field or department may be a good resource for this information.

Budgeting administrative and clerical salaries require special consideration. See Unlike Circumstances: Budgeting Direct Costs Normally Classified as Indirect Costs.

Because budgets are an estimate of costs for conducting a particular program, salary increases for PIs and other staff may occur during the proposed project period. Unless the sponsor’s written guidelines expressly prohibit salary escalations, SPA strongly recommends applying a 4% escalation rate for salaries listed in future budget years. SPA will verify the base salary rate and escalation rate for all multiyear budgets.

Graduate Students

Graduate students are budgeted as assistantships, which include a monthly stipend and tuition remission, both pro-rated to the appointment term. Graduate assistants are budgeted at full-time (20 hours per week), three-quarter time (15 hours per week), or half-time (10 hours per week), and for a calendar year, academic term, semester, or summer only. Graduate student stipends are set by individual colleges and departments.  Contact your department for stipend rates.

Undergraduate Students

Undergraduate students are paid an hourly wage plus appropriate fringe benefits based on the type of position to be employed. Hourly wages must meet state and federal minimum wage requirements and should reflect market rates for the position as much as possible. Contact Human Resource Services for your specific situation.

Fringe Benefits

All salaries and wages included in the budget must include fringe benefits. Fringe benefits include Medicare, retirement (SURS), health, dental, and life insurance. Fringe benefit rates vary depending on (1) the employee's salary amount, (2) the type of salary requested – i.e., academic release time, summer, or additional compensation, and (3) the benefits choices made by the employee.

SPA can provide the appropriate fringe benefit rate based on fringe benefit information in PeopleSoft. Contact your Proposal Coordinator for details.


A consultant is not an NIU employee. This individual is hired to give professional advice or perform professional services for a fee. This line should also include any travel costs incurred by the consultant. Some sponsors may limit the amount of compensation for consultants. Refer to your sponsor guidelines for any limitations.

NIU faculty and staff who perform professional services on a grant or contract held by NIU cannot be listed as consultants; they should instead appear on the personnel line as an expert or specialist and any travel they undertake should be listed on the travel line. NIU employees will receive compensation in the form of summer salary, release time, or extra compensation.

See the NIU Independent Contractor Questionnaire to make sure the individual is eligible for pay as a consultant.


Budgets can include travel costs when the travel is directly related to and/or necessary for the performance of the proposed project, and when the sponsor allows it. Money is typically requested to attend professional/scientific conferences, for data collection or field work, and/or PI meetings. Travel should be budgeted in accordance with sponsor guidelines and institutional and State of Illinois travel regulations.


SPA recommends budgeting $1,500 per person per conference for domestic conferences, and $2,500 per trip for international conferences in general, although these amounts may be altered for special circumstances. These amounts include airfare and/or ground transportation, lodging, meals, and registration fees. If you are flying, remember to budget for transportation to and from the airport.

Field Costs

Field research often carries unusual travel requirements, and sponsors that support field research are typically familiar with and allow such costs to be budgeted. The sponsor's budget guidelines should list any budget restrictions. Field research travel budgets will vary by the field site location (e.g., how remote it is, the social and political environment surrounding the location, the physical infrastructure of the area, etc.) and the length of time of the stay. Items budgeted for field research may include travel to the site (airfare and ground transportation to and from the airport, which may mean renting a jeep to get to a remote site), rental of a special vehicle and/or paying a driver to transport staff and supplies to and from the field location, and/or "camp fees" at an established field location (which include lodging and meals at a daily rate).

Supplies and Consumables

Supplies must be purchased solely to support the proposed project, and necessary for its completion. Except in Unlike Circumstances general or departmental supplies cannot be purchased as direct costs on grants.


Equipment is defined as a single item having a useful life of at least one year and costing at least $5,000. All other items are budgeted as supplies.

  • Special Purpose Equipment: is equipment that is used only for research, medical, scientific, or other technical activities. Examples of special purpose equipment include microscopes, genomic sequencers, imaging equipment, and spectrometers.
  • General Purpose Equipment: is equipment which is not limited to research, medical, scientific or other technical activities. Examples include office equipment and furnishings, telephone networks, information technology equipment and systems, air conditioning equipment, and reproduction and printing equipment. Such equipment is generally considered an indirect cost unless an Unlike Circumstance exists.
  • Fabricated Equipment: The purchase of individual components that will ultimately form a single unit reaching a threshold of at least $5,000 will be capitalized per University policy. Salary and wages of; Principal Investigators, key personnel, post-doctoral students and graduate students who participate in the fabrication of the piece are not consider labor and should not be included with the value of the item.
Human Subject Payments

If you have human subjects involved in your sponsored project, you may wish to compensate them for their participation.

The total cost is usually entered in the budget under the section for Other and should be detailed in the budget justification (ex: $100/participant for 50 participants).

See NIU Payments to Research Participants Policy.

Participant Support Costs

Participant support costs are allowed only if all of the following criteria are met:

  • The costs are programmatically justified;
  • The costs are explicitly included in the budget and the budget is approved or prior written approval is received from the Federal awarding agency; and
  • The expense does not take indirect costs.

Payments to human subjects are never budgeted as Participant Support Costs.

Who is a participant?

A participant is defined as a non-NIU employee who is the recipient, not the provider, of a training associated with a workshop, conference, seminar, symposium, or other short-term instructional or information sharing activity. Participants are not required to provide any deliverable to NIU, and they are not subject to NIU human resources policies (e.g., they cannot be terminated for failure to perform). Participants may include students, scholars, and scientists from other institutions, representatives of private sector companies, teachers, and state or local government agency personnel.

What expenses can be included in participant support costs?

Participant support costs include expenditures for items such as the following:

  • Stipend – A stipend is a set amount of money to be paid directly to the participant in connection with a short-term training activity. Note that short-term means the appointment period approved by the sponsor.
  • Travel – Travel includes the costs of transportation and associated costs and must follow sponsor guidelines (e.g., US flag carrier, coach class, most direct route) as well as NIU’s travel policies and guidelines. The sole purpose of the trip must be to participate in the project activity. If a training activity involves field trips, the cost of transportation for participants may be allowable.
  • Subsistence allowance – The cost of a participant’s housing and per diem expenses necessary for the individual to participate in the project are generally allowed, provided these expenses are reasonable and limited to the days of attendance. Although they may participate in meals and snacks provided at the meeting or conference, participants who live in the local area are not entitled to subsistence payments.
  • Fees – The fees paid by a participant in connection with meetings, conferences, symposia, or training projects are generally allowable costs. These fees may include laboratory fees, passport or visa fees for foreign participants, and registration fees.
  • Other – Certain other costs paid on behalf of or to the participant as required for their involvement may be allowable, including training materials, laboratory supplies, and insurance.

See NIU Policy on Participant Support Costs.

Tuition Remission

It is current policy (see our Tuition Remission Policy and Procedure (PDF) under NIU Resources/Forms) that funds for tuition remission be budgeted for graduate research assistants (GRA) included in grant and contract proposals unless the sponsor does not allow tuition remission. Full in-state tuition (18 credit hours for combined fall/spring semesters, 6 credit hours for a summer semester) should be budgeted for each GRA involved in the project for a full academic year. Tuition costs should be pro-rated for GRAs involved on projects for less than a full academic year. Remission is budgeted using the In-state tuition Instruction Rate. See the NIU Office of the Bursar for current rates. 

Unallowable Costs

Unallowable Costs

The following costs are normally unallowable (as both a direct and indirect cost) unless specifically authorized.  Do not budget or attempt to charge these costs with consulting with Sponsored Programs Administration.

  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Alumni Activities
  • Entertainment Costs
  • Fines, Penalties, and Settlements
  • Fund Raising
  • Goods or Services for Personal Use
  • Lobbying
  • Student Activity Costs

Cost Share

Cost Share

In some cases, a sponsor may require cost sharing – the contribution of in-kind or cash support to a project by NIU. Generally, the university will normally commit to cost sharing only when it is mandated by the sponsor to meet specific requirements of the funding program. 

Cost sharing disclosed to a sponsor in a grant proposal must be tracked during the award, and if the obligation is not met, there may be consequences. In cases where cost sharing is required, approval from the head of the unit whose budget will provide the cost sharing is required. Cost sharing should always be discussed and approved well in advance of the proposal deadline.

  • In general, avoid cost-sharing except when required by sponsor or program guidelines
  • If a project involves cost-sharing, make sure your dean/director/department chair are all involved in the discussion
  • Cost-sharing specified in a proposal is subject to audit and must be documented

See NIU Policy on Cost Sharing.

Indirect Costs

Indirect Costs

Indirect costs (overhead, facilities and administrative F&A costs) are the infrastructure and administrative costs associated with sponsored projects that cannot be attributed to any one individual project with a high degree of accuracy (e.g., buildings and maintenance, utilities, departmental administration, sponsored programs administration, library resources, etc.) but are real costs university incurs to support these programs.

These costs must be included in budgets and are calculated based on NIU’s federally negotiated indirect cost rate applicable to the project.

See Indirect Cost Recovery.

Budget Justification

Budget Justification

Not to be overlooked is the budget justification (sometimes referred to as the budget narrative). The budget justification is the narrative in the proposal that substantiates the line items in your budget.

Key elements to include in the justification are:

  • A detailed justification of the expense or service
  • How the expense relates to and benefits the project
  • The anticipated cost
  • The time period in which it will be utilized
  • Other information that will aid the sponsor in evaluating the proposed item

Federal agencies will generally provide either a form or a prescribed format for estimating and presenting costs; it is important to follow their instructions exactly. Many federal agencies that haven’t developed their own forms use the SF 424 as their standard format but always check the specific RFP/FOA and the agency guidelines for any unique rules.

Budget Templates


Other Considerations

Budgets must be developed following Uniform Guidance and Cost Accounting Standards. The information provided on this page is intended to assist in this.

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