Many governments have recently gone on record promising large-scale expansions of protected areas to meet global commitments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. As systems of protected areas are expanded to be more comprehensive, they are more likely to be implemented if planners have realistic budget estimates so that appropriate funding can be requested. Estimating financial budgets a priori must acknowledge the inherent uncertainties and assumptions associated with key parameters, so planners should recognize these uncertainties by estimating ranges of potential costs. We explore the challenge of budgeting a priori for protected area expansion in the face of uncertainty, specifically considering the future expansion of protected areas in Queensland, Australia. The government has committed to adding ~12 million ha to the reserve system, bringing the total area protected to 20 million ha by 2020. We used Marxan to estimate the costs of potential reserve designs with data on actual land value, market value, transaction costs, and land tenure. With scenarios, we explored three sources of budget variability: size of biodiversity objectives; subdivision of properties; and legal acquisition routes varying with tenure. Depending on the assumptions made, our budget estimates ranged from $214 million to $2.9 billion. Estimates were most sensitive to assumptions made about legal acquisition routes for leasehold land. Unexpected costs (costs encountered by planners when real-world costs deviate from assumed costs) responded non-linearly to inability to subdivide and percentage purchase of private land. A financially conservative approach - one that safeguards against large cost increases while allowing for potential financial windfalls - would involve less optimistic assumptions about acquisition and subdivision to allow Marxan to avoid expensive properties where possible while meeting conservation objectives. We demonstrate how a rigorous analysis can inform discussions about the expansion of systems of protected areas, including the identification of factors that influence budget variability.