Morphological budgeting is a key method for monitoring and studying sediment transfers within gravelly rivers. We assess the utility of traditional cross‐section approaches to budgeting using Digital Elevation Model (DEM) analysis. DEMs give a more accurate volume calculation within the
constraint of sampling frequency compared with cross sections, since a greater area of river bed is sampled. DEM volume calculation within the 1.7 km ‘Three Beaches’ reach in the upper Motueka revealed a net loss of 3219 m3 in this reach between 2008‐2009. Comparisons of this value with cross section‐based volume calculations at a range of section spacing using (i) Mean Bed Level (MBL) analysis and (ii) DEMs generated from cross section data, suggest accuracy of the budget is maximised at a critical cross section spacing not exceeding 90 m. Careful positioning of cross sections could lengthen this distance further and is essential to accurately represent river channel morphology. MBL analysis using cross‐sections in the reach monumented by Tasman District Council (TDC) for river monitoring underestimates the magnitude of net sediment transfers by c. 30%.