What are Variable Costs? A Simple Guide for Small Businesses

variable cost guide

Whether you’re an entrepreneur running a startup or a small business owner, understanding variable costs is crucial for managing business expenses, forecasting profits, and making strategic decisions. In this blog post, we will delve into the details of variable costs – from their definition to their calculation. We will differentiate between variable costs, fixed costs, and marginal costs, providing clear examples for each to cement your understanding.

What is variable cost?

Variable cost refers to business expenses that vary directly with the level of output or production. In other words, when a company produces more goods or services, the variable cost increases; when it produces less, the variable cost decreases. Examples of variable costs include raw materials, direct labor costs, and utilities associated with the production process like electricity or water usage.

What is the difference between fixed cost, variable cost, and marginal cost (with examples)

Understanding the difference between variable costs, fixed costs, and marginal costs is essential for managing business expenses and making strategic decisions.

Variable cost

Variable costs are business expenses that change in proportion to the level of output or production. As production increases, variable costs increase; as production decreases, these costs decrease.

  • Examples of variable costs:
    • Cost of raw materials: The cost increases with increased production.
    • Direct labor costs: More labor hours are required when production levels increase.
    • Utilities: Higher levels of production often require more power, water, or gas, increasing utility costs.
    • Packaging and shipping costs: More units produced and sold mean more costs for packaging materials and delivery expenses.

Fixed cost

Fixed costs are expenses that do not change with the level of output or production. These costs are constant, regardless of how much a business produces or sells.

  • Examples of fixed costs:
    • Rent: The cost of renting a space for business operations doesn’t change with the level of production.
    • Salaries: Many staff salaries are fixed and do not change with the level of production.
    • Insurance: The cost of insuring a business or its equipment remains the same, no matter how many units are produced.
    • Depreciation: This is the loss of value of assets over time, and it is also a fixed cost as it does not change with the level of production.

Marginal cost

Marginal cost are the costs of producing one additional unit of a product. It is the different in the total cost that arises when the quantity produced changes by one unit.

  • Examples of marginal cost:
    • Manufacturing an additional unit: For instance, in a computer factory, the cost of raw materials, labor, and utilities necessary to produce one additional computer is the marginal cost.
    • Publishing an additional book: The cost of editing, designing, printing, and binding one more copy of a book is the marginal cost.
    • Preparing an additional meal in a restaurant: The cost of ingredients, labor, and utilities for preparing one more meal is the marginal cost.

How to calculate variable cost

Calculating variable costs involves identifying all the costs that vary directly with the level of production, then adding them up. Here’s a step-by-step process:

  1. Identify variable costs: The first step is to identify all the variable costs associated with the production. These might include costs like raw materials, direct labor costs, packaging, and utilities used in the production process.
  2. Determine variable cost per unit: Once all variable costs are identified, calculate the variable cost per unit. This might involve dividing the total cost of each variable element by the total quantity of units produced.
  3. Calculate total variable cost: Finally, multiply the variable cost per unit by the total quantity of units produced to calculate the total variable cost.

Variable cost formula

Variable Cost = Total Quantity of Output x Variable Cost per Unit

This formula implies that variable costs are determined by the quantity of output and the variable cost of producing each unit.

variable cost formula

Variable cost calculation examples

variable cost example

Suppose a company manufactures pens. The cost of materials for each pen is $1, and the labor cost per pen is $2. The company wants to produce 1000 pens.

Using the formula:

Variable Cost = Total Quantity of Output x Variable Cost per Unit

The calculation would be:

Variable Cost = 1000 pens x ($1 material cost + $2 labor cost) Variable Cost = $3000

In this case, the variable cost of producing 1000 pens is $3000.

Why is variable cost important to business?

Variable cost is an essential concept in business for several reasons:

1. Pricing and profitability: Understanding variable costs helps businesses set product pricing strategy accurately. By knowing the cost of producing each additional unit (i.e., the variable cost), businesses can price their goods or services to cover these costs and ensure profitability.

2. Financial planning and budgeting: Accurate forecasting of variable costs is crucial in budgeting and financial planning. As these costs fluctuate with changes in production volume, understanding them allows businesses to plan for various production scenarios effectively.

3. Cost control and efficiency: Identifying variable costs allows businesses to find ways to reduce these costs and improve efficiency. For instance, a company could negotiate better rates with suppliers to reduce raw material costs or invest in technology to lower labor costs.

4. Decision making: Variable costs are vital in various strategic decisions, like determining whether to increase production, enter a new market, or launch a new product. Understanding these costs aids in conducting a break-even analysis or profitability analysis.

5. Performance evaluation: Changes in variable costs can provide insights into operational efficiency. For instance, if variable costs per unit increase, it might indicate issues with production efficiency or supplier pricing.

Why is variable cost important to business?

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Variable cost FAQs

Is salary a variable cost?

Salaries are generally considered a fixed cost because they typically remain the same each pay period regardless of the level of production or sales. A salaried employee receives the same amount whether the company’s output rises or falls.

However, in some instances, salaries could have a variable component. For instance, if an employee is paid a base salary plus a commission based on sales volume, then the commission part of their earnings is a variable cost. Additionally, in businesses where employees are paid on a piece-rate basis (they are paid a specific amount for each unit they produce), their earnings could be considered a variable cost because their total earnings vary with the number of units they produce.

So, while salaries are usually considered a fixed cost, the nature of the payment agreement could introduce a variable component.

Can advertising be considered a variable cost?

Advertising can be both a fixed or variable cost, depending on the nature of the expenditure. If the advertising cost changes with the level of production or sales, such as a commission-based advertising agreement, it is a variable cost.

How does the concept of variable cost relate to economies of scale?

Economies of scale occur when increased production leads to a decrease in the per-unit variable cost. This is because some costs, like the purchase of raw materials in bulk or the efficient use of production machinery, can decrease per unit as volume increases.

How are variable costs treated in accounting? 

In accounting, variable costs are typically included in the cost of goods sold (COGS) on the income statement. They are subtracted from sales revenue to determine gross profit.

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