Contribution Margin vs. Gross Margin: What's the Difference?

It's more than just expenses

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Contribution margin and gross are both measures of profitability. They help business owners make decisions about pricing, what products to sell, and how they can increase profits. The two measures, however, look at the relationship between sales and profits differently.

Gross margin includes all expenses directly related to sales, while contribution margin only includes variable expenses related to sales. Learn what the difference is and why it’s important.

What’s the Difference Between Contribution Margin and Gross Margin?

  Contribution Margin Gross Margin
How it’s calculated Sales - Variable expenses Sales - Cost of goods sold (COGS)
What it measures Profitability of individual products Profitability of the business
What it’s used for Internal reporting, calculating breakeven, product and pricing decisions External reporting, profitability over time

How It’s Calculated

The contribution margin formula is:

Sales - Variable expenses

Variable expenses are all expenses directly related to the unit being sold that change with the number of sales. Sales commissions and shipping are examples of variable expenses.

The contribution margin ratio is a helpful metric based on contribution margin. It expresses the contribution margin as a percentage of sales:

Contribution margin / Sales

The gross margin formula is:

Sales - Cost of goods sold (COGS)

COGS include all expenses directly related to manufacturing a product or delivering a service. Materials, labor, shipping, inventory, and rent are examples of COGS.


The gross margin ratio is the gross margin expressed as a percentage of sales: Gross margin / Sales.

What It Does

Contribution margin reveals how individual components of the business are performing, such as products or individual departments. Contribution margin only includes variable expenses related to producing and selling specific products. It doesn’t include any fixed expenses, and often appears in its own income statement.

Gross margin shows business owners how well they’re allocating resources to the products and services that they offer. Gross profit margin doesn’t include indirect expenses such as accounting and legal fees, corporate expenses, and office expenses.

What It’s Used For

Companies use contribution margin to evaluate the profitability of individual products and managers. It’s a tool to evaluate performance because fixed expenses that managers don’t control aren’t included.

Business owners can use the contribution margin to calculate the level of sales needed to break even at both the business level and on product-related sales and marketing initiatives because it represents the total dollars available to offset expenses.


Contribution margins help business owners decide on the best mix of products to maximize profitability and plan accordingly.

Businesses can use gross margin to look at the overall health of the business, and it appears on the income statement. You can look at the changes in gross profit margins on a quarterly and annual basis, and relate that to marketing, sales, and cost-reduction efforts.

Looking at the gross margin over time is also an indicator of the business’s growth and efficiency. Business owners can use gross profit margins to benchmark themselves against competitors. Gross profit margin ratios by industry are readily available.

Gross margin is also useful to analyze customer sales and profitability. Identifying the most profitable customers can help business owners determine what their ideal customer profile looks like, and plan accordingly.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Contribution Margin and Gross Margin

Contribution Margin Pros and Cons

The contribution margin of individual products is easier to calculate because it only includes expenses that vary directly with sales, such as materials and commissions.

However, using contribution margin as the basis for forecasting profits can be misleading. Fixed expenses don’t always remain constant as sales grow, which changes the contribution margin break-even for sales.

Gross Margin Pros and Cons

The big advantage of gross margin for analyzing the business is that it’s a standard metric. It’s easy to compare how your business is performing relative to the industry you’re in, and can help you avoid pricing problems.

A disadvantage of gross margin calculations is that they do not take into account other important costs, such as administration and personnel expenses, that could affect profitability. Also, depending on the type of business you're in, it may be difficult to calculate COGS for individual products.

The Bottom Line

Gross profit margin and contribution margin are both analysis tools that look at profits from different perspectives. Gross profit margin is typically used to get a picture of how the business is performing. It reveals growth trends and can be used as a benchmark against other businesses in the same industry. Contribution margin lends itself to managing product pricing, and the mix of sales. Both are used to help business owners increase profits.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do you calculate gross margin?

Gross profit margin is calculated by subtracting the cost of goods sold (COGS) from total sales. The gross profit ratio is calculated by dividing gross profit margin by total sales.

What does gross profit margin tell you?

Gross profit margin is a measure of overall profitability. It appears on the income statement. The gross margin profit ratio (gross profit margin / sales) is used to benchmark the performance of the business against others in the same industry.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Penn State University. “Financial and Managerial Accounting: 7.1 Exploring Contribution Margin.”

  2. University of Georgia Small Business Development Center. “Understanding Gross Margin.”

  3. New York University Stern School of Business. “Margins by Sector (US).”

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