What Is Cost Allocation?

Cost Allocation Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

Customer buying food at a small business

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Cost allocation is a method used to assign costs to cost objects for a specific department, project, program, or other area.

The methods for cost allocation involve simple calculations, which can be beneficial to small business owners who need accurate financial information to help them price their products or services and make overall decisions. Learning about these methods can help you get a handle on your expenses and positively affect your bottom line.

Definition and Examples of Cost Allocation

Cost allocation is a method used to assess the costs associated with cost objects in specific categories within a business. Cost objects might include a product or service you sell, a particular department within your company, or the costs of dealing with a supplier.

Cost allocation is not just for large corporations looking to reduce expenses. Small business owners can greatly benefit from cost allocation; you get a more detailed look into the actual costs associated with your business, which allows you to assess prices better and increase your profitability.

For example, you might want to determine the costs of dealing with one of your suppliers, so you’d add up all of the associated costs. These costs can include everything from the phone calls you make to the time spent dealing with issues caused by them. Additionally, you could count how much you pay for the supplies you get from them.

How Cost Allocation Works

Cost allocation essentially works by assigning costs to smaller areas within the overall business so that you can view profits or losses at a more granular level. When you use cost allocation, you might discover that your true production cost per unit is higher than expected.


It’s important to remember that cost objects will vary depending on your business and industry.

That means you might consider increasing prices to maintain a specific profit margin. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may decide to scrap a product that turned out to be a money pit.

To accurately calculate cost allocation, you must first identify the cost object, then begin to assess the actual cost.

Determining Costs

Spreading costs is not an exact science when it comes to cost objects. Some ways to allocate costs are based on units manufactured, square footage, number of hours, headcount, or usage.

Let’s say you have a building with a photography studio on the first floor and a salon on the second floor; you’ll use square footage as your cost object. The salon is 2,000 square feet, and the studio is 1,000 square feet. The total rent for the building is $6,000 per month. To allocate rent between the two spaces, you would first divide the total rent by the total square footage of the building:

$6,000 (overall rent) ÷ 3,000 sq. ft. (total space) = $2 per sq. ft.

Second, you’ll want to calculate the rent for the photography studio:

$2 (price per sq. ft.) x 1,000 (studio sq. ft.) = $2,000

Third, you can calculate the rent for the salon:

$2 (price per sq. ft.) x 2,000 (salon sq. ft.) = $4,000

Your rent per space should be $2,000 for the overhead expense of the studio and $4,000 for the overhead expense of the salon.

Other scenarios might include payroll cost allocation based on employee cost centers, or payment processing cost allocation based on transactions per location or franchise.


Cost objects can be just about anything you assign a cost to. Some examples of cost objects are jobs, payroll, departments, projects, financial systems, IT, and programs.

Types of Cost Allocation

Cost allocation is based on different types of costs that fall into one of three categories, generally speaking.

Direct Costs

Direct costs are the easiest to assign to an identified cost object, because they are directly related. For example, a direct cost could be the labor required to produce a product or the materials used.

Indirect Costs

When you have an indirect cost, it is not attached to a specific cost object but still is necessary for the business to function. For example, common indirect costs could be security costs or administrative costs not related to a specific department.

Overhead Costs

Overhead costs—also called operating costs—are those costs associated with the day-to-day operations of your business. These accrue regardless of actual production, but still support productivity. Operating costs might include insurance, rent, and legal fees.


Costs can be fixed or variable depending on the type. A fixed cost is constant, while a variable cost can fluctuate depending on other factors.

The cost type factors into how you allocate the cost later. For example, if you were cost allocating rent, it would be allocated to overhead expenses. You would likely use the square-footage method to allocate the cost.

When allocating costs directly related to a product, you might use the units-produced allocation method to factor in overhead costs with the direct costs to create the product. This will allow you to determine better the price you should be asking.

Key Takeaways

  • Cost allocation helps business owners identify areas of opportunity with their products or services.
  • Cost objects can include anything you want to measure and assign a cost to, such as products, programs, projects, or even a customer.
  • Ways to allocate costs include square footage, units produced, usage, and headcount.
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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. Warren Averett. "Types of Cost Allocation Methods for Government Contractors."

  2. Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington. "Cost Allocation."

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