Differences Between Absorption Costing and Marginal Costing

Costing methods are an integral part of financial management and play a crucial role in determining a company’s profitability. Two commonly used costing methods are Absorption Costing and Marginal Costing. Understanding the differences between these two approaches is essential for making informed financial decisions. In this article, we’ll break down the distinctions between absorption costing and marginal costing, providing you with valuable insights and real-world examples.

Managerial accounting is a crucial aspect of business operations, helping organizations measure and manage costs effectively. Among the numerous costing methods available, absorption costing and marginal costing stand out as two distinct approaches, each with its own unique characteristics and applications.

Understanding Absorption Costing

Definition: Absorption costing, also known as full costing, is a traditional method that allocates all manufacturing costs, both variable and fixed, to products. This means that all costs associated with production, including direct materials, direct labor, variable overhead, and fixed overhead, are absorbed into the cost of each unit.

Key Features:

  • Allocates both variable and fixed costs to products.
  • Provides a more accurate reflection of total production costs.
  • Often used for external financial reporting purposes.

Example: Consider a bicycle manufacturing company. Under absorption costing, all expenses related to producing bicycles, such as direct materials, direct labor, and factory rent, are attributed to each bicycle produced. If the company manufactures 1,000 bicycles and incurs $100,000 in total costs ($40,000 variable and $60,000 fixed), each bicycle’s cost would be $100 ($40 variable + $60 fixed).


  • Complies with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).
  • Offers a comprehensive view of production costs.
  • Suitable for pricing decisions and financial reporting.

The Basics of Marginal Costing

Definition: Marginal costing, also referred to as variable costing, focuses solely on variable costs incurred during production. Fixed overhead costs are treated as period costs and are not allocated to individual products. Instead, they are treated as expenses in the period in which they are incurred.

Key Features:

  • Only considers variable manufacturing costs (direct materials, direct labor, and variable overhead) in product costs.
  • Fixed costs are treated as period expenses.
  • Valuable for internal decision-making and short-term analysis.

Example: Let’s revisit the bicycle manufacturing company. Under marginal costing, only variable costs like direct materials, direct labor, and variable overhead (e.g., hourly wages, raw materials, and electricity) are attributed to each bicycle produced. If the variable costs amount to $40 per bicycle and the company produces 1,000 bicycles, the cost per bicycle remains $40.


  • Simplifies cost analysis for internal decision-making.
  • Helps determine the contribution margin, aiding in break-even analysis.
  • Useful for short-term pricing and planning decisions.

Differences Between Absorption Costing and Marginal Costing

Let’s dive into the key distinctions between these two costing methods:

Treatment of Fixed and Variable Costs

  • Absorption Costing: Under absorption costing, both variable and fixed production costs are included in the product cost. This approach is in compliance with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and is often used for external financial reporting.
  • Marginal Costing: Marginal costing focuses solely on variable costs, treating fixed production costs as period costs. This means that fixed costs are expensed as incurred and do not impact the product cost.

Valuation of Closing Stock

  • Absorption Costing: In absorption costing, closing stock is valued at the full cost, which includes both variable and fixed manufacturing costs. This can lead to fluctuations in reported profit due to changes in inventory levels.
  • Marginal Costing: Closing stock is valued at the variable production cost under marginal costing. This method provides a more stable profit figure since it doesn’t consider fixed costs in valuing inventory.

Impact on Profit

  • Absorption Costing: Profit figures under absorption costing can be higher or lower depending on the level of production. In times of high production, profits tend to be higher, and vice versa.
  • Marginal Costing: Profit remains constant as it is not affected by variations in production levels.

Impact on Decision-Making

  • Absorption Costing: Absorption costing can sometimes lead to suboptimal decisions, especially when it comes to pricing and product discontinuation. This is because it allocates fixed overhead costs to products, which may not accurately reflect the incremental cost of producing additional units.
  • Marginal Costing: Marginal costing is considered more useful for decision-making, particularly for short-term decisions like pricing, as it directly shows the contribution margin (sales revenue minus variable costs). This helps managers understand the impact of selling an additional unit without being influenced by fixed costs.

External Reporting

  • Absorption Costing: Absorption costing is generally required for external financial reporting as per accounting standards. It provides a comprehensive view of product costs and is often used for financial statements presented to shareholders and regulators.
  • Marginal Costing: While marginal costing is not typically used for external financial reporting, it can still be valuable for internal management accounting. Managers can use marginal costing to make decisions without distorting external financial statements.

Tax Implications

  • Absorption Costing: Due to its inclusion of fixed costs in product costs, absorption costing may result in higher reported profits and, consequently, higher taxes in periods of increasing inventory levels.
  • Marginal Costing: Marginal costing, with its focus on variable costs, tends to report lower profits and can lead to lower taxes, especially when inventory levels rise.

Example: ABC Ltd.’s Product Costing

Let’s illustrate the differences between absorption and marginal costing using an example from ABC Ltd., a fictional manufacturing company. ABC Ltd. produces a single product, and the following data is available for the month of August:

  • Total production: 10,000 units
  • Variable manufacturing cost per unit: $20
  • Fixed manufacturing overhead: $50,000
  • Selling price per unit: $60

Under absorption costing, the product cost per unit would be calculated as follows:

Product Cost per Unit = (Total Variable Cost + Total Fixed Cost) / Total Production Product Cost per Unit = ($20 + ($50,000 / 10,000)) = $25 per unit

Now, let’s see how the same data looks under marginal costing:

Product Cost per Unit (Marginal Cost) = Variable Manufacturing Cost per Unit = $20 per unit

With this information, we can analyze the financial implications for ABC Ltd. under both costing methods.

  • Under absorption costing, if ABC Ltd. produces 10,000 units but only sells 8,000, they would have 2,000 units in closing stock, valued at $25 per unit. This results in a higher reported profit for the month.
  • Under marginal costing, the closing stock would be valued at the marginal cost of $20 per unit, resulting in a lower reported profit compared to absorption costing.

Another Real-World Examples

Let’s explore these differences further with a real-world scenario:

Imagine you are a manager at a bicycle manufacturing company, and you’re evaluating the cost of producing a new line of electric bicycles. You have gathered the following information:

  • Direct Materials Cost: $200 per bicycle
  • Direct Labor Cost: $50 per bicycle
  • Variable Overheads: $20 per bicycle
  • Fixed Overheads (Monthly): $10,000

Absorption Costing:

In absorption costing, the fixed overhead of $10,000 would be spread across the number of bicycles produced. Suppose you plan to produce 100 bicycles in a month.

Total Cost per Bicycle = (Direct Materials + Direct Labor + Variable Overheads) + (Fixed Overheads / Number of Bicycles) Total Cost per Bicycle = ($200 + $50 + $20) + ($10,000 / 100) Total Cost per Bicycle = $270 + $100 = $370

Marginal Costing:

In marginal costing, only variable costs are considered.

Total Cost per Bicycle = Direct Materials + Direct Labor + Variable Overheads Total Cost per Bicycle = $200 + $50 + $20 = $270

Now, let’s calculate the selling price for the electric bicycles at different production levels and compare the profits under both costing methods:

Selling Price per Bicycle: $500

Scenario 1 – High Production (200 bicycles):

Absorption Costing: Profit = (Selling Price – Total Cost per Bicycle) * Number of Bicycles Profit = ($500 – $370) * 200 Profit = $26,000

Marginal Costing: Profit = (Selling Price – Total Cost per Bicycle) * Number of Bicycles Profit = ($500 – $270) * 200 Profit = $46,000

Scenario 2 – Low Production (50 bicycles):

Absorption Costing: Profit = (Selling Price – Total Cost per Bicycle) * Number of Bicycles Profit = ($500 – $370) * 50 Profit = $6,500

Marginal Costing: Profit = (Selling Price – Total Cost per Bicycle) * Number of Bicycles Profit = ($500 – $270) * 50 Profit = $11,500

As you can see from the examples above, under absorption costing, profits vary depending on production levels. In contrast, marginal costing provides a consistent profit figure regardless of production volume. This is a critical consideration when making short-term pricing decisions or evaluating the financial feasibility of a new product line.

When to Use Absorption Costing vs. Marginal Costing

The choice between absorption costing and marginal costing depends on the specific needs and goals of a company:

  • Use absorption costing when:
    • Compliance with external reporting requirements, such as GAAP, is essential.
    • The company wants to understand the total cost structure of products, including both variable and fixed costs.
    • Long-term pricing and product discontinuation decisions are being considered.
  • Use marginal costing when:
    • Making short-term decisions, such as pricing and production volume, where understanding variable costs is crucial.
    • There is a need to analyze the contribution margin for products to assess their profitability.
    • Managing tax liabilities by reporting lower profits is advantageous.

Absorption Costing vs Marginal Costing

AspectAbsorption CostingMarginal Costing
1. DefinitionIncludes all manufacturing costs (variable and fixed) in product cost.Only includes variable manufacturing costs in product cost.
2. Fixed CostsAllocates fixed costs to products.Considers fixed costs as period costs; they are not included in product cost.
3. ReportingGenerally used for external financial reporting and tax purposes.Typically used for internal management decision-making.
4. Variable Cost per UnitConstant variable cost per unit.Variable cost per unit varies with production volume.
5. Profit CalculationProfit may fluctuate with production levels.Profit is more stable as it is not affected by changes in production levels.
6. Inventory ValuationEnding inventory reflects fixed and variable costs.Ending inventory reflects only variable costs.
7. Cost ControlProvides less incentive for cost control as fixed costs are absorbed.Encourages cost control as only variable costs are allocated to products.
8. Decision-MakingMay lead to suboptimal decisions when production volumes vary.Better suited for short-term decision-making and assessing cost-volume-profit relationships.
9. Break-Even AnalysisMay yield different break-even points in various scenarios.Yields a consistent break-even point regardless of production levels.
10. Pricing StrategyPricing may not always reflect actual variable costs.Pricing closely aligns with variable costs, aiding in pricing decisions.
11. Contribution MarginContribution margin may vary with production volume.Contribution margin remains constant.
12. Absorption RateUses a predetermined overhead absorption rate.Does not use a predetermined overhead absorption rate.
13. External ReportingRequired for external financial statements under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).Not used for external financial reporting but may be used for internal performance reporting.
14. Cost Behavior AnalysisOffers a detailed view of cost behavior but can be complex.Simplifies cost behavior analysis by focusing on variable costs.
15. Periodic AdjustmentNo need for periodic adjustments to income for under/overabsorbed overhead.Requires adjustments to income for under/overabsorbed overhead at the end of the accounting period.

These differences highlight the distinct characteristics and purposes of absorption costing and marginal costing in managerial and financial accounting.

In the realm of managerial accounting, absorption costing and marginal costing offer distinct approaches to product costing and decision-making. While absorption costing includes both variable and fixed costs in product costs and is typically used for external reporting, marginal costing focuses solely on variable costs and provides valuable insights for internal management decisions.

Understanding the differences between these two methods is essential for organizations to make informed financial decisions, whether it’s pricing products, managing inventory, or evaluating the profitability of different product lines.

Ultimately, the choice between absorption costing and marginal costing should align with the specific goals and needs of the company, taking into consideration factors like reporting requirements, taxation, and the nature of the decisions at hand.

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