What is Cost Allocation? Definition & Process

Working with the former accountants now working at FloQast, we decided to take a look at some of the pillars of the accounting professions.

The key to running a profitable enterprise of any kind is making sure that your prices are high enough to cover all your costs — and leave at least a bit for profit. For a really simple business — like the proverbial lemonade stand that almost every kid ran — that’s pretty simple. Your costs are what you (or your parents) paid for lemons and sugar. But what if it’s a more complex business? Then you might need to brush up on cost accounting, and learn about allocation accounting. Let’s walk through this using the hypothetical company, Lisa’s Luscious Lemonade. 

What is cost allocation?

The cost allocation definition is best described as the process of assigning costs to the things that benefit from those costs or to cost centers. For Lisa’s Luscious Lemonade, a cost center can be as granular as each jug of lemonade that’s produced, or as broad as the manufacturing plant in Houston. 

Let’s assume that the owner, Lisa, needs to know the cost of a jug of lemonade. The total cost to create that jug of lemonade isn’t just the costs of the water, lemons, sugar and the jug itself, but also includes all the allocated costs to make it. 

Let’s start by defining some terms…

Direct costs are costs that can be traced directly to the product or service itself. For manufacturers, these consist of direct materials and direct labor. They appear in the financial statements as part of the cost of goods sold.

Direct materials are those that become an integral part of the finished product. This will be the costs of the water, sugar, lemons, the plastic jug, and the label. 

Direct labor includes the labor costs that can be easily traced to the production of those finished products. Direct labor for that jug will be the payroll for the workers on the production line. 

Indirect costs are the costs that can’t be easily traced to a product or service but are clearly required for making whatever an enterprise sells. This includes materials that are used in such insignificant quantities that it’s not worth tracing them to finished products, and labor for employees who work in the factory, but not on the production line. 

Overhead costs encompass all the costs that support the enterprise that can’t be directly linked to making the items that are sold. This includes indirect costs, as well as selling, marketing, administration, and facility costs. 

Manufacturing overhead includes the overhead costs that are directly related to making the products for sale. This includes the electricity, rent, and utilities for the factory and salaries of supervisors on the factory floor. 

Product costs are all the costs in making or acquiring the product for sale. These are also known as manufacturing costs or total costs. This includes direct labor, direct materials, and allocated manufacturing overhead. 

What is the process?

The first step in any cost allocation system is to identify the cost objects to which costs need to be allocated. Here, our cost object is a jug of lemonade. For a more complex organization, the cost object could be a product line, a department, or a branch. 

Direct costs are the simplest to allocate. Last month, Lisa’s Luscious Lemonades produced 50,000 gallons of lemonade and had the following direct costs:

                                    Total costs    Cost per gallon
Direct materials        $142,500              $2.85
Direct labor                 $37,500                 $.75

How are costs allocated?

Allocating overhead costs is a bit more complex. First, the overhead costs are split between manufacturing costs and non-manufacturing costs. Some of this is pretty straightforward: the factory floor supervisor’s salary is clearly a manufacturing cost, and the sales manager’s salary is a non-manufacturing cost. But what about the cost of human resources or other service departments that serve all parts of the organization? Or facilities costs, which might include the rent for the building, insurance, utilities, janitorial services, and general building maintenance?

Human resources and other services costs might be logically split based on the headcount of the manufacturing versus non-manufacturing parts of the business. Facilities costs might be split based on the square footage of the manufacturing space versus the administrative offices. Electricity usage might be allocated on the basis of square footage or machine hours, depending on the situation. 

Let’s say that for Lisa’s Luscious Lemonades, after we split the overhead between manufacturing and non-manufacturing costs, we have the following annual manufacturing overhead costs

Supervisor salary                                  $84,000
Indirect costs                                         $95,000
Facility costs                                         $150,000
Human resources                                  $54,000
Depreciation                                          $65,000
Electricity                                                $74,000
Total manufacturing overhead           $522,000

In a perfect world, it would be possible to keep an accurate running total of all overhead costs so that management would have detailed and accurate cost information. However, in practice, a predetermined overhead rate is used to allocate overhead using an allocation base

This overhead rate is determined by dividing the total estimated manufacturing overhead by the estimated total units in the allocation base. At the end of the year or quarter, the allocated costs are reconciled to actual costs. 

Ideally, the allocation base should be a cost driver that causes those overhead costs. For manufacturers, direct labor hours or machine-hours are commonly used. Since Lisa only makes one product — gallon jugs of lemonade — the simplest cost driver is the number of jugs produced in a year. 

If we estimate that 600,000 gallons of lemonade are produced in a year, then the overhead rate will be $522,000 / 600,000 = $.87 per gallon.

Our final cost to produce a gallon of Lisa’s Luscious Lemonade is as follows:

Direct materials                            $2.85
Direct labor                                   $0.75
Manufacturing overhead             $0.87
Total cost                                       $4.47

What is cost allocation used for?

Cost allocation is used for both external reporting and internally for decision making. Under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), the matching principle requires that expenses be reported in the financial statements in the same period that the related revenue is earned. 

This means that manufacturing overhead costs cannot be expensed in the period incurred, but must be allocated to inventory items, where those costs remain until the inventory is sold, when overhead is finally expensed as part of the cost of goods sold. For Lisa’s Luscious Lemonade, that means that every time a jug of lemonade is produced, another $4.47 goes into inventory. When a jug is sold, $4.47 goes to the cost of goods sold. 

However, for internal decision-making, the cost allocation systems used for GAAP financials aren’t always helpful. Cost accountants often use activity-based costing, or ABC, in parallel with the cost allocation system used for external financial reporting

In ABC, products are assigned all of the overhead costs that they can reasonably be assumed to have caused. This may include some — but not all — of the manufacturing overhead costs, as well as operating expenses that aren’t typically assigned to products under the costing systems used for GAAP. 

AutoRec to keep you sane

Whatever cost accounting method you use, it’s going to require spreadsheets that you have to reconcile to the GL. Combine that with the other reconciliations you have to do to close out the books, and like Lisa’s controller, you might be ready to jump into a vat of lemonade to drown your sorrows. 

Enter FloQast AutoRec. Rather than spend hours every month reconciling accounts, AutoRec leverages AI to match one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many transactions in minutes. Simple set up means you can start using it in minutes because you don’t need to create or maintain rules. Try it out, and see how much time you can save this month. 

Ready to find out more about how FloQast can help you tame the beast of the close?