Overhead Costs: Understanding the Impact on a Company’s Profitability

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Overhead Definition

Overhead refers to the ongoing business expenses not directly attributed to creating a product or service, including rent, utilities, insurance, and salaries of non-production employees. It’s essentially the costs required to maintain the business operations irrespective of the level of production.

Types of Overhead Costs

Overhead costs are further divided into two major categories: manufacturing overhead and administrative overhead.

Manufacturing Overhead

Manufacturing overhead, also known as factory or production overhead, encapsulates all the indirect costs associated with producing a product. These costs are not tied directly to the manufacturing process, but are nevertheless vital for its success.

Indirect Material Costs

Indirect materials are those that, while essential to the production process, don't comprise a major part of the final product. These can include low-cost items like lubricants for machinery, cleaning supplies for the production area, or even tiny components of the product that aren't practical to inventory individually.

Indirect Labor Costs

Just as some materials are indirectly related to your product, some labor costs are as well. These are wages given to the factory workers who are not directly involved in producing products but whose services are integral to production. This can include employees who maintain equipment, clean the facility, or manage the warehouse.

Administrative Overhead

Administrative overhead consists of expenses not related to production or sales, but essential for overall company operations. These costs are necessary for corporate functionality and management.

Office Expenses

Operating any office incurs costs, from the lease or mortgage on the space to utilities like electricity and internet. Supplies like computers, printers, software, and basic office supplies also fall under office expenses.

Salaries of Management

A significant portion of administrative overhead is the compensation provided to non-production employees. These may include managers, executives, and administrative staff. Their salaries, benefits, and any bonuses are all considered part of administrative overhead, as their roles are necessary for company operations but not tied to direct production or sales.

The recognition and effective management of these overhead costs is vital for a company to accurately value their product and maintain a profit margin. However, it’s also important to note that such costs are usually fixed and cannot be avoided, regardless of production levels or sales volumes. Therefore, careful planning and efficient resource utilization is key when dealing with overhead costs.

Significance of Overhead Costs in Business Pricing

Overhead costs play a crucial role in determining the prices of goods and services that a business offers. It's a cost component that businesses cannot afford to ignore if they aim to achieve profitability. These are the costs not directly tied to the production of specific goods or services but are necessary to operate the business. Therefore, they must be taken into account when setting prices. Ignoring overheads when pricing may result in underpricing products or services, and hence lower profits for the business.

The method where business includes both the costs of materials and labor, as well as sufficient additional amounts to cover the overhead expenses and provide a reasonable level of profit, to determine the price of goods or services is known as 'Cost-Plus Pricing'. It is a straightforward method that ensures that all costs are covered and a profit margin is achieved.

Example of Cost-Plus Pricing

Consider a business that makes wooden furniture. The direct costs include the cost of wood, varnishes and the labor involved in crafting the furniture. Overhead costs may include many indirect expenses such as rent for the warehouse where the furniture is stored, utilities, the salaries of office staff and the cost of advertising. If the direct cost of making a table is $100 and the overhead costs are $50 per table, the business needs to charge at least $150 per table to break even. To make a profit, the business would use cost-plus pricing and add a percentage markup. If it decides on a 20% markup, the selling price per table would be $180 ($150 plus 20% of $150).

This method, though simple, takes into consideration the overhead costs, making sure these costs are covered in the price consumers pay for a product or service. However, businesses should be cautious about not setting prices too high as this could discourage customers and reduce demand, which ultimately affects revenue.

The Balance in Pricing Decisions

When it comes to overhead costs and pricing, businesses need to strike a balance. After accounting for overheads in cost-plus pricing, businesses must ensure they remain competitive in the marketplace. If overheads are too high and result in high pricing, they may need to consider ways to reduce these costs or find efficiencies elsewhere in the business. It emphasizes the significance of overheads not just in pricing, but also in overall business strategy and planning.

Therefore, understanding overhead costs and their significance in pricing is essential for successful business operation and profitability.

The Overhead Absorption Rate

Looking closely at the overhead absorption rate, this financial term resonates strongly within an organization's financial ecosystem. A crucial control measure, this rate is instrumental in dissecting an establishment's cost structures.

Essentially, the overhead absorption rate refers to the way businesses allocate their overhead costs to the goods or services they produce. This rate holds a critical position in a company's accounts, as it assists in determining the full cost of production by including both direct costs and overhead costs.

Calculating the Overhead Absorption Rate

To ascertain the overhead absorption rate, you take the total overhead costs and divide by the total number, quantity, or measurement units of the base. The equation reads:

\[ Overhead absorption rate = \frac{Total overhead costs}{Total base units} \]

The base units can be variously defined based on an organization's operational structure; they could be direct labor hours, machine hours, or units produced.

Implementing this rate offers a more accurate picture of a product's total cost by merging both the overhead and direct costs. It has a bearing on the pricing of the product and, critically, the profit margins which lie at the heart of all economic activity.

The Importance of the Overhead Absorption Rate

The overhead absorption rate performs the important role of allotting overhead costs. If businesses base their selling prices purely on direct costs, they may fail to account for overheads, risking underselling their products and incurring losses unknowingly. The overhead absorption rate, therefore, acts as an indispensable control tool lending a fuller scope to cost structures.

Furthermore, its usefulness is underlined when conducting internal analysis or profit evaluations. It contributes to more accurate costing and profitability analysis and can be key to uncovering inefficiencies. It helps bi-furcate fixed and variable overheads and associate them with output levels. This way, functional inefficiencies can be flagged and rectified. Therefore, having a precise and comprehensive overhead absorption rate is fundamental to sound financial management inside an organization.

The Impact of Overhead Costs on Profit Margins

One of the significant impacts of overhead costs is on a company's profit margins. High overhead costs, if not appropriately managed, can have a substantial effect on the profitability of a business. Considerably high overhead may result in significantly decreased profit margins.

Every dollar that a business earns in revenue isn't sheer profit. Certain amount from that revenue is dedicated to maintaining the business operations, referred to as the overhead costs. These are the costs that don't directly contribute to the creation of a product or a service, but are nonetheless essential to run the business, like rent, utilities, and staff salaries.

When overhead costs are high relative to the income, the business has a thinner profit margin – sometimes even leading to losses. For instance, if a company has excessive office space, more staff than needed or high energy consumption, these overhead costs take up more of the revenue, leaving less as profit. Consequently, the business's profitability is reduced.

Overhead Cost Control

This is where overhead cost control comes into play. The object is not to entirely eliminate overhead costs, as these are integral for running a business. The goal is to minimize these costs as far as possible without jeopardizing the business's operational efficiency or potential growth.

Effective overhead cost control can lead to improved profit margins. This, however, requires careful management and ongoing effort. It involves regularly reviewing and evaluating your business costs, identifying areas of inefficiency, and implementing measures to reduce unnecessary expenses. For instance, exploring energy-saving solutions or optimizing staff scheduling can help in reducing overhead costs, leading to more profits.

In conclusion, to ensure a viable and profitable business, it's vital to understand how overhead costs impact profit margins and implement cost control strategies effectively. Overhead cost management is a continuous process, requiring regular monitoring and adjusting according to the changing needs and circumstances of the business. Implementing effective cost control strategies can help businesses maintain a healthy profit margin and drive long-term profitability.

Strategy for Reducing Overhead Costs


Automation is a highly effective strategy for reducing overhead costs. This process involves replacing manual labor with technology that can perform the same tasks more efficiently. From payroll to invoicing and virtually all administrative duties, there are automation solutions to handle tasks typically performed by human employees.

However, as companies switch to automated systems, there's a crucial Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) aspect to consider. While automation can certainly help businesses save on labor costs, it may lead to unemployment among the workforce. To address this, companies can invest in programs that retrain and reskill displaced workers for new roles within the company.


Outsourcing is another strategy businesses can utilize to lower overhead costs. Some companies choose to outsource non-core tasks to third parties who can complete them at a lower cost. Examples of commonly outsourced tasks include customer service, IT support, and accounting services.

It's important to note the potential impact on sustainability. Businesses should be mindful when choosing an outsourcing partner, ensuring that they adhere to the same level of ethical and sustainable practices. Picking a reputable outsourcing partner who shares your CSR values is a proactive way to ensure your outsourced tasks are handled responsibly.

Lean Management

Lean management is a strategy focused on eliminating waste and improving process efficiency. By identifying and reducing waste, businesses can streamline their operations and substantially reduce overhead costs. Examples of waste that lean management targets include overproduction, unnecessary transportation, and excess inventory.

As with the previous strategies, implementing lean management also involves sustainability considerations. In fact, by reducing waste, lean management inherently supports sustainability goals. However, businesses should take care to maintain quality and customer satisfaction when streamlining processes. In addition, companies pursuing this strategy should also keep employees well-informed about changes, and consider their well-being in any structural adjustments.

Overhead Costs in Different Industries

Overhead costs make up a significant portion of a company's total expenses. However, the proportion these costs represent differs significantly across various industries.

Manufacturing Industry

Consider, for example, the manufacturing sector. Companies in this sector often incur high overhead costs. This is primarily due to the tangible nature of the goods they produce, which requires substantial amounts of raw materials, machinery, and manufacturing facilities. These resources come with costs including utilities, property insurance, property taxes, and equipment depreciation, all of which contribute to a high overhead.

Maintenance also takes a significant portion of the overhead costs in manufacturing. Regular upkeep of the machinery and facilities is necessary to prevent breakdowns and ensure efficient operations.

Service Industry

On the other hand, the service sector often experiences lower overhead expenses. Service industries do not need to maintain extensive physical facilities or large amounts of manufacturing equipment. Hence, they save on utilities, insurance, property taxes, and equipment depreciation costs.

Most service businesses primarily require skilled labor, and their main overhead costs are usually related to employee salaries and benefits. However, even with these expenditures, their total overhead costs are generally lower than those in the manufacturing sector.

Tech Industry

Another industry to consider is the tech sector, which represents a mix of these two extremes. Many tech companies have substantial overhead costs in terms of server maintenance and data storage, especially those dealing with huge amounts of data. Additionally, they often invest in cutting-edge technology and corporate real estate, contributing to their overhead.

However, some smaller tech companies, particularly those offering digital goods or online services, may have lower overhead rates. With no need for physical goods manufacturing or a large physical presence, they reduce many of the typical overhead costs.

Across the board, what constitutes "overhead" will change, but it will always be an essential aspect to understand when evaluating the financial health of a company or the economic trends within an industry.

Overhead Cost Allocation

The Process and Importance of Overhead Cost Allocation

Overhead cost allocation is the practice of assigning overhead costs to different parts of a business, including business units, products, or projects. This practice is critical because it helps businesses to accurately determine the true cost and profitability of their products and services.

The standard overhead cost allocation process involves several steps. Initially, the costs are broken down into direct and indirect overhead costs. The direct costs, such as raw material and labour, are easily traceable to specific products or services. The indirect costs, such as rent and utilities, are harder to assign as they benefit many products or services.

To allocate these indirect costs, a suitable basis or driver is chosen which reflects the usage of overheads by each cost object. The selection of this basis can prove pivotal, as an inappropriate choice could result in distortion of costs. Commonly used bases include direct labor hours, machine hours or direct material cost.

Overhead Cost Allocation Methods

There are two primary methods used for allocating overhead costs: the traditional method and activity-based costing.

  1. Traditional Method: With the traditional method, a single driver, often direct labor hours or machine hours, is used to assign overhead costs. While this method can simplify the allocation process, it might not accurately reflect the actual overhead costs consumed by each cost object. The traditional method is deemed appropriate for operations where overheads mainly correlate with labor or machine hours.

  2. Activity-Based Costing: Activity-based costing (ABC) is a more complex approach in which overhead costs are assigned to specific activities which drive overhead costs. These costs are then spread across different jobs, products, or services based on their engagement with these activities. ABC provides a more accurate understanding of the overhead costs related to each product or service, making it ideal for complex operations where overhead costs stem from a diverse range of activities.

By employing appropriate overhead cost allocation methods, a company can gain a refined understanding of the actual costs associated with a given product or service. This, in turn, enables more informed decision-making related to pricing, process improvements, and overall financial management.

Overhead Analysis: Fixed vs Variable Costs

Overhead costs play a crucial role in the financial structure and flexibility of a company. It's essential to understand the distinction between fixed and variable overheads, as well as their individual impacts.

Fixed Overhead Costs

Fixed overheads are costs that won't change over a specific time period or production volume. Expenses for office rent, administrative salaries, and insurance are all fixed costs. They have to be paid regardless of your firm's output level, thus they significantly influence your company's budget.

Fixed overheads can boost financial predictability as they don't fluctuate with output levels. On the other hand, a high amount of fixed costs might strain a company's finances, particularly in periods of low production or sales.

Variable Overhead Costs

In contrast, variable overheads will change directly with production volume. These include costs such as utilities or raw materials, which increase as production expands, and decrease as production contracts. Therefore, variable overheads provide business flexibility, since they can be controlled more directly and can scale up or down based on production needs.

However, variable costs come with greater financial unpredictability because they can change dramatically in response to fluctuations in production levels.

Overhead Control and Forecasting

When it comes to cost control and financial forecasting, considering the interplay between fixed and variable overheads is invaluable. Control strategies may differ for fixed and variable overheads because of their differences in predictability and responsiveness to changes in output level.

Budgeting for variable overheads requires anticipation of production levels, while fixed overheads may require longer-term strategic decisions due to their inflexibility. Failure to accurately forecast these costs can lead to gross miscalculations in a company's financial planning.

Thus, a nuanced understanding of your business's fixed and variable overheads, their impacts on your financial structure and flexibility, and their role in cost control and forecasting is fundamental to sound financial management.

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