Cost allocation is the process of identifying, aggregating, and assigning costs to cost objects. A cost object is any activity or item for which you want to separately measure costs. Examples of cost objects are a product, a research project, a customer, a sales region, and a department.
Cost allocation is used for financial reporting purposes, to spread costs among departments or inventory items. Cost allocation is also used in the calculation of profitability at the department or subsidiary level, which in turn may be used as the basis for bonuses or the funding of additional activities. Cost allocations can also be used in the derivation of transfer prices between subsidiaries.
Example of Cost Allocation
The African Bongo Corporation (ABC) runs its own electrical power station in the hinterlands of South Africa, and allocates the cost of the power station to its six operating departments based on their electricity usage levels.
Cost Allocation Methods
The very term "allocation" implies that there is no overly precise method available for charging a cost to a cost object, so the allocating entity is using an approximate method for doing so. Thus, you may continue to refine the basis upon which you allocate costs, using such allocation bases as square footage, headcount, cost of assets employed, or (as in the example) electricity usage. The goal of whichever cost allocation method you use is to either spread the cost in the fairest way possible, or to do so in a way that impacts the behavior patterns of the cost objects. Thus, an allocation method based on headcount might drive department managers to reduce their headcount or to outsource functions to third parties.
Cost Allocation and Taxes
A company may allocate costs to its various divisions with the intent of charging extra expenses to those divisions located in high-tax areas, which minimizes the amount of reportable taxable income for those divisions. In such cases, an entity usually employs expert legal counsel to ensure that it is complying with local government regulations for cost allocation.
Reasons Not to Allocate Costs
An entirely justifiable reason for not allocating costs is that no cost should be charged that the recipient has no control over. Thus, in the African Bongo Corporation example above, the company could forbear from allocating the cost of its power station, on the grounds that none of the six operating departments have any control over the power station. In such a situation, the entity simply includes the unallocated cost in the company's entire cost of doing business. Any profit generated by the departments contributes toward paying for the unallocated cost.