The Real Difference Between Expenses and Cost of Goods Sold

| 2 min read

The Real Difference Between Expenses and Cost of Goods Sold

As one of the more common bookkeeping questions we hear, the difference between Operating Expenses (OE) and Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) is a fairly straightforward one, but it plays a significant role when it comes to allocating and analyzing the resources you spend to make your business profitable

While both OE and COGS are considered expense accounts from a bookkeeping point of view, they’re separated on the income statement to differentiate between money that’s spent to keep your company running, and money that’s spent to directly support the costs associated with providing your company’s product or service. In the case of a service industry, the term Cost of Sales (COS) is often used rather than Cost of Goods Sold since there are no physical goods involved, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll be using the generic term COGS.

Understanding the difference between regular operating expenses and COGS begins with recognizing two important facts:

  1. The terms "expense" and "cost" don’t always mean the same thing.
  2. All expenses are not created equal.

Expenses vs. Costs

An expense is a cost of doing business, but a cost is not necessarily always an expense. The easiest way to illustrate the difference between these two terms is to look at a simple example.

Let’s say your company sells souvenir widgets to passing tourists from a truck on the street. You have a pretty good idea of how many widgets you usually sell in a day, but you never want to risk a lost sale, so you always buy a few extras when you purchase your supplies each morning. If you spend $500 on today’s batch of widgets, but you only end up selling $400 worth of them:

  • the cost of your widgets is $500;
  • $400 of that amount constitutes an expense; and
  • the remaining $100 constitutes an asset.

From an accounting point of view, an expense is something that’s used up, or consumed, during the normal course of your business operations. The $100 worth of widgets that you didn’t sell today, while still representing a cost to your business, won’t become an actual expense until they’re sold on some other day.
Don’t get too hung up on the name. Any business cost directly related to the sale of your product or service becomes an expense once it’s been allocated to a sales transaction, even though it’s still referred to as a cost of goods sold.

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Direct Expenses vs. Indirect Expenses

Every business has operating expenses, but whether or not those expenses can be classified as COGS depends on whether or not they’re directly related to the sale of a product or service. The terms direct and indirect are often used to differentiate between money that’s spent to:

  • fund the purchase or manufacturing costs of goods or services being sold – such as raw materials or inventory, packaging, sales or manufacturing labor, or shipping (direct);
  • keep a business running – such as rent, insurance, utilities, or administrative wages (indirect).

One way to figure out which is which when it comes direct and indirect expenditures is to ask whether they would still be considered an expense even if a sale had not occurred. If the answer is no, as it would be for the purchase cost of our vendor’s widgets, then they probably fall into the direct, or COGS category. If the answer is yes, as it would be for the insurance on our widget-vendor’s truck, then they’re most likely an indirect operating expense.

Tracking Your OE and COGS

So where does all of this land us when it comes to managing our books? If you outsource your bookkeeping, you can simply let someone else worry about the answer to that question. But for the sake of staying in the loop where your business accounts are concerned, the basic entries would look like this:

  • When you incur an indirect expense, such as rent or insurance, your bookkeeping entry would debit the appropriate expense account and credit accounts payable.
  • When you incur a direct cost, such as inventory, your entry would debit the appropriate asset account and credit accounts payable.
  • When inventory is subsequently sold, it becomes an expense, so your entry would credit the asset account and debit its correlating COGS account for the same amount.

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