One type of short-term decision that businesses frequently have to make is whether or not to accept special order requests from customers. A special order is an order that the company did not anticipate when developing its budget for the year. Therefore, this is an additional opportunity to generate revenue above sales goals. Special orders typically request a lower price than normally offered and/or might include additional costs. Often students get caught up in the lower price or lower contribution margin and want to disregard the order immediately. However, if the order will bring in additional profit, the order should be considered.

When faced with a special order decision, a company should consider the following three items:

1. Does the company have the excess capacity to fulfill this order?

Remember that a special order is an order that the company did not expect. The company must make sure that there is excess capacity to fill this order without harming the original plan developed for the year.

2. Will the order be profitable?

Typically, a special order will have a reduced price and/or additional costs. Will the price be high enough to cover the incremental costs associated with the order. Think back to overhead allocation. When overhead allocation rates were developed at the beginning of the year, they were based on the planned production. These special orders are in addition to the planned production. Therefore, fixed overhead would not be applied to these jobs. This allows the company to make the products needed for the special order at a reduced cost. Although the price might be lower, the company may be able to achieve profit on the job.

3. Will the order affect planned sales, now or in the future?

The company must insure that the special order will not hurt other sales. It is important to make sure that the customer requesting the special order does not compete with existing customers or the company itself, which would result in decreased sales at regular prices. Special orders can also lead to unhappy existing customers if they find out about the special deal you gave someone else. Careful consideration must be made when accepting special orders to protect current and future profits.

Identify the relevant costs

In order to identify the relevant costs associated with a special order decision, we must look at the existing costs to determine which costs will be paid if the order is accepted. Previously incurred fixed costs are never relevant. The only fixed costs that should be considered are fixed costs that are incurred because of the special order. Then consider your variable costs. Are there any variable costs that will not be paid with this special order? Sometimes variable selling costs are excluded from the calculation because no sales commission will be paid on the order. These savings can help decrease the cost and increase the profitability of the job.

Carefully read the problem to ensure you have identified the relevant and irrelevant costs properly.

Should the company accept the job?

Typically in problems you will do in class, you will only consider the quantitative factors. Use the contribution margin approach to calculate if the job will generate profit or loss:

1. Calculate the contribution margin per unit

Calculate the contribution margin (price – variable costs) per unit for the special order. Exclude irrelevant costs from the calculation.

2. Calculate the total contribution margin

Multiply the number of units in the special order by the contribution margin per unit.

3. Subtract any incremental fixed costs from the contribution margin to determine profit or loss

If there are any incremental fixed costs, subtract those costs from the contribution margin. If there are no incremental fixed costs, the contribution margin is all profit.

4. Determine if you should accept the job

If there are no extenuating qualitative issues, accept the job if it will generate additional profit. If there is a loss on the job, do not accept the job.

Final Thoughts

These problems are not difficult. The hardest part is to identify the irrelevant costs and remove them from your calculations. Use what you have learned about contribution margin to determine if you have profit on the special order.

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Special Order Decision Making

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The contribution margin income statement is a very useful tool in planning and decision making. While it cannot be used for GAAP financial statements, it is often used by managers internally.

The contribution margin income statement is a cost behavior statement. Rather than separating product costs from period costs, like the traditional income statement, this statement separates variable costs from fixed costs.

The basic format of the statement is as follows:



Variable costs, no matter if they are product or period costs appear at the top of the statement. Fixed costs are treated the same way at the bottom of the statement. It is helpful to calculate the variable product cost before starting, especially if you will need to calculate ending inventory.

Let’s run through an example to see how the income statement is constructed. We will use the same figures from the absorption and variable product cost post.



The first thing to remember about any income statement is that the statement is calculated based on the amount of product sold, not the amount of product produced. Therefore, this income statement will be based off the sale of 8,000 units.

To calculate sales, take the price of the product and multiply by the number of units sold.

Sales = Price X Number of units sold

Sales = $100 X 8,000

Sales = $800,000


Next, we need to calculate the variable costs. In the absorption and variable costing post, we calculated the variable product cost per unit.


This covers the product costs, but remember we must include all the variable costs. There is also $5 of variable selling cost that should be included. Multiply the total variable cost per unit by the number of units sold.

Total variable cost = Variable cost per unit X Number of units sold

Total variable cost = ($44 + $5) X 8,000

Total Variable Cost = $392,000


 Contribution margin is the amount of sales left over to contribute to fixed cost and profit. Contribution margin can be expressed in a number of different ways, including per unit and as a percentage of sales (called the contribution margin ratio). In the contribution margin income statement, we calculate total contribution margin by subtracting variable costs from sales.

Total contribution margin = Sales – Variable costs


Fixed costs include all fixed costs, whether they are product costs (overhead) or period costs (selling and administrative). One thing that causes the contribution margin income statement and variable costing to differ from the traditional income statement and absorption costing is the fact that fixed overhead is treated as if it were a period cost. All fixed overhead is expensed in the period it is incurred. Under absorption costing, fixed overhead is attached to each unit. Therefore if there are units that are not sold, a portion of the fixed overhead ends up in inventory. That is not the case when using variable costing.

Add fixed overhead and fixed selling and administrative to calculate total fixed cost.

Total fixed cost = Fixed overhead + Fixed selling and administrative

Total fixed overhead = $48,000 + $112,000

Total fixed overhead = $160,000


Last step: subtract fixed costs from contribution margin to calculate operating income.


Final Thoughts

The contribution margin income statement is all about behavior. Remember the format and ignore the traditional (absorption) income statement. Most students that have trouble with this statement try to relate it back to what is happening on the traditional income statement. Throw out what you know about the traditional income statement when doing the contribution margin income statement. Focus on the format of this statement and you should be fine.

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The contribution margin income statement

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