Ultimate Guide to Understanding Cost Control

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Cost control that produces cost savings is an essential tool in financial management to reduce business and project expenses through cost accounting, budgetary control, financial statement analysis, and project management tools.  

What is Cost Control? 

Cost control is the process of identifying, eliminating or reducing unnecessary business expenses in order to increase profits. Cost control starts with the budgeting process and looks at vendor selection and negotiation, leveraging early payment and volume discounts, using spend management systems, and improving manufacturing or construction efficiency and product quality.

Cost Control as a Part of Cost Management

Cost control reduces costs and expenses by managing budget vs. actual variances by cost center, profit center, department, or project and taking corrective action. Cost control is one step in the cost management process. 

Cost management is a broader term, encompassing estimating methods to forecast resources required and perform cost estimation, budgeting, cash flow forecasting, funding the budget, controlling costs, and performing a post-project evaluation for future cost-saving opportunities. The cost accounting function in a business contributes to the cost management process. 

Steps of Cost Management

Steps of cost management include:

  1. Resource planning
  2. Cost estimating
  3. Cost budgeting
  4. Cost control
  5. Post-project cost evaluation

Cost Management in Project Management Cost 

Project management cost needs monitoring and attention during the project activities phase before completion. Specialized project management software and metrics should be used to estimate cost baseline by task, control, and reduce project costs in a cost control system. Post-project analysis can make future projects more efficient through a learning curve. 

Control Methods 

Control methods used for expense and cost management include target net income, variance analysis, and earned value management. Control methods also include using specialized cost management software for the business and project management to improve cost budgeting and cost performance. 

Target Net Income 

Target net income is the expected amount of business profits after taxes for an accounting period. Target net income is used to determine an appropriate level of expenses and costs in a budget to produce the desired income level for a business or project.    

Target net income can be used in the breakeven analysis formula to determine the number of units required to meet the target net income instead of using a zero breakeven amount. The difference between sales and variable costs (sales – variable costs) is called the contribution margin. 

The formula for target net income is:

Target net income = sales – variable costs – fixed costs 


Target net income = (units x sales price) – (units x variable cost) – fixed costs

You can use these formulas by supplying the target net income amount to solve for either units or sales dollars required to reach the target net income. Or you can solve for target net income if you have forecasted the other variables. 

Variance Analysis 

Variance analysis compares budget and actual amounts for accounting categories for a time period or project. Unfavorable variances occur when actual costs exceed budget amounts. Favorable variances represent actual costs below budget, indicating better actual results than expected. 

Cost accounting systems with standard costs (often used by manufacturing companies) are useful for variance analysis of actual costs vs. standard costs for labor, materials, and overhead. 

Each month and at year-end or project closing, financial analysts drill down to the data source of significant unfavorable variances to identify causes and correct overspending through future cost or expense reductions. 

Earned Value Management 

Earned value management (EVM) controls projects as they progress, including the schedule and actual costs vs planned costs. The planned project costs expected for the percentage of completion of the project to date are compared to actual costs incurred on the project to date to establish project controls and evaluate project performance.  

Earned value management provides an opportunity to use cost control on a project while it’s in progress by monitoring whether cost overruns occur. When managers reduce project expenses in response to EVM metrics, project management results will improve. If cost variances are excessive and cancellation is feasible, a business may decide to terminate an unprofitable project before completion. 

Examples of Cost Control 

Examples of types of cost control include:

  • Renegotiating contracts with more favorable terms
  • Getting more competitive bids from different vendors
  • Improving product quality to reduce rework and scrap
  • Reducing the number of items carried in inventory
  • Reducing employee expenses with better expense management 
  • Accounts payable outsourcing
  • Increasing efficiency with automation software 
  • Taking early payment discounts on accounts payable

Cost Control Software 

Cost control software, which often includes dashboards for spend management and spend analysis, is available as a management system for different business applications.

Core ERP and Accounting Software

ERP (enterprise resource planning) and accounting systems have built-in actual vs. budget comparisons for detailed financial statements by account, with drill-down to underlying data. These budget variance features are essential for cost control. 

Standard vs. actual costing can be implemented in feature-rich ERP systems for manufacturing companies. Standard costing variances include labor hours, labor pricing, material purchase price, material usage, and overhead spending and overhead usage variances due to changes in production volume or machine hours.

Financial Forecasting and Budgeting Software

Fully-featured business forecasting and budgeting software may be offered as an ERP software module or a stand-alone software product. Advanced financial forecasting and budgeting software will generate a more accurate sales forecast and cost budget for cost control variance analysis. 

Smart Shop Floor Modules

Cost control software includes specialized features within ERP systems for a smart shop floor application using IoT sensors (Internet of Things), machine learning, and artificial intelligence software. 

These applications initiate real-time alert notifications when manufacturing processes deviate from standards to trigger exceptions. Generally, the sooner the alert is issued, the less scrap and rework costs a manufacturer experiences. 

AP Automation Software

Accounts payable automation software integrates with ERP and accounting systems to streamline and reduce the payables and global mass payments workload by up to 80%, reducing future labor costs for new hires. 

AP automation software provides: 

  • Self-service supplier onboarding and tax reporting via a portal
  • Electronic invoice capture with OCR or uploading
  • Matching invoices with purchase orders and receiving reports
  • Global regulatory compliance
  • Duplicate payments and fraud prevention screening 
  • Automated approval routing
  • Global mass payments using multiple payment methods and currencies
  • Invoice payment status notifications to vendors in real-time
  • Automated payments reconciliation

Expense Management and Tail Spend Software 

Expense management software streamlines employee expense reporting and payment. Travel-management software that may be included in expense management software helps companies track and control travel-related spending. Specialized tail spend software can be used to control employee-initiated routine spending on low-cost items outside the procurement department. 

Project Management Software

Project management software includes project costing, estimating the project schedule, resource estimation, resource costing and budgeting, Gannt charts, and variance analysis. The software should help you perform a post-project evaluation of actual expenditures resulting in total cost vs. budget and benchmarks with similar projects and competitors. 

Earned value management, cost management steps, and target net income for a project may be incorporated into project management software. 

The Importance of Cost Control

Cost control has importance because it lets businesses reduce costs and expenses during the year through analysis and monitoring variances at each budget control level. Managers are accountable for results. Companies that control costs well through optimization practices and cost control tools have a competitive advantage. 

Cost control in project management is essential for an activity in which cost overruns could easily occur.  

Costs can be reduced through cost control strategies, measures, and systems. Cost control will improve business performance data metrics and increase profits, cash flows, and return on investments (ROI). Engagement by team members improves as their ability to make meaningful contributions to results increases.  

Investor stakeholders may be attracted to the stock of publicly-traded companies with effective expense control and corporate governance. Lenders will have an increased likelihood of approving debt and loan financing. Successful companies attract the best talent.

Predictability of costs and results increases. Vendor management improves with better procurement and vendor invoice payments with early payment discounts. Project success increases with project budget control. With strategic cost control and action steps, businesses reduce the need for unexpected financing and improve liquidity. 

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