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Incremental Analysis: Definition, Applications, and Real-Life Scenarios

Last updated 03/19/2024 by

Silas Bamigbola

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Incremental analysis, also known as the relevant cost approach, marginal analysis, or differential analysis, is a vital decision-making technique used in business. It helps determine the true cost difference between alternatives by focusing on relevant costs and disregarding sunk or past costs. This article delves deep into the concept, explains its applications, and provides an illustrative example. Learn how incremental analysis can assist businesses in making strategic decisions and optimizing their resources.

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Understanding incremental analysis

Incremental analysis is a powerful tool in the world of business decision-making. It’s all about identifying the cost differences between various alternatives. Whether you’ve heard it referred to as the relevant cost approach, marginal analysis, or differential analysis, the core concept remains the same: to help businesses make informed choices that maximize profits. In this article, we’ll dive into the nitty-gritty of incremental analysis, how it works, and its essential applications.

Breaking down incremental analysis

At its core, incremental analysis is a problem-solving approach that applies accounting information to decision making. The fundamental principle is to assess the potential outcomes of one alternative compared to another. When a business faces different choices, incremental analysis steps in to clarify the financial implications of each option.

Relevant costs vs. non-relevant costs

In incremental analysis, not all costs are created equal. It focuses on relevant costs, which can be further categorized into variable and fixed costs. These are the costs that truly matter in the decision-making process. Relevant costs also encompass the concept of opportunity costs, which represent what a business loses when choosing one alternative over another.

The importance of opportunity costs

Opportunity costs are a critical part of incremental analysis. These represent the costs associated with choosing one course of action over another. When businesses weigh their options, they must factor in the potential gains they miss out on by selecting a particular alternative. This ensures that the chosen option is indeed the most favorable one.

Excluding sunk costs

Sunk costs, often referred to as non-relevant costs, are expenses that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Because these costs remain unchanged regardless of the decision, they are not included in incremental analysis. This allows businesses to focus on the costs that can be influenced by their choices.

Applications of incremental analysis

Incremental analysis plays a crucial role in various business decisions. Let’s explore some common scenarios where it’s applied:

Resource allocation

When a business needs to allocate its limited resources across different product lines, incremental analysis helps make the right choices. It ensures that scarce resources are used most efficiently, maximizing overall profitability.

Make or buy decisions

Businesses frequently face decisions regarding whether to produce a component in-house or purchase it from an external supplier. Incremental analysis comes to the rescue by considering opportunity costs and the overall financial implications of each option.

Continuing or discontinuing products

As products move through the production process, there comes a point where a business must decide whether to continue producing and selling them or discontinue them. Incremental analysis provides insights into the profitability of continuing to produce or selling a product at various stages of the manufacturing process.
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Special order scenario

Imagine a company that sells an item for $300. The costs associated with this item are as follows: $125 for labor, $50 for materials, and $25 for variable overhead selling expenses. Additionally, the company allocates $50 per item for fixed overhead costs.
Now, the company is not operating at full capacity, and it won’t need to invest in additional equipment or overtime labor to accept a special order it has received. This special order requests the purchase of 15 items, each priced at $225.
The sum of all variable costs and fixed costs per item is $250. However, it’s essential to recognize that the $50 allocated for fixed overhead costs is a sunk cost; it’s already spent and cannot be recovered. Since the company has excess capacity, it should only consider the relevant costs.
Therefore, the cost to produce the special order is $200 per item ($125 + $50 + $25), and the profit per item is $25 ($225 – $200). This means that, even with this special order, the company maintains a profitable margin.
However, it’s crucial for the company to consider the implications of operating at full capacity. If there were no excess capacity, they’d need to take into account additional expenses, such as investing in new fixed assets, overtime labor costs, and the opportunity cost of lost sales.

Advanced applications of incremental analysis

Incremental analysis isn’t just limited to the basics; it extends its utility to more advanced scenarios where making critical financial decisions can have a profound impact on a business’s bottom line. Let’s delve into some of these advanced applications:

Investment appraisal

Businesses often need to decide on making significant investments in new projects or assets. Incremental analysis plays a pivotal role in evaluating the financial viability of these investments. It helps calculate the incremental cash flows, taking into account both costs and expected revenues. By comparing the incremental net cash flows of the investment to the initial investment cost, businesses can determine whether the project is financially sound.

Pricing strategy optimization

Setting the right price for products or services is a constant challenge for businesses. Incremental analysis can aid in this aspect by assessing the impact of different pricing strategies on profitability. It helps in understanding how changes in pricing, such as discounts or surcharges, affect both costs and revenues. Businesses can use incremental analysis to fine-tune their pricing strategies for maximum profitability.

Cost reduction and efficiency enhancement

Cost management is a constant concern for businesses striving to remain competitive. Incremental analysis can be applied to find cost reduction opportunities and enhance operational efficiency. By analyzing the costs of different processes, businesses can identify areas where improvements can be made, leading to cost savings and increased profitability.

Scenario analysis

Business decisions often involve uncertainties, and incremental analysis can be employed to conduct scenario analysis. By considering different possible outcomes and their associated costs and revenues, businesses can assess the financial impact of various scenarios. This approach helps in risk management and decision-making under uncertainty.

Supplier evaluation

For businesses that rely on external suppliers, choosing the right supplier is crucial. Incremental analysis can be used to evaluate different suppliers based on their cost structures. It helps in comparing the total cost of goods or services from various suppliers, taking into account both direct and indirect costs. This aids businesses in making informed decisions about their supplier relationships.

Comparative analysis: Incremental vs. traditional costing

While incremental analysis is a powerful decision-making tool, it’s essential to understand how it differs from traditional costing methods. In this section, we’ll explore the distinctions between incremental and traditional costing, highlighting when to use each approach.

Incremental analysis vs. traditional costing

Traditional costing methods allocate all production costs to products, including both variable and fixed costs. Incremental analysis, on the other hand, focuses solely on relevant costs and disregards fixed costs that remain constant regardless of the decision. Understanding the differences between these approaches is essential for businesses to choose the right costing method for specific situations.

When to use incremental analysis vs. traditional costing

The choice between incremental analysis and traditional costing depends on the decision at hand. Businesses should use incremental analysis when assessing choices with different cost structures or when dealing with situations where sunk costs can skew the decision-making process. Traditional costing, with its broader cost allocation, is more suitable for budgeting, financial reporting, and determining long-term profitability.


Incremental analysis is a fundamental technique that empowers businesses to make well-informed decisions. By concentrating on relevant costs and opportunity costs while excluding sunk costs, companies can optimize their profitability. This versatile approach applies to a wide range of scenarios, from evaluating special orders to resource allocation. Real-life examples highlight its practical utility, making it an indispensable tool in the world of business.

Frequently asked questions

What is the significance of opportunity costs in incremental analysis?

Opportunity costs are vital in incremental analysis as they represent what a business forfeits when choosing one alternative over another. Understanding their importance ensures that businesses make decisions that maximize profitability.

Can you provide more examples of how incremental analysis is applied in business?

Certainly, incremental analysis can be applied in various business scenarios. Examples include assessing special orders, making make-or-buy decisions, and determining when to discontinue products. Each instance involves evaluating financial implications.

How does incremental analysis aid in resource allocation?

Incremental analysis plays a crucial role in allocating limited resources to different product lines. It ensures that scarce assets are used to their maximum benefit, leading to optimized overall profitability.

When is it appropriate to use traditional costing methods instead of incremental analysis?

The choice between incremental analysis and traditional costing depends on the specific decision at hand. Traditional costing is more suitable for budgeting, financial reporting, and assessing long-term profitability, whereas incremental analysis is ideal when evaluating choices with different cost structures.

What are the advanced applications of incremental analysis beyond the basics?

Incremental analysis extends its utility to advanced scenarios, including investment appraisal, pricing strategy optimization, cost reduction, scenario analysis, and supplier evaluation. These applications are crucial for businesses making critical financial decisions that impact their bottom line.

Key takeaways

    • Incremental analysis is a powerful decision-making technique used in business.
    • It focuses on relevant costs and disregards sunk costs.
    • Opportunity costs play a significant role in determining the most favorable option.
      • Common applications include evaluating special orders, resource allocation, make or buy decisions, and deciding whether to continue or disconti
      nue products.

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