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What does stepped cost mean?

Harold Averkamp, CPA, MBA

Stepped cost refers to the behavior of the total cost of an activity at various levels of the activity. When a stepped cost is plotted on a graph (with the total cost represented by the y-axis and the quantity of the activity represented by the x-axis) the lines will appear as steps or stairs rising from left to right.

To illustrate a stepped cost, let’s assume that you are developing a website and find that the monthly cost of hosting the site is based on the number of visits. For 0 to 999 visits per month, the cost is $20 per month. When the visits are in the range of 1,000 to 2,999 the monthly cost jumps to $50. If the visits are 3,000 to 9,999 the cost will be $200 per month. For monthly visits of 10,000 to 24,999 the cost is $300, and so on. As the data indicates, the total monthly cost is constant or fixed only for a given range of activity (number of visits). When the number of visits exceeds the upper limit of a range, the monthly cost jumps to a higher level and remains fixed until the visits exceed the new upper limit.

A stepped cost is also referred to as a step cost, a step-variable cost, or a step-fixed cost. The difference between a step-variable cost and a step-fixed cost has to do with the width of the range of activity. If the total cost increases with small increases in activity, it may be referred to as a step-variable cost. If the total cost will change only with large increases in the quantity of activity, the term step-fixed cost is more likely to be used.

Knowing how costs behave is important for decision making. For example, a manufacturer will want to know how its costs will increase if a new product line is added (or how costs could decrease if an existing product line is eliminated).

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About the Author

Harold Averkamp

For the past 52 years, Harold Averkamp (CPA, MBA) has
worked as an accounting supervisor, manager, consultant, university instructor, and innovator in teaching accounting online. He is the sole author of all the materials on

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