Marginal cost is defined as the cost incurred by producing one more unit of a product or service. Therefore, it is sometimes also referred to as the cost of the last unit. The concept of marginal cost is extremely important in economic theory because it is one of the foundations of profit maximization. Thus, if you are attending any economics classes, you’ll most likely have to to calculate marginal cost at some point. Luckily, this is not rocket science. We can calculate marginal cost by following three simple steps: (1) calculate change in costs, (2) calculate change in quantity, and (3) divide change in cost by change in quantity. We will look at each of these steps in more detail below.
1) Calculate Change in Cost
First, we have to calculate the change in cost. In most cases, costs increase or decrease according to the level of output. A higher output usually results in higher costs while a lower output results in lower costs. The reason for this is the presence of variable costs. Variable costs are directly related to the level of output that is being produced and therefore increase or decrease accordingly. In addition to that, step costs (or step fixed costs) can also push costs, whenever a specific level of output is reached. Now, calculating the change in cost is really simple. All we have to do is take the cost after the change in output (i.e. new cost) and subtract it from the cost before the change (i.e. old cost). This results in the following formula:
Change in cost = new cost – old cost
To give an example, let’s assume you own a burger restaurant: Deli Burger. Yesterday you sold 100 burgers, which resulted in total costs of USD 300. Today you sell 102 burgers. Therefore you need two additional patties, more buns, more lettuce, etc. As a result, your total costs increase to USD 304. Hence the change in cost is USD 4.00 (304 – 300).
2) Calculate Change in Quantity
Next, we have to calculate the change in quantity. A change in the level of output is synonymous with a change in quantity. That is, when the level of output increases, the quantity supplied of a good or service increases and vice versa. Computing a change in quantity works just like computing a change in cost. All we need to do is take the quantity after the change in output (i.e. new quantity) and deduct that from the quantity before the change (i.e. old quantity). This gives us the following formula:
Change in quantity = new quantity – old quantity
In the case of Deli Burger, the change in quantity is 2 burgers (102 -100). Please note, even though marginal cost is defined as the change in cost incurred by producing one more unit of a good or service, we can still calculate it for any given number of additional units.
3) Divide Change in Cost by Change in Quantity
Finally, we can calculate marginal cost by dividing the change in cost by the change in quantity. To understand why we do this, just take another look at the definition: marginal cost is the cost incurred by producing one more unit of output. In other words, it is the increase in cost per additional unit. However, because it depends on the change in cost and the change in quantity, marginal cost can vary as the current level of output changes. That means, the marginal cost of selling 11 instead of 10 units may be different from the marginal cost of selling 101 units instead of 100 (even though the change in quantity is the same). Hence, we can use the following formula to calculate marginal cost:
Marginal cost = change in cost / change in quantity
Going back to our Deli Burger example, let’s calculate marginal cost for your 101st and 102nd burgers. If we plug the numbers from above into our formula we get the following equation: USD 4.00 / 2 burgers = USD 2.00. Hence, the marginal cost of producing two additional burgers at this point is USD 2.00 per burger.
In a Nutshell
Marginal cost is defined as the cost incurred by producing one more unit of a product or service. This is an important concept in economic theory because it is one of the foundations of profit maximization. We can calculate marginal cost by following three simple steps: (1) calculate change in costs, (2) calculate change in quantity, and (3) divide change in cost by change in quantity.