The Structure of Costs in the Short Run

The cost of producing a firm’s output depends on how much labor and physical capital the firm uses. A list of the costs involved in producing cars will look very different from the costs involved in producing computer software or haircuts or fast-food meals. However, the cost structure of all firms can be broken down into some common underlying patterns. When a firm looks at its total costs of production in the short run, a useful starting point is to divide total costs into two categories: fixed costs that cannot be changed in the short run and variable costs that can be changed.

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The breakdown of total costs into fixed and variable costs can provide a basis for other insights as well. The first five columns of Table 7.3 duplicate the previous table, but the last three columns show average total costs, average variable costs, and marginal costs. These new measures analyze costs on a per-unit (rather than a total) basis and are reflected in the curves shown in Figure 7.4.

Table 7.3. Output and Total CostsLaborQuantityFixed CostVariable CostTotal Cost
116$160$80$240
240$160$160$320
360$160$240$400
472$160$320$480
580$160$400$560
684$160$480$640
782$160$560$720

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Figure 7.4. Cost Curves at the Clip Joint. The information on total costs, fixed cost, and variable cost can also be presented on a per-unit basis. Average total cost (ATC) is calculated by dividing total cost by the total quantity produced. The average total cost curve is typically U-shaped. Average variable cost (AVC) is calculated by dividing variable cost by the quantity produced. The average variable cost curve lies below the average total cost curve and is typically U-shaped or upward-sloping. Marginal cost (MC) is calculated by taking the change in total cost between two levels of output and dividing by the change in output. The marginal cost curve is upward-sloping.


Average total cost is total cost divided by the quantity of output. Since the total cost of producing 40 haircuts is $320, the average total cost for producing each of 40 haircuts is $320/40, or $8 per haircut. Average cost curves are typically U-shaped, as Figure 7.4 shows. Average total cost starts off relatively high, because at low levels of output total costs are dominated by the fixed cost; mathematically, the denominator is so small that average total cost is large. Average total cost then declines, as the fixed costs are spread over an increasing quantity of output. In the average cost calculation, the rise in the numerator of total costs is relatively small compared to the rise in the denominator of quantity produced. But as output expands still further, the average cost begins to rise. At the right side of the average cost curve, total costs begin rising more rapidly as diminishing returns kick in.

Average variable cost obtained when variable cost is divided by quantity of output. For example, the variable cost of producing 80 haircuts is $400, so the average variable cost is $400/80, or $5 per haircut. Note that at any level of output, the average variable cost curve will always lie below the curve for average total cost, as shown in Figure 7.4. The reason is that average total cost includes average variable cost and average fixed cost. Thus, for Q = 80 haircuts, the average total cost is $8 per haircut, while the average variable cost is $5 per haircut. However, as output grows, fixed costs become relatively less important (since they do not rise with output), so average variable cost sneaks closer to average cost. Average total and variable costs measure the average costs of producing some quantity of output. Marginal cost is somewhat different.

Marginal cost is the additional cost of producing one more unit of output. So it is not the cost per unit of all units being produced, but only the next one (or next few). Marginal cost can be calculated by taking the change in total cost and dividing it by the change in quantity. For example, as quantity produced increases from 40 to 60 haircuts, total costs rise by 400 – 320, or 80. Thus, the marginal cost for each of those marginal 20 units will be 80/20, or $4 per haircut. The marginal cost curve is generally upward-sloping, because diminishing marginal returns implies that additional units are more costly to produce. A small range of increasing marginal returns can be seen in the figure as a dip in the marginal cost curve before it starts rising. There is a point at which marginal and average costs meet, as explained below.

Where do marginal and average costs meet?

The marginal cost line intersects the average cost line exactly at the bottom of the average cost curve—which occurs at a quantity of 72 and cost of $6.60 in Figure 7.4. The reason why the intersection occurs at this point is built into the economic meaning of marginal and average costs. If the marginal cost of production is below the average cost for producing previous units, as it is for the points to the left of where MC crosses ATC, then producing one more additional unit will reduce average costs overall—and the ATC curve will be downward-sloping in this zone. Conversely, if the marginal cost of production for producing an additional unit is above the average cost for producing the earlier units, as it is for points to the right of where MC crosses ATC, then producing a marginal unit will increase average costs overall—and the ATC curve must be upward-sloping in this zone. The point of transition, between where MC is pulling ATC down and where it is pulling it up, must occur at the minimum point of the ATC curve.

This idea of the marginal cost “pulling down” the average cost or “pulling up” the average cost may sound abstract, but think about it in terms of your own grades. If the score on the most recent quiz you take is lower than your average score on previous quizzes, then the marginal quiz pulls down your average. If your score on the most recent quiz is higher than the average on previous quizzes, the marginal quiz pulls up your average. In this same way, low marginal costs of production first pull down average costs and then higher marginal costs pull them up.

The numerical calculations behind average cost, average variable cost, and marginal cost will change from firm to firm. However, the general patterns of these curves, and the relationships and economic intuition behind them, will not change.

Self Check: Marginal, Average, and Total Cost

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

You’ll have more success on the Self Check if you’ve completed the two Readings in this section.

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Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.