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Operating Expenses OPEX
Definition, Meaning Explained, Examples


Wages and salaries for employee labor are typically the largest spending categories in the operating expense budget.

Most routine expenditures in business are classified as operating expenses. OPEX are planned, authorized, and budgeted differently from capital expenditures.

What is an Operating Expense?

In business, the term operating expense (OPEX) appears in budgeting and spending, but also as an Income statement term in financial accounting.

In brief, operating expenses include most expenditures for operating the firm's normal line of business, which are not capital spending. Operating expenses do not result in capital assets. Instead, they serve entirely for operating the business. On the Income statement, they are subtracted from revenues in the accounting period they are incurred.

Explaining Operating Expense in Context

This article further defines and explains operating expense as a term in budgeting and planning, and also as an Income statement category. Note especially that the term appears in context with related terms and concepts, including:

Operating Expense
Non Operating Expense
Non Cash Expense
Expense Category Account
Income Statement
Tax Savings



Related Topics

  • The term expense for budgeting and financial reporting. See Expense.
  • For complete coverage of concepts in budgeting, see the article Budget.
  • For explanation of the Income statement, see Income statement.

What Does Operating Expense Mean?
Define Your Terms!

In everyday usage, most people make little or no distinction between the terms cost, expenditure, and expense. Outside of the business setting, these terms simply refer to spending—money used to purchase something. And, outside of business, people use these terms more or less interchangeably

In business, however, these terms have different meanings, especially in accounting, finance, budgeting, and business planning. As a result, businesspeople working in these areas need to understand precisely the meaning of each. And, it is not easy to define operating expense properly without this understanding.

The Meaning of Expense-Related Terms

Start with the most inclusive of these terms, cost. All of the events Exhibit 1 below (blue cells) are in fact costs. Business people sometimes define Cost simply as the amount of money required to pay for something. A better and more useful alternative defines cost as "an outcome that works against meeting business objectives." As a result, the latter meaning of cost extends to include non financial costs. (See the article Business Benefit for more on the meaning of cost.)


Exhibit 1. In accounting, finance, and budgeting, the term operating expense refers to one kind of expenditure.

Notice especially in that most of the cost events in Exhibit 1 also fall under the heading Expenditure. An expenditure is simply a monetary cost the firm pay, usually with cash. An expense is one kind of expenditure, but there are several other kinds as well. Firms use cash expenditures to serve at least four different purposes:
  • Firstly, to purchase an asset.
  • Secondly, to reduce a liability (e.g., payoff a loan).
  • Thirdly, to distribute funds to shareholder owners (e.g., dividends).
  • Fourthly, as a cash expense (e.g., to pay employee wages).

Formal Definition: Expenses Use Up Assets

Accountants and financial specialists define expense as follows:

An expense is decrease in owner’s equity due to using up assets.

Notice especially that the formal definition of "expense" refers to two Balance sheet categories: (1) Owner's equity and (2) Assets. And, every expense involves using up one kind of asset or another. It is the depletion, or using up of assets that distinguishes expenses from other kinds cost events.

  • An expense for office supplies, for instance, uses up cash assets. Spending for office supplies is an operating expense.
  • Purchasing a capital asset (such as a factory machine) results in an asset that decreases book value over time through depreciation expense. Depreciation is non cash expense and usually an operating expense as well.
  • A prepaid expense, such as prepaid floor space rent, is an asset that turns into an ordinary cash operating expense as the occupancy period passes.

Operating Expenses and Non Cash Expenses.

Sections below show how to classify expenses in two different ways.

  • Firstly, expenses are either operating expenses or non-operating expenses.
    • Expenses incurred in operating the firm's core line of business are operating expenses. Employee wages, inventory handling costs, and expenditures for office supplies are operating expenses.
    • Expenses incurred outside the core line of business are called, not surprisingly, non-operating expenses. For instance, when a retail merchant paying interest on a bank loan is paying a non operating expense.
  • Secondly, expenses are either cash expenses or non-cash expenses.
    • Depreciation, for instance, is an expense because it uses up an asset: It reduces book value of a Balance sheet asset.
    • Because it does not involve cash payment, depreciation is a non-cash expense. Non cash expenses use up assets other than cash.
    • When depreciation and other non cash expenses occur in the core business, they are also operating expenses.

Sections below further explain the role of these distinctions for budgeting and financial reporting.

Operating Expense Role in Budgeting and Spending
Understanding the OPEX Budget

In brief, most routine expenditures a firm makes in normal business operations are operating expenses, except for the few cases named above (e.g., asset purchase). Operating expenses typically represent spending for such things as:

  • Employee salaries/wages and overhead. 
  • Contract labor.
  • Office space rental or lease and utilities costs).
  • Employee travel and training expenses.
  • Computer maintenance expenses.
  • Marketing communication and advertising.
  • Telephone, Internet services, heating, electricity, and other utilities.
  • Insurance costs.
  • Outside consultant fees.
  • Office supplies.

The Operating Expense (OPEX) budget in the budget hierarchy

Budget planning begins with high level budgets, primarily the entity-wide capital and operating budgets.

  • Many firms plan the capital budget on an entity-wide basis, choosing not to further divide it into individual department budgets. Individual items for the high level capital budget may nevertheless appear in categories. And, these may represent major components of the firm's asset structure, such as"Inventory purchase".
  • On the other hand, large firms almost always plan spending and revenues for the operating budget in the framework of a budget hierarchy.  
    • Individual items in the top level operating budget may carry the names of departments or groups, such as "Marketing." Or, items may name basic roles, such as "General management and administration".
    • In the budgeting process, senior managers first set spending levels for higher level categories such as the "Marketing Budget." . Then, Marketing managers further apportion this into lower level budgets for areas such as market research, advertising, and events.

The two top level budgets together cover most all spending for the entire entity. Note, however, that many firms also plan additional small budgets for non-operating expenses, or "emergency contingencies." These latter kinds of budgets normally play a minor role in business budgeting.

Exhibit 2 shows a few of the levels in one firm's budget hierarchy:


Exhibit 2. Part of one firm's budget hierarchy. Funding requests for the next budgeting cycle normally start at the bottom. Requests pass from the bottom up through the hierarchy, where they aggregate at the highest level. Budget Office staff and senior leaders then make spending decisions for the highest levels, and then move downward.

Operating Expense Role on the Income Statement
Major Expense Item Categories

Major categories of expense items may appear on the Income Statement as follows:

  • Financial Revenues and Expenses
    These include revenues from invested funds and costs from financing borrowed funds, for firms that are not themselves in banking or financial services.
  • Extraordinary Items
    These may include large gains or losses from selling land or major assets, or from major actions restructuring the company (for example, the expenses of laying off part of the workforce). 

All of these categories may include "operating expenses" in the budgetary sense.

Note especially that Operating expenses is refers to one or two major Income statement categories: The second and third bullet points above.

  • This category normally appears beneath the Gross profit line but above Extraordinary items and above Financial income/expenses.
  • The category sometimes appears under the name Selling, General, and Administrative Expenses, or SG&A.
  • And, that sometimes divides into two sub-categories: Firstly Selling Expenses and secondly, General and Administrative Expenses.

In any case, Income statement "Operating expenses" (SG&A) do not impact reported Gross profit or Gross margin because they appear below the Gross profit line. However, these operating expenses do impact profits and margins below them: Operating profit, Operating margin, Net profit and Net profit margin.

For an Income Statement example showing entries in the major statement categories, including Operating Expenses, see Exhibit 1, below.


How Do Operating Expenses Bring Tax Savings?

An operating expense does bring some tax savings. The expense lowers reported income and, as a result, that reduces the income tax liability. Specifically:

Tax Savings on Expense = Expense x Tax Rate

For example, consider a firm taking in $100 revenue with a 30% tax rate on operating income.

  • As a result, the firm pays taxes of $30 on $100 revenues, if it has no expenses.
  • If, however, the firm incurs expenses of $60 to produce the $100 revenues, its income for tax purposes is $100 less $60, that is, $40. As a result, the 30% tax would apply only to $40 for a tax of $12. That is a tax savings of $30 - 12 or $18, or:

Tax Savings on Expense = $60 x 30% = $18


Example Income Statement With Operating Expenses
The Income Statement Equation: Income = Revenues – Expenses

Exhibit 3, below, shows an example Income statement with typical detail for an Annual Report.

Grande Corporation                                   Figures in $1,000's
Income Statement for Year Ended 31 December 20YY   
Gross sales revenues
   Less returns & allowances
      Net sales revenues
Cost of goods sold
   Dirct materials
   Direct labor
   Manufacturing Overhead
      Indirect labor
      Depreciation, mfr equipment
      Other mfr overhead
      Net mfr overhead
         Net cost of goods sold
Gross Profit






Operating Expenses
Selling expenses

   Sales salaries
   Warranty expenses
   Depreciation, Store equip
   Other selling expenses
          Total selling expenses
General & Admin expenses
   Administrative salaries
   Rent expenses
   Depreciation, computers
   Other general & admin expenses
      Total general & admin exp
           Total operating expenses
Operating Income Before Taxes





Financial revenue & Expenses
  Revenue from investments
      Less interest expense
      Net financial gain (expense)
Income before tax & ext items
  Less income tax on operations
    Income before extraordinary items


Extraordinary Items
   Sale of land
   Less initial cost
      Net gain on sale of land
      Less income tax on gain
         Extraord items after tax


Net Income (Profit)       2,126

Exhibit 3. Example Income statement, showing how Revenue and Expense account items and their balances represent the Income statement equation:
     Income = Revenues  – Expenses.