How to Find Gross Profit Percentage: 9 Ways Yours is Misleading You

Gross profit is gross profit, right? The math is simple enough. Revenue less the cost of goods yields your gross profit. Divide that figure by your total revenue for the same period and you have your figure. Unfortunately there's more to it than that calculation. It should be that simple, but having scoured hundreds upon hundreds of small business income statements, our data shows it’s rare to find an accurate gross profit figure, let alone one an owner should trust.

how to find gross profit percentage

With the refresher on how to find a gross profit percentage behind us, let's turn our attention to a few of the reasons why an accurate Gross Profit is critical:

  • Profit. Owners, lenders, investors all want to know how much money is made relative to expenses. Gross profit is the answer.
  • Pricing. Gross profit tells you how much money you make on each item you sell. Turn a blind eye toward this type of classification and you’ll lose your ability to determine whether a product/service is generating or losing cash, and to what degree.
  • Benchmarking. An accurate gross profit enables an apples-to-apples comparison with benchmarked performance of the competition.
  • Product/Service Mix. Understanding the relative gross profit for each product or service allows an owner to evolve an offering based on its relative contribution to profit.

Tip: For more on the distinction between gross profit and net profit, click here for tips on reading an income statement.

Consistent with many areas of accounting, choices abound when a bookkeeper enters expenses. It may surprise some that there’s not a set method for entering transactions, far from it. Yet most bookkeepers record expenses with a singular goal in mind: tax compliance. They shoot to minimize the tax bill and avoid getting into trouble with Uncle Sam. In such cases, the only accurate and useful summary lines on an income statement are revenue and taxable income. Many owners miss the opportunity to harvest insights from their income statement, but it’s even worse when they make decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information.

Here’s how gross profit figures are often misleading:

1. Classifying fulfillment cost as overhead 

It’s common to see costs associated with building a product or delivering a service misclassified as overhead or General and Administrative expenses (G&A) costs as opposed to Cost of Goods Sold (CoGS). Such a misclassification doesn’t change the taxable income, but it will prevent you from evaluating your pricing.

2. Mixing business with pleasure 

There are cases where the line between a business or personal expense can be blurred. Perhaps a case can be made for expensing some of your vacation expenses if you visited a client while on the road, but generally speaking clean margins start with clean books so avoid co-mingling the two so you can analyze the performance of your business.

3. Closing Infrequently 

The phrase “close your books” means entering revenues and costs for a particular period with the objective of not making additional changes. These “closings” are for internal management purposes and your accountant will typically weigh in at year end, making adjustments as necessary. If you don’t close your books monthly, or at least quarterly, you may miss small issues as they arise and lose the opportunity to prevent them from growing into larger issues.

4. Ignoring timing 

We’ve seen many financials where attention was not paid to customer or vendor invoice dates. Transactions are often entered for incorrect (eg: prior) periods or bunched into a single period even though they were incurred over multiple periods. Timing does matter. Incorrect or inconsistently dated transactions will artificially increase or decrease the Gross Profit.

5. Classifying overhead as CoGS

Overhead or G&A expenses are often erroneously classified as CoGS. For example, it’s not uncommon to see owner’s compensation as part of CoGS. While it’s conceivable an owner contributes to product/service fulfillment, at least some of the owner’s compensation belongs in G&A.

6. Not splitting accounts

Many times, all fixed overhead expenses are classified in G&A or CoGS accounts. However, some fixed costs such as rent and utilities may need to be split between CoGS and G&A. For example, a company that uses 50% of it’s building for staff that delivers a specific service should apply 50% of rent to COGS and remaining 50% of rent to G&A.

7. Failing to capitalize assets

Fixed assets over a certain value should be depreciated over a certain number of years according to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). However, some bookkeepers expense these assets, causing Gross Profit to appear falsely low. The purpose of depreciating an asset over it’s useful life is to align the cost with the periods during which the asset generates revenue for you. We are not talking about a $250 computer, rather larger expenses that would materially change your monthly financial performance.

8. Classifying inconsistently

Ambiguous, undocumented or unmanaged accounting procedures often lead to intermittent adherence to classification protocols. It doesn’t take many misclassifications to render a Gross Profit useless.

9. Viewing Gross Profit over a short period of time or a single period in isolation

Looking at only a month or single fiscal quarter may create a false impression since gross profit may fluctuate period-to-period. Look across longer periods of time so the gross profit can factor in the typical ebbs and flows of a business. It’s also advisable to compare the current period with past periods to pick up any trends that might require further investigation.

You’ve heard the old adage: “Garbage In. Garbage Out.” Lackluster expense classification can lead to costly decisions. For example, including personal expenses might make it appear as though you can’t afford a new hire, causing you to back away from a new opportunity you’re not currently staffed to deliver. Harness the opportunity to use every day bookkeeping to build a foundation for reporting that can change the way you run your business. The resulting insights can and should be “game changing.”


Driven Insights is experienced in leading service businesses on the journey to leveraging financial and operating metrics to accelerate growth. Our bookkeepers and controllers are charged with much more than simply “doing the books” – they ensure each client understands and uses the insights we share.

Interested in learning more? See for yourself how Driven Insights can provide the insight and control you need to achieve your most critical goals by contacting us at or 888-631-1124.

Dave Robinson

Written by Dave Robinson

Driven Insights founder, writes about informing business decisions and building enterprise value through financial management.

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