How to Effectively Track Marketing Expenses

A marketing expense is a marketing expense, right? In the sense that they all hit your budget, yes. In most other respects, not really.

The team dinner check, the hotel block-booking for a trade show, the rush print job for the key customer visit, the dreaded expense that’s transferred in from another department, the CRM subscription…different types of expenses have very different life cycles. Some of them you can – and should – plan for. Some you need to know will happen anyway and accommodate in your planning.

There’s a pretty finite set of expense types that you will deal with. In this blog, we first define marketing expenses and list expense categories with examples. Then, we will deal with the life cycle of a typical marketing expense, and then we’ll talk about how different expense categories fit within – or occasionally violate – this life cycle.


Article Contents:

  • Defining marketing expenses
  • Categories of marketing expenses
  • The expense life cycle
  • Planned vs. unplanned marketing costs
  • Tracking expenses


What is a Marketing Expense?

A marketing expense is the amount of money spent in promoting, advertising, or marketing a business and its products, services, or solutions. These expenses are costs that directly contribute to the performance of marketing activities and overall efforts.

Categories of Marketing Expenses:

In today’s age, expenses can cover everything from digital and social media advertising to marketing automation platforms. Here is a breakdown of how marketing expenses are categorized:

  1. Salaries, benefits, and other costs for marketing employees
  2. Softwares, tools, and automation platforms
  3. Outside vendors, agencies consultants
  4. Advertising expenses
  5. Public relations costs
  6. Events/trade-show costs
  7. Team trainings, conferences, and corporate outings
  8. Travel expenses

The Expense Life Cycle:

Once you know this, you can look at the expenses in your plan with a fresh eye, manage your marketing budget, and ensure you’re treating them in the most useful way for you and your team.

Estimated→ Committed → Charged → Reconciled

Estimated expenses

We have to estimate expenses all the time: we know we’re going to need to book some rooms and pay for some meals at that upcoming event; we’re going to need a creative agency for our upcoming campaign; we’re going to publish some billboards downtown.

When we know about these expenses in advance, we should estimate the expenses. Planned marketing expenses should have estimated amounts.

Committed expenses

Some marketing expenses will be large enough and far enough in the future that we decide to negotiate the price with a vendor. We may sign a contract to lock in that price along with other terms. For example, you might outsource an advertising agency for a social media campaign, a creative agency to help you prepare for an event, or a new technology platform to automate some of your marketing processes.

Once you’ve signed the contract, you have a more precise view of the cost than your initial estimate, and you know you’re on the hook to pay that money (unless the vendor somehow breaches the contract). You haven’t been invoiced, and the service hasn’t been delivered, but you know you will pay a precise amount in the future. Negotiated expenses should have very accurate cost estimates.

Charged expenses

From the marketers’ perspective, expenses are charged once the service has been delivered or once an invoice has been sent. Note – the expense should be marked as charged regardless of whether or not it has been paid by finance. Marketing teams should first care about how much budget has been consumed and how much is left.

Surprisingly, we have frequently met marketers concerned about when and whether a bill has been paid. When a bill is charged against your budget is important to understand – see our article on accruals versus cash-based accounting to see why.

But when a bill is paid it is a finance team’s concern that does not affect how much marketing budget is left. We recommend you treat invoicing as the trigger to mark an expense as charged. Likewise, you should treat credit card expenses as charged.

Reconciled expenses

There’s more after charged? Yup. Most marketing teams receive a periodic report from finance that includes the accounting system view of all the paid bills charged to marketing.

Most of the time, this will contain line-by-line confirmations of what you already know and have in your plan. However, the final accounting of marketing expenses may well contain changes that you need to know about and pay attention to. For example.

  • You didn’t anticipate the sales tax for your finally negotiated price, and the cost that finance has to account for is a little higher than you thought
  • Finance has charged something to marketing that surprises you – it wasn’t in your plan. This might include some credit card expense that you didn’t know existed until now; an expense transferred in from another department, or a change of date to an expense due to accruals-based accounting

In any case, it’s imperative that you snap your plan into line with the finance team’s report to ensure that your pretty-darn accurate view of the charged marketing expenses is ultimately locked into the financial system of record.

The problem is, you can’t wait weeks or months for those finance reports, or you’re flying blind, and it’s impossible to spend accurately, decisively, and at the right budget burn rate. So you must develop and manage the highly accurate team-sourced view of the reality of your charged expenses well ahead of the finance report. Demanding accurate, real-time expense status from the entire marketing team will enable you to make fact-based, accurate decisions on time.

Expenses image

Now we have our model and understand the stages, we’re going to review the different types of expenses and how to manage them to best achieve your marketing goals. Not all expenses go through this process; some just appear at different stages – even at the last stage. In the subsequent section, we’ll cover those at a high level and capture them all in a single model.

Carried-over expenses

carried expenses

When you enter your budget year, your budget should contain at least many estimated, committed, and possibly even charged and reconciled expenses.

You should try to get those into your plan in as much detail as possible, so you have an accurate forecast of spend and a clear understanding of what’s left to spend. Examples of these expenses include:

  • marketing campaigns that cross fiscal year boundaries
  • annual events
  • subscription fees for data or technology
  • open PO’s for contractors, agencies, etc
  • corporate allocations
  • depreciation

Many of these marketing expenses will be at least charged and often reconciled on day 1 of the fiscal year.

Knowing the Difference Between Planned vs. Unplanned Expenses

Though there are expenses that can be planned for, there are many unplanned expenses that will crop up through the year. The more thoroughly you can add your planned expenses into your budget, the better your visibility into what remains to be spent and how close to over budget you are. Keep reading to learn more about planned versus unplanned expenses.

Planned Marketing Expenses

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If you have a new campaign, set of expenses, or an individual expense that you know is new for the fiscal year, you should enter it into your plan with the most accurate estimate of the expense that you can manage. It doesn’t matter if it’s imperfect – it’s much better to have something in your budget than nothing.

Examples include event expenses known in advance (e.g., block room booking, travel, meals, booth expenses, printing, agencies, etc.); a digital campaign with an estimated spend-per-day ceiling; technology and data subscriptions; contractor retainers, and so on.

Planned expenses may be large enough that you have to raise a PO and negotiate price and payment terms, or they may be small or fast-moving enough that they are charged to a credit card without a PO or contract.

Planned expense buckets

You may plan an aggregate cost for a group of expenses and reserve a budget for them. In Planful’s budget tracker, we call this an expense bucket. In this context, we use expense buckets to estimate the cost of a set of expenses for which it may not be possible – or a good use of time – to estimate the line-by-line costs for each individual expense.

For example, you might budget an amount for travel every month even though you don’t know the precise make-up of taxi rides, train fares, airfares, and car mileage that will come in. Such expenses will likely be charged to credit cards – maybe even paid by cash – and won’t be explicitly in the marketing plan with line-by-line precision. When you see them as individual expenses, they will already be committed or even reconciled, and they should be charged to the marketing budget you reserved for them as they come in.

Unanticipated Marketing Expenses

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No one likes unplanned marketing expenses, but they happen all the time. We normally become aware of these expenses when we receive our finance report. What’s unpleasant about these costs is that they are:

  1. unplanned by definition
  2. often already charged and accounted for the first time you see them

It makes a lot of sense to try to understand your surprise-expense run rate if you can. If you don’t know what it is, look at some historical data and try to find expenses like this: accounting reclassifications (for example,  an expense is moved into your budget from another department); corporate allocation you didn’t know about; someone did something bad with the corporate credit card, and you have to eat the cost.

You may encounter surprise expenses from unforeseen issues. You may have unexpected PR costs from a crisis management project (e.g., customer, press, investor, and analyst communications after a data breach), for example, or you may have to make a major mid-year adjustment in your plan due to some major external factor, like a natural disaster.

Disputed expenses

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When you get a surprise expense, you may conclude it doesn’t belong in your budget. This is a common occurrence, and it pays to be diligent – you have enough to worry about paying another department’s bills.

Corporate and departmental budget allocations are frequent candidates to be disputed. You need to track the expense in your budget as if it will be paid by you until finance agrees to move it.

Moving expenses

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You planned it. You know what date the invoice arrived and how much it was for. You know it belongs to marketing. So why can’t you find it in the expense report?

It’s important to understand how your finance team accounts for expenses. Otherwise, you may find that expenses you thought hit your budget in one time period were applied in a different time frame. This can lead to inadvertent underspending or overspending, even if you’ve diligently tracked your expenses before interlocking with the finance team.

Tracking Expenses

The figure below is the unified expense model. It shows when different types of expenses may be initiated during the expense life cycle, the evidence for their existence, and the phases they will occupy until they are reconciled. It’s possible that your expenses won’t work exactly like this. That will depend on the specific policies and practices adopted by your company.

What is important is that you and your marketing team understand how your expenses are handled for your company’s marketing budget. If you understand this well, you can plan and execute your spending accurately to achieve your marketing goals.

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Conclusion: Accurate Marketing Expense Management

Diligent, accurate expense management is impossible in a spreadsheet. In Planful, our marketing expense tracker is highly automated, clearly visible, and easily editable.

Contact us to learn how you can get your marketing expenses under control and maintain a real-time, accurate, team-sourced understanding of the state of your budget and the complete life-cycle of your diverse expenses.

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