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Project cost management: Definition, steps, and benefits

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia Martins
February 1st, 2024
9 min read
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Cost management is the process of planning, budgeting, and reporting project spend in order to keep teams on budget and overall costs reasonable. In this article, we'll go over the four functions of cost management and explain exactly how to use them to improve your project's bottom line.

When it comes to project management, there are few things more important than keeping costs under control. Especially when a project is complicated, expenses can send your costs skyrocketing more quickly than you expect. Project managers need to take a proactive approach to cost management in order to keep their budgets on track.

What is cost management?

Cost management is the process of estimating, budgeting, and controlling project costs. The cost management process begins during the planning phase and continues throughout the duration of the project as managers continuously review, monitor, and adjust expenditures to ensure the project doesn't go over the approved budget.

Why is cost management important?

Have you ever wondered what happens when a project goes significantly over budget? The consequences can be severe—from strained relationships with clients to financial losses. Let's consider an example:

A small software development team was tasked with creating a custom application for a client. Midway through, they realized the project was quickly exceeding the initial budget. They faced a common dilemma: continue as planned and absorb the extra costs or re-evaluate their approach.

By implementing rigorous cost management strategies, the team was able to identify areas where expenses were ballooning. They streamlined their project management processes, prioritized essential features, and renegotiated terms with subcontractors. This approach not only brought the project back within budget but also improved their working relationship with the client, who appreciated their transparency and commitment to delivering value.

This scenario highlights how effective cost management can transform a potentially disastrous situation into a success story.

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How to create a cost management plan

Cost management is a continuous, fluid process. However, there are four main elements or functions that can be found in any cost management plan:

  • Resource planning

  • Cost estimating

  • Cost budgeting

  • Cost control

Because new expenses can appear and project scope can be adjusted, cost managers need to be prepared to perform all four functions at any time throughout the project life cycle. Your workflow will vary according to the project’s needs.

Here, we'll break down each of the four elements in greater detail and explain what is required from the cost manager at each stage.

[Inline Illustration] cost management (infographic)

Resource planning

The very first step in any cost management process is resource planning, which is when the cost manager reviews the project's scope and specs to figure out what resources the project will require.

A resource is anything that helps you complete a project—including tools, money, time, equipment, and even team members. To create the most accurate resource plan possible, consult directly with team leads and stakeholders about what resources they will need during the project. People with hands-on experience in each project department will have a better understanding of what resources will be required. 

For this step, you'll need:

Cost estimating

Once you have a list of necessary resources, the next step is to estimate what it will cost to procure them. The key to this step is to gather as much pricing information as possible so that you can make informed cost estimates.

For tangible resources like tools, supplies, and equipment, get real price quotes from sellers to inform your cost estimate. For labor costs, get multiple price quotes from potential contractors to help give you a realistic idea of what the work you require will actually cost. Keep in mind that some time may pass between when you make your estimate and when these items will be purchased, so you should build in some room in case prices rise. 

In addition to building in a cushion for each individual cost, you'll also need to add a buffer of 5–10% to your cost total to account for unexpected expenses. If this is your first time working with this project team, find out if the previous cost manager generated budget reports at the end of past projects. 

You can take a look at how much previous projects' final costs deviated from their initial estimates and use this cost data as a benchmark to estimate how much of a margin you need to build into your estimation report.

In the estimation stage, you'll need:

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Cost budgeting

Now that you have general estimates for your project needs and resource requirements, you can begin to work on your project budget. Your project budget is a detailed plan of how much you plan to spend during the project, for what, and by when. 

Depending on the complexity of your project, the “when” may significantly influence your cost management strategy. For multi-year projects, you may want to specify cost allocations so that no more than 30% of your budget should be spent in the first year, etc. This can prevent cost overruns later down the road.

In this stage, you'll need:

Cost control

The bulk of the cost management process is made up of cost control. This is the process of recording and accounting costs as the project progresses, making adjustments, and alerting stakeholders to problems when they occur. The goal of the cost control step is to compare actual project costs with original budgets and estimates and take steps to make sure the project stays as close to plan as possible.

The frequency with which you review this will depend on your project. Sometimes you’ll want to review costs in real time. In other cases, you may check in monthly or even quarterly. Share cost updates as necessary through project status reports so the entire project team is on the same page.

Keep in mind that any changes to the project scope will impact the project budget and costs, so keep a close eye on scope creep. If the project cost deviates too much from what you budgeted, let your stakeholders know so you can proactively come up with an action plan.

In this stage, you'll need:

[inline illustration] cost management (infographic)

Post-project cost accounting

Once the project is over, it’s time to calculate cost variance and evaluate how far your project deviated from your original budget and estimates. What were the project’s total costs? How did your actual costs compare to your estimated costs? 

A successful project ends close to (but under) the forecasted project budget. If you spent too much money, you either underestimated your project budget or had too many unforeseen expenses. If this happens, hold a project post-mortem meeting to evaluate why that happened and prevent it from happening in the future.

On the flip side, spending too little of your budget is also not ideal. You estimated these costs for a reason, and if you came in significantly under budget, your cost-budgeting process was inaccurate. Log this information as historical data and keep it in mind for future projects, so you can increase your accuracy during the cost estimation phase.

How to calculate project costs

To ensure that your project stays profitable and within budget, it is essential to have a solid understanding of how to calculate project costs. 

Project managers have a variety of cost management methods to choose from, and picking the best one depends on the specific needs and scope of your project. Consider factors like project complexity, the predictability of tasks, client expectations, and the level of flexibility you'll need to achieve your cost-performance goals.


Calculating project costs on an hourly basis involves paying for the amount of work done, measured in hours. This method is particularly effective for projects where the scope is flexible or uncertain because it allows for adaptability as the project progresses. 

For example, consider a software development project. The development team's cost is calculated based on the number of hours they spend on the project. If the team works 100 hours a month at a rate of $100 per hour, the project costing for that month would be $10,000. This method provides flexibility and can accommodate changes in the project's scope effectively.

Flat rate

A flat rate, or fixed price, approach involves agreeing on a total project cost upfront. This method is ideal for projects with a well-defined scope and deliverables. This gives both parties a clear understanding of the total cost.

Imagine a marketing campaign. The agency and the client agree on a fixed price of $20,000 for the entire campaign. This price covers all aspects of the project, from planning to execution. The advantage here is predictability in budgeting, as the client knows exactly how much the project will cost, irrespective of the time and resources utilized.

Cost plus

The cost-plus method involves charging the actual costs of the project plus a markup or additional fee. This approach is often used in long-term projects where the costs cannot be accurately estimated at the start. It ensures that all project costs are covered and includes a profit margin.

For instance, in a construction project, the contractor charges for the actual costs incurred (like materials and labor) plus a fixed percentage as profit. If the material and labor costs amount to $50,000 and the agreed markup is 20%, the total charge to the client would be $60,000. This cost management method aligns the interests of the client and the contractor, as both parties aim for optimal cost performance.

Value-based pricing

Value-based pricing focuses on the value or benefit the client receives rather than the cost of the project itself. This estimation method is ideal for projects where the outcome has a high perceived value, regardless of the actual cost of delivery.

Consider a scenario where a consulting firm is helping a client increase their annual revenue. If the consultant's strategies result in a $1 million revenue increase, the consultant may charge a fee based on a percentage of the revenue increase, say 10%, which would be $100,000. Value-based pricing ensures that the pricing reflects the value delivered.

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Effective project cost management methods

One of the most persistent challenges faced by teams across various industries is controlling and preventing budget overruns. These overruns not only strain financial resources but can also lead to compromised project quality, delayed timelines, and even project failure. 

Effective cost management is the key to tackling this challenge because it makes certain that projects are delivered within their allocated budgets while maintaining high standards of quality and efficiency.

Choosing the best cost-management method is key to addressing these financial challenges head-on. For further cost optimization, teams can leverage automation, management software, and dashboards that offer real-time cost analysis, cash flow, and future cost visualization. This will ultimately contribute to the success of your project.

Top-down estimating

Top-down estimating is a method where the overall project cost is estimated first, and then individual costs are deduced from this total. This approach is beneficial in the early stages of project planning, when detailed information is not yet available. It gives a quick and rough idea of how much the project will cost.

For example, in a new software development project, the project manager might estimate the total project cost at $200,000 based on previous similar projects. This total cost is then broken down into smaller segments like design, coding, testing, and deployment, each allocated a portion of the total budget. This method is effective for providing a preliminary cost framework and guiding early project decision-making.

Bottom-up estimating

Bottom-up estimating is the reverse of the top-down approach. It involves estimating individual tasks or components of the project first and then adding them up to get the total project cost. This estimation method is more accurate and reliable, especially for projects with a well-defined scope, as it considers detailed cost information.

Consider a construction project where each part of the project, such as foundation laying, framing, plumbing, and electrical work, is estimated individually based on detailed analysis. After estimating all these components, the costs are summed up to determine the overall project budget. Bottom-up estimating is ideal for teams that need precise control over each aspect of the project's costs.

Earned value management

Earned value management (EVM) is a sophisticated approach to cost management that combines measurements of project performance in terms of scope, schedule, and cost. EVM provides a comprehensive view of the project's progress and its alignment with the original project planning.

For instance, in a large infrastructure project, EVM would be used to track the following: 

  • Budgeted cost of work scheduled (BCWS)

  • Actual cost of work performed (ACWP)

  • Budgeted cost of work performed (BCWP) 

By comparing these figures, project managers can gauge the project's cost performance and take corrective action if necessary.

Three-point estimating

Three-point estimating is used to determine a more realistic estimate by considering three scenarios: 

  1. Most optimistic (best-case) 

  2. Most pessimistic (worst-case) 

  3. Most likely 

This cost management method provides a range of possible outcomes, which can increase the predictability and cost performance of a project.

Take, for example, a new product development project. The project manager might estimate that the design phase could take 30 days (optimistic), 45 days (most likely), or 60 days (pessimistic). Using these three points, they calculate an average or weighted average duration, which helps in setting realistic timelines and budgets.

FAQ about cost management

What is the first step in project cost management?

The first step in project cost management is to define the baseline for your project's budget. This involves identifying all potential costs and inputs related to the project, including labor, materials, equipment, and any other expenses. Creating a baseline is essential because it provides the framework for monitoring and controlling expenses during the lifecycle of a project.

What are the 5 functions of cost management?

The five key functions of cost management are:

  1. Cost estimation: Determining the total cost required for completing the project.

  2. Cost budgeting: Allocating the overall cost estimate to individual work items to establish a baseline for measuring performance.

  3. Cost control: Monitoring project expenses and implementing measures to keep costs within the approved budget.

  4. Cash flow management: Ensuring there is adequate cash flow to meet project needs, which is critical for maintaining project momentum.

  5. Procurement management: Managing the procurement of goods and services, ensuring that everything is obtained at the best possible cost and meets project needs.

What is cost management in project management?

Cost management in project management is the process of planning, estimating, budgeting, and controlling costs with the aim of completing the project within the approved budget. It involves a continuous process of measuring and monitoring project activities and expenses and implementing necessary adjustments to ensure that the project's financial resources are used effectively. 

Improve your project performance with cost management

Cost management has a lot of moving parts. But as long as your team has visibility into project costs, you can prevent cost overruns and ensure you’re finishing your project under budget every time.

To keep track of all of your project’s information, use a work management platform like Asana. From project costing and kickoff to post-mortem, Asana helps you stay in sync with your project team members and stakeholders during the entire project process.

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