How to Calculate the CAC Payback Period

How to Calculate the CAC Payback Period

Attracting and retaining customers is the key to growth and business sustainability. However, attracting new customers comes with costs, which can heavily impact a company’s bottom line, especially in subscription-based business models such as Software as a Service (SaaS). A metric that helps businesses understand and manage these expenses is the Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC). Building on this metric, another important concept is the CAC Payback Period, which indicates how long it takes for a company to recoup its customer acquisition costs, serving as a lens through which businesses can gauge their customer acquisition efficiency and overall financial health. This article will examine the intricate relationship between these two pivotal concepts, particularly focusing on the calculation and significance of the CAC Payback Period. 

What is Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC)?


Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) is a business metric that determines the cost a company incurs to acquire a new customer, calculated by summing up the total expenses spent on acquiring customers (marketing and sales expenses) and dividing it by the number of customers acquired over the same period. The lower the CAC, the better a company performs, as it signifies better or more efficient customer acquisition. 


Understanding the components that contribute to CAC will help any business, of which fall broadly under three categories:


  • Marketing Costs: This includes all expenses related to the marketing strategies a company employs to draw attention to its products or services. From the costs of running advertising campaigns on social media and search engines, the production of marketing materials, costs associated with public relations, to investments in SEO research, email marketing, content creation, and more – all will go into determining the marketing costs.
  • Sales Expenses: These are costs associated with the sales force and are another vital component of CAC. Costs include salaries and benefits for the sales staff, commissions paid, training costs, traveling costs, costs associated with CRM software, and other tools the sales team uses.
  • Overhead Costs: The indirect costs contributing to the customer acquisition process can also form a part of the CAC. This includes rent, utilities, administrative costs, depreciation, etc. 


Understanding the components can help businesses identify cost-heavy areas and strategize ways to optimize spending, making the process of customer acquisition more efficient and profitable. 

The Concept of Payback Period


In business and finance, the payback period refers to the time it takes for an investment to generate an equivalent return, “paying back” the initial outlay. It is a straightforward measure of how long it takes to recover the initial investment, essentially acting as a gauge of risk and liquidity. A shorter payback period signifies a less risky investment as the recovery of the initial investment is faster. 


In capital budgeting, for instance, the payback period can guide decisions on whether to embark on long-term projects by weighing the time it will take to recoup the costs. It offers a simplistic, yet useful, tool to assess cash flow-related risk and helps prioritize investments based on their payback periods. 

Understanding the CAC Payback Period


The Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC) Payback Period is a key metric that quantifies the time it takes for a company to recover its investment in acquiring new customers. Specifically, it measures how many months a customer must stick around paying for your product or service before the company recoups the cost it spent to acquire said customer. 


A shorter CAC Payback Period is always better – it indicates that the company is quickly recovering its customer acquisition costs, contributing positively to the company’s cash flow. On the other hand, a longer or lengthy CAC Payback Period can raise sustainability concerns, as it suggests that the company’s investment isn’t paying off quickly enough, which can strain cash flow. 


To better understand, consider a scenario where a company spends a significant amount on a marketing campaign and successfully acquires a substantial number of new customers. If these customers do not spend a lot and it takes a long time to generate enough revenue to cover their acquisition cost, the company could find itself running into cash flow problems, even if it is profitable on paper. 


Monitoring the CAC Payback Period allows businesses to identify such cash flow problems early, and allows them to adjust their strategies accordingly. It can also be an excellent tool for comparing the efficiency of different marketing strategies; for instance, if two campaigns lead to the same number of new customers, but one has a shorter CAC Payback Period, it may be the more efficient one to choose. 


Furthermore, trends in the CAC Payback Period can indicate the overall efficiency of a company’s customer acquisition process. Suppose the CAC Payback Period is consistently getting shorter. In that case, it suggests the company may be becoming more efficient, whereas a lengthening of the CAC Payback Period may indicate the opposite – inefficiencies or escalating customer acquisition costs.

Calculating the CAC Payback Period


To fully grasp the calculation for the CAC Payback Period, we need first to understand the formula:

cac payback calculation formula

Each of its components deserves a detailed explanation:


  • Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC): As discussed, the CAC is the average cost a company incurs to acquire a new customer, including costs like advertising, marketing, sales, and other expenses during the process. To calculate CAC, divide the total cost of acquisition by the total number of customers acquired over the same period.
  • Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) Per Customer: MRR is the predictable revenue a company can expect every month, a crucial metric for businesses that operate on a subscription model, much like SaaS companies. It is calculated by multiplying the number of paying customers by the average revenue per user.
  • Gross Margin: Gross margin is a company’s total sales revenue minus its cost of goods sold (COGS), divided by the total sales revenue, expressed as a percentage. The gross margin represents the percent of total sales revenue that the company retains after incurring the direct costs associated with producing the goods and services sold by a company. 


Here is an example to better understand how these elements come together:


Suppose a SaaS company spends $100,000 on sales and marketing in a month and acquires 100 new customers. The company’s CAC would be $1,000 per customer ($100,000/1,000).


Next, assume the average MRR per customer is $200, and the company operates with a gross margin of 80%.


Using the formula above, the CAC Payback Period = $1,000 / ($200 * 0.80) = 6.25 months.


This means it would take approximately 6.25 months for the company to recover its investment to acquire a new customer. 


Note that this calculation assumes that the MRR and gross margin stay consistent over time, but in reality, these numbers may fluctuate due to various factors, such as pricing changes, cost variations, and customer churn. It’s critical to periodically revisit and recalculate to keep this metric up-to-date and reliable. 


Understanding and accurately calculating the CAC Payback Period can significantly impact a business’s financial and operational strategy, offering valuable insight into how efficiently a company converts its customer acquisition spending into profit. It can also help identify trends and patterns, guide budgeting decisions, and inform future customer acquisition and retention strategies. Approach this process with careful consideration and a clear understanding of the output. 

CAC Payback Period Benchmarks



Once the CAC Payback Period is calculated, interpreting it is the next step – however, there is no absolute ‘good’ or ‘bad’ number. Instead, it more likely depends on your company’s cash position, growth strategy, and industry benchmarks.


Many SaaS businesses aim for a Customer Acquisition Cost Payback period of under 12 months, considering that a healthy benchmark. This is typical because these businesses are working with annual subscription models, and a payback period of less than a year means they start making a profit on a customer in the first subscription cycle. 


However, faster-growing or more aggressive companies might accept a longer payback period, relying on venture capital or other financing sources to support a longer road to profitability. Also worth noting is that the benchmark can and does vary across industries. Customers with a high customer lifetime value might accept a longer payback period than those with lower lifetime values – always look within the industry to set realistic and relevant goals. 


While the CAC Payback Period is insightful, it must be considered in the company’s broader financial and strategic context to drive meaningful decision-making. 


The Importance of the CAC Payback Period for SaaS Companies



The Customer Acquisition Cost Payback Period carries significant importance for businesses, particularly those in the SaaS sector. This is because SaaS companies typically make substantial upfront investments in acquiring customers, expecting these expenses to be recovered over the customer’s lifetime with the business. The CAC Payback Period gives these companies a vital perspective on how quickly they can expect to recoup their CAC. 


In the SaaS model, the dynamics between new and existing customers heavily influence the CAC Payback Period. New customers bring in fresh MRR, but also increase the CAC. Meanwhile, existing customers (assuming they remain subscribed) contribute to the MRR without raising the CAC. The CAC Payback Period essentially helps SaaS companies balance out this dynamic by quantifying the time it takes to recover the acquisition costs of new customers.


Furthermore, the CAC Payback Period is directly related to the Customer Lifetime Value (CLTV), another important metric for SaaS companies. CLTV represents the total net profit a company expects to earn from a customer over the entirety of its business relationship. Ideally, SaaS companies aim for a higher CLTV than CAC, indicating that the profit earned from a customer is greater than the cost of acquiring them. A shorter CAC Payback Period usually corresponds to a higher CLTV since the customer starts contributing to profits earlier. 


The CAC Payback Period also ties into the concept of cash flow, the lifeline of all businesses, especially for startups and fast-growing SaaS companies. A shorter CAC Payback Period translates to a faster cash inflow, which improves the company’s cash position and provides more financial flexibility. Conversely, a longer CAC Payback Period means that a company’s cash outflow, in the form of CAC, is not compensated by sufficient cash inflow for a considerable time, posing potential liquidity risks. 


Moreover, the CAC Payback Period can also serve as a diagnostic tool for a SaaS company’s sales and marketing strategy – if it is lengthening over time, it could indicate that the company’s sales and marketing initiatives are becoming less effective or the cost of them are increasing without a commensurate rise in the MRR per customer. 


The CAC Payback Period is not just a measure of financial performance but a lens through which SaaS companies can assess and strategize their operations. By providing insights into cash flow, profitability, and the effectiveness of sales and marketing efforts, this metric serves as a crucial guide in the journey toward sustainable growth and success. It underscores the idea that while acquiring customers is integral to business growth, doing so in a financially efficient manner is equally, if not more, important. 




Understanding and calculating the Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) Payback Period is crucial for any business, particularly for SaaS companies. It is more than just a financial metric; it provides insight into the effectiveness of your sales and marketing strategies, your company’s financial sustainability, and your growth potential. While achieving an optimal CAC Payback Period can be challenging, it is achievable with careful planning, regular reviews, and strategic adjustments. Keep in mind – there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Each company must consider its unique context and adapt its strategies accordingly. 


As the world of finance and business continues to evolve, we encourage you to deepen your understanding of financial metrics and how they can drive your business’s success. By mastering metrics like this one, you equip your business with the tools needed to navigate the competitive landscape and build a more sustainable and profitable future. 


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 



What is a Typical CAC Payback Period?


A typical CAC Payback Period can vary greatly depending on the industry and business model. For SaaS companies, it’s common to aim for a payback period of less than 12 months, however, this can vary based on the company’s growth strategy, the lifetime value of customers, and other factors. 


What Should CAC Payback Be?


There is no absolute number for the CAC Payback Period as it varies by industry and specific company financial situation. Generally, a shorter payback period is favorable to a longer one as it means the company recoups its customer acquisition costs quicker, improving cash flor and profitability. 


How to Calculate CAC Payback Period?


Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC) is calculated by dividing the total costs associated with acquiring new customers (including sales and marketing expenses) by the number of customers acquired in the period the money was spent. For example, if a company spent $100,000 on customer acquisition over a year and acquired 500 customers, the CAC would be $200.


What is the CAC Payback Period in Relation to Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)? 


The CAC Payback Period and the Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) are two sides of the same coin. While the Customer Acquisition Cost Payback Period measures how quickly a company recovers its investment in acquiring a new customer, the CLV estimates the total revenue a company can reasonably expect from a single customer account. A high CLV and a short  CAC Payback Period typically indicates a successful customer acquisition strategy. 

For more on customer acquisition topics, here are three more articles to read:

How to Calculate Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC)
The CLTV/CAC Ratio
How to Calculate the CAC:ARR Ratio

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