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Pay vs. Spend vs. Cost

Pay vs. Spend vs. Cost

No matter if you're buying clothes, food or a house, it's important to know the words necessary for getting the things you need.

"Pay," "spend" and "cost" are all important words to know for shopping, but each one is used in a specific way depending on the focus of your sentence. Let's take a closer look at them in order to understand when and how to use them properly.


Let's begin with "pay," which is mostly used as a verb meaning “to give money in return for work, goods, services, etc.” The focus is on an action someone is performing.

Someone pays (for something).

Please pay the cashier at the front of the store.
You have to pay a late fee if you miss the deadline.
I paid (the fee) for my friend because she forgot her purse.
Can I pay with a credit card?
Buy today and you won’t have to pay until next month.

Neither “spend” nor “cost” can be used in these examples.


Next, "spend" as a verb means “to use up” or “to give money for goods or services.” This is almost the same as the definition for “pay!” Sometimes you can use either word without changing a sentence’s meaning, but you’ll need to change the preposition.

I pay about $10 a month for my Netflix subscription.
I spend about $10 a month on my Netflix subscription.

But in other situations, you cannot do this. For example, you cannot say “spend the cashier” or “spend a late fee.”

So what makes "spend" unique? It is used to focus on the payment itself. In other words, a sentence with “spend” is about the money being exchanged.

Someone spends (an amount) on something.

They spent about $2000 on their vacation.
She spent everything in her wallet.
How much did you spend?
I spent $50 on this jacket and $20 on this hat.
The company will spend several million dollars on research this year.


Finally, the verb “cost” means “to require payment before something can be received or done.” So the focus of a "cost" sentence is on the item or service that must be paid for, not the person performing the action or the amount being paid.

An item or service costs something.

How much does this shirt cost?
The premium version costs more than the regular one.
I didn’t think it would cost that much!
The muffins didn’t cost a lot, so I bought two.
It costs too much to repair the TV, so just buy a new one.

Again, the other two verbs would not work in these sentences.

So, let's review:

She paid $20 for the book.
Focus: A person's action
She spent $20 on the book.
Focus: An amount of money
The book costs $20.
Focus: An item requiring payment

Noun Forms

We've covered some of the main uses in the verb forms, but each of these words can also be used as nouns.

"Pay" as a noun refers to money someone receives as a reward for work.

My pay increased after I got promoted.
The pay for these two jobs is the same.

The noun form of "spend" isn't common in daily conversation. It means "the amount of money spent for a particular purpose over a particular length of time." It's mostly used in business situations.

The company decided to increase its advertising spend on social media.
The average spend for each customer is about $30 per visit.

As a noun, "cost" means "the amount of money you have to pay in order to buy or do something."

Companies build factories in developing countries because of the lower cost for workers.
You can upgrade to a better seat for no extra cost.

Other Uses

These words are not only used to talk about money, so let's look at some other ways to use them.

"Pay" means "give" when used together with specific words.

Please pay attention.
You should pay respect to your seniors.
He paid the woman a compliment on her dress.

“Spend” can refer to time as well as money.

We'll spend one week in Spain before going to Germany.
She spent all summer learning how to ride a skateboard.

“Cost” can be used to say that something has been lost or that something bad is now necessary.

All of those overtime hours are costing him his health.
That mistake will cost us a lot of extra work.


These three important words for talking about money are similar, but they are not the same. When you aren't sure which one to use, ask yourself if the focus of your sentence is a person, an amount of money, or an item/service. This is a handy way to help you make the right choice!