“The cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action. Put another way, the benefits you could have received by taking an alternative action.”
For instance: “The opportunity cost of going to college is the money you would have earned if you worked instead.”
So – say that if you are choosing between two pairs of shoes in a shop – the opportunity cost of buying the one pair is the other pair of shoes that you did not buy but could have bought instead. This concept comes up very often in economics, where it is said that opportunity cost is what sets accounting apart from economics – because in economics, the opportunity cost is included in the cost of, for instance, running a business or making an investment.
Now – I had never considered the concept of opportunity costs within daily decision making. It was only once I had become familiar with the concept in my economics studies that I noticed how we actually include opportunity cost within decision making in our every day lives. Let’s look at some examples, starting with going back to the shoes.
Say that there are two pairs of shoes that each look really appealing – where you actually don’t want to choose between the two and if you had the money – you’d buy them both – but you don’t have enough for both, you only have enough for one pair. So – you have to choose – because in the end you reckon it’s better to come out with one nice pair of shoes than with none at all. So, you make up your mind and buy one pair – and, you know, these shoes are comfortable and nice looking, so you’re quite satisfied with your purchase. BUT – in the back of your mind – there is that other pair of shoes – the ones you didn’t buy and there’s this sense of being unsettled, because – what if you didn’t buy the ‘right shoes’? What if you would have ended up being happier or more satisfied with the other pair – now you’ll never know. That experience of feeling unsettled or uncertain, like a bad taste that kind of spoils your satisfaction with the shoes you bought – that is the opportunity cost of buying the shoes you have.
And it’s interesting – because you went in with no new shoes – and you came out with a new pair of shoes – but somehow it feels like you also ‘lost something’ – as though you had to ‘give up’ the other pair of shoes, because they ‘could have potentially been yours’. What we don’t realize is that: they were never actually ours. Rationally speaking, we couldn’t have lost them, because we never owned them. So – where does that sense of loss come from?
If you slow yourself down when deciding to buy shoes – you’ll notice that something plays a significant role in that department and that is: Imagination. As you decide on which shoes to buy – you’re imagining wearing them/owning them. You imagine wearing them to specific events, you imagine what others will say about the shoes while wearing them, you imagine how they will fit with your clothes and outfits. So – within your imagination, you ‘act as though’ the shoes ARE YOURS ALREADY. Then, when you step out of your imagination and have to now, in physical reality, decide which shoes to buy, it feels like you have to ‘give up one pair’ – because even though it was only in your imagination that the shoes were yours, you created in those fleeting moments of imagination/projection an actual emotional relationship of ownership with both pairs of shoes.
Let’s look at another example:
Have you ever heard someone (or yourself) say the following in relation to a potential partner that they are hesitant to go into a relationship with/commit themselves to, because: “What if he/she is not ‘the one’?” And “What if, as I commit to this person, I miss out on meeting my perfect partner?” Without going into a discussion about whether ‘the one’ or ‘a perfect partner’ or ‘a soulmate’ exists – if you look at the logic that is used in these instances: it revolves around opportunity cost – the fear of ‘missing out’ on all the things you can’t do because you’re committing to one option. In looking at these statements – it’s interesting to see that there is again a component of imagination – because, you only concretely have one potential partner in front of you – one real live person – but in your imagination there exists so many other ‘potential options’ or ‘one specific other perfect person’ that you might not have met yet. And – instead of making a decision about the one real live person standing in front of us and deciding whether or not to be in a relationship with them or commit to them – we allow ‘imaginary people’ to enter into the equation. And many times a relationship opportunity is passed up on, because of that notion of ‘what if he/she is not the one’ or ‘what if a better opportunity comes along and I miss it?’
There are many more examples, here are some common phrases that refer to opportunity cost:
“You can’t have it both ways”
“I could have done something else with my time, you know”
“I invested so much effort in this project and for what?”
In having defined the concept of opportunity cost and had a look at how we use this concept in daily decision making, we will continue in the next blog by looking at the consequences of this logic in our economy.
Other blogs in this series: