Opportunity Cost: The Hidden Price of Making Choices

When people hear the word "cost," they usually think of money. Going out for lunch will cost me $10. Going to the park won't cost a dime. Going to college will be more expensive than I want to think! In reality, each of these choices costs more than the dollar amount, because it involves giving up time, money, or resources that could be used to do something else. In short, each choice has an opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is a key economic concept. Because resources are scarce, choosing one opportunity means giving up something else. Whether it be money, objects, experiences, or even emotional pleasures, opportunity cost is the cost of giving up one thing in favor of another. More precisely, economists define opportunity cost as the highest valued alternative given up to pursue any given action.

The idea of opportunity cost has been discussed in economic theory as early as formative economist Richard Cantillon. In his eighteenth century Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général, he noted that a farmer giving up his son to apprenticeship would lose several years of valuable labor. In 1848, Frédéric Bastiat noted the opportunity cost of a broken window. Economist David Green later distinguished opportunity cost from the "pain cost" of labor, suggesting that higher wages reflect a higher personal opportunity cost, not necessarily harder work. Friedrich von Wieser, of the Austrian School of economics, discussed the business man's need to weigh sacrifice and foregone alternatives; and Milton Friedman of the Chicago School frequently commented that there was no free lunch, i.e., everything costs, even if no currency is exchanged.

Opportunity cost applies to every area of life. If a farmer plants a field of corn, he cannot plant the same field with soybeans. A person buying a TV cannot use that money to eat out. For someone attending a sports event, the opportunity cost may be passing up a visit to the mall, a trip to the movies, or the completion of a weekend home-improvement project. A student giving up four years of life to go to college must pay tuition plus lose the salary and experience that could have been gained by working.

Governments also face opportunity cost. Only a limited number of programs can be funded, so officials must decide where to spend tax dollars. Will they spend money on roads or the arts? On college grants or food stamps? On military supplies or Social Security? One author points out that despite limited resources, special interests tend to ignore the opportunity cost of their particular programs. They encourage the government to overlook these important costs by touting their programs as invaluable. On the flip side, government spending cuts are not always good for private jobs and the economy.

While accepting the idea of opportunity cost, the Keynesian School of thought believes it is possible for idle resources to hold no opportunity cost, i.e., individuals have no incentive to use them productively. Therefore, government must intervene in the market to get idle resources moving. This idea was previously addressed by 19th century economist Frédéric Bastiat in his treatise on What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen. His Broken Window Theory tells the story of a boy breaking his father's window. The accident results in business for the glazier, which at first glance seems positive. However, Bastiat explains the money could have been used for something else—for example, shoes or books—if the window had not been broken. In effect, the opportunity cost of having to fix a broken window was to forego the shoes or books. In this case, unused resources may not be as idle as they look, and stimulating the economy by government projects may only redirect resources from more important needs.

Opportunity cost has many hidden angles and implications. Understanding the concept is an import skill for making wise choices in life, from everyday decisions on how to use time to far-reaching choices on how the government's money should be spent. This topic provides a basic explanation of the term along with case studies of how it applies to multiple of areas of life.

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Michael Munger uses the story of finding tickets for a concert to explain how many people don't think about opportunity cost in the same way economists do. When asking people if they would use the tickets to go to the concert, instead of selling them for the $300 price they're being scalped at, most say they'd go to the concert. Munger finds most people don't realize this decision would cost them the same amount of money that they were previously unwilling to spend when they found out the only tickets available were at the scalping price.

"Prior to the State of the Union address, a majority of Americans said they favor cutting U.S. foreign aid, but more than 6 in 10 opposed cuts to education, Social Security, and Medicare. Smaller majorities objected to cutting programs for the poor, national defense, homeland security, aid to farmers, and funding for the arts and sciences."

"People who defend subsidies for particular sectors often highlight the goods or services that have been produced, or the new jobs created. What they do not normally acknowledge is that the benefits to society of that money, if it had been spent otherwise, or left in the pockets of taxpayers, might have been even greater."

"Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, National Priorities Project has tracked the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

"Friedrich von Wieser (1851-1926) first articulated the notion of 'opportunity cost' (also referred to as the 'alternative-cost' concept) in 1914. Wieser, who [was] born and studied in Vienna, Austria, belonged to a group of economists known as the 'Austrian Trio,' who built on the growing tradition of marginal analysis."

The dilemma is that resource scarcity dictates that we cannot have it all, we must choose.

The author uses Fantasy Football to explain opportunity cost and comparative advantage. In trying to trade a 25 point player for one worth 15, it looked like he was losing points. However, he was actually gaining value by taking into account his opportunity cost as he considered the rules of the game.

Reynolds provides a real-world example of how the concept of "opportunity cost" plays out with accounting rules and taxation in regard to employee stock options.

Russell Roberts agrees with the proposition that everything in life has a cost, even if the monetary price is free. He applies the concept of opportunity cost to attending college, investing in the stock market, and owning a house. He points out that even those who save money by doing things themselves are paying with time. In the end he concludes, "Of all the constraints we face, the constraint of 24 hours in a day and a finite lifetime are ones we cannot escape. Getting the most out of life means using that precious time wisely. Using that time wisely means using and understanding opportunity cost."

"The economic case for college is simple: college graduates make more money. In fact, they make over $500,000 more over the course of their lifetimes, on average. That works out, as we've noted before, to among the best returns-on-investment around. It works out to an annual return of around 15 percent a year. The stock market, by contrast, averages 6.8 percent annual returns, and housing averages 0.4 percent a year:"

"Despite his administration's growing concerns about preventing the collapse of states in strategic parts of the world, U.S. President George W. Bush has proposed cuts in development and disaster assistance while increasing the defence budget by almost seven percent."

Mitchell finds that the private sector can create jobs at a much lower cost than the federal green energy job program. He points out that this also means there is an unseen loss of jobs that could have been created with the same amount of money in the private sector. "In other words, for every one job 'created' by the government, almost four jobs will be foregone," says Mitchell.

"In other words, economics is the study of how people deal with scarcity."

"In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that over the coming century, per capita income would quadruple and that work hours would plummet. Jerry Brito observes that while this first prediction has essentially come true, the second prediction has come true in a more roundabout way."

Krugman believed the Fukushima nuclear tragedy would stimulate the economy. He said that during a liquidity trap, more savings exist than businesses want to invest. Therefore, he held that a catastrophe could actually cause an expansion of the economy by getting that money into circulation.

"Last week, the Department of Agriculture announced that the cost of raising a child is now estimated to be $234,900. The fact that this figure represents an all-time high probably set some new and expectant parents into a panic. So moms and dads out there should sit down before hearing about how this figure is probably a gross underestimate of the costs related to bringing up baby."

"I've made it clear that I very much approve of Japan's new monetary aggressiveness. But I gather that some readers are confused – haven't I been arguing that monetary policy is ineffective in a liquidity trap? The brief answer is that current policy is ineffective, but that you can still get traction if you can change investors' beliefs about expected future monetary policy – which was the moral of my original Japan paper, lo these 15 years ago. But I thought it might be worthwhile to go over this again."

The author addresses the economic reality of scarcity. Everything we do has an opportunity cost. To do one thing, we have to forgo another thing. This is not altogether bad, because it means we have more opportunities available. Without opportunities, there would be no costs. These costs can be reflected in prices and help society choose among resources.

"When economists refer to the 'opportunity cost' of a resource, they mean the value of the next-highest-valued alternative use of that resource. If, for example, you spend time and money going to a movie, you cannot spend that time at home reading a book, and you cannot spend the money on something else. If your next-best alternative to seeing the movie is reading the book, then the opportunity cost of seeing the movie is the money spent plus the pleasure you forgo by not reading the book."

"Scarcity of resources is one of the more basic concepts of economics. Scarcity necessitates trade-offs, and trade-offs result in an opportunity cost. While the cost of a good or service often is thought of in monetary terms, the opportunity cost of a decision is based on what must be given up (the next best alternative) as a result of the decision. Any decision that involves a choice between two or more options has an opportunity cost."

Private property plays an important role in evaluating opportunity cost. For example, winning an all-expense paid Rolls Royce could cost too much for the new owner because of all the money passed up by not selling it.

"But the costs to the city, state, and Metropolitan Transportation Authority would be much higher if opportunity costs are factored in, as the Independent Budget Office (IBO) calculated in September 2009."

"Over the past 200 years or so, many of the world's conflicts have developed around a little-known debate in economic theory. The outcome of this argument has had an impact equal to that of a major war. As an educator, I find it one of the most important but difficult concepts to teach to students, but let me take a shot at explaining it to adults."

The author lists various social and economic costs that she sees would result from federal budget cuts. She worries what these cuts would do to single-parent families, students, and others in need.

"The liquidity trap refers to a state in which the nominal interest rate is close or equal to zero and the monetary authority is unable to stimulate the economy with monetary policy. In such a situation, because the opportunity cost of holding money is zero, even if the monetary authority increases money supply to stimulate the economy, people hoard money. Consequently, excess funds may not be converted into new investment. A liquidity trap is usually caused by,and in turn perpetuates, deflation. When deflation is persistent and combined with an extremely low nominal interest rate, it creates a vicious cycle of output stagnation and further expectations of deflation that lead to a higher real interest rate. Two prominent examples of liquidity traps in history are the Great Depression in the United States during the 1930s and the long economic slump in Japan during the late 1990s."

"GUNS or butter: this is the choice historians conventionally say that governments face. Either they can build up their military capabilities to wield power abroad, or they can aim to increase their citizens' living standards."

The opportunity costs of the bailouts were investments in the real economy.

Wondering about the negative reaction he received for being an economist, Frank realized the problem was due to introductory economics courses that taught mathematical formulas rather than practical economic principles. Further, he found that many professional economists themselves did not even have a grasp of basic economic principles of life, such as opportunity cost.

"This year, as Congress debates the future of No Child Left Behind, American families and taxpayers need to consider an important question: What are we giving up to pay for it?"

"Yet 'crowding out' is inevitable, for the same million cannot be spent on two alternative projects, each of which costs a million. The crowded-out alternative is not seen. It is quietly ruled out by the market because it is not judged capable of meeting the test of at least paying for itself. The project that is carried out meets the test, or is believed to do so. Its opportunity cost is the forgone alternative that does not get carried out. It does not meet the test, or is not believed to do so, hence it is worth less than the project that has crowded it out. In the competitive market, the visible accounting cost and the invisible opportunity cost perform the same work of selection."

"You know your time is valuable, but how much is it really worth? As you fume about a delayed plane, a late doctor, a long line, is it possible to quantify—to put a concrete number on—the time being wasted? To say not just, 'My time is valuable!' but 'That's $123 of my time down the drain!'"

"A program based in Newport burns garbage to generate electricity. But it is also burning something else -- money. If it burned 30,000 dollar bills every day for 19 years, that would almost equal the $219 million in public subsidies it has received through 2013."

"Economic textbooks use the choice between guns and butter to illustrate 'the production possibility curve.' If we assume (pretend) the economy only produces those two goods, that it is at full employment and that productivity gains are impossible, then the only way to produce more guns would be to lure labor and capital out of the butter industry. Just look at North Korea, where the gang of thugs in charge would rather starve everyone than cut back on weapons. Yet notice that balancing the North Korean budget would be entirely irrelevant to their cruel choice of guns over butter. The people would still starve."

"There is a cost to not educating young people. The evidence is literally all around us."

"If you choose college, what do you give up? What is the true opportunity cost? If you go to college, you will lose what could have been purchased or saved with the money spent on tuition, housing, books, etc. for four years. But that's not the end of the costs. You would also lose four years' worth of income (and experience) that you could have earned if you had gone straight to work. Of course, the job you could get with a high school diploma is probably much different than the one possible with a college degree, but you would still experience the opportunity cost of foregone earnings during college."

"Farm subsidies have been a favorite political target of developing countries as well as the Wall Street Journal editorial board, among others. Common themes include 'payments to large agribusinesses,' 'distortions to production and international trade,' and 'suppresses prices harming developing country farmers.' These phrases are used to shape the public discourse in a particular direction. Here, I hope to provide a slightly alternative view that recognizes these arguments, but focuses attention back on opportunity cost."

Chart or Graph

This chart shows the annualized costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from Fiscal Year 2001-02 through 2013.

"The economic case for college is simple: college graduates make more money. In fact, they make over $500,000 more over the course of their lifetimes, on average."

This chart shows a higher weekly salary rate and a lower unemployment rate for those with more education.

"Table 1 shows that, in the eight direct spending activities of state and local governments that are tracked in the BLS employment requirements data, almost 30% of spending in the state and local sector goes to support jobs in private supplier industries."

"But the costs to the city, state, and Metropolitan Transportation Authority would be much higher if opportunity costs are factored in, as the Independent Budget Office (IBO) calculated in September 2009."

"Prior to the State of the Union address, a majority of Americans said they favor cutting U.S. foreign aid, but more than 6 in 10 opposed cuts to education, Social Security, and Medicare."

"As generators of electricity, waste-to-energy plants nationwide cost five times as much as solar generation, and 50 times more than natural gas."

"The Production Possibilities Curve is designed to illustrate the concept of opportunity cost."

Analysis Report White Paper

"State and local budget cuts not only diminish public services; they also hurt the private sector. For each dollar of budget cuts, over half of the jobs and economic activity lost are likely to be in the private sector."

In this analysis of the costs involved to implement homeland security measures, the authors briefly examine opportunity cost. The social opportunity cost of pursuing such policy includes the cost of manpower and time that could be used in other ways outside an increased security program.

James and Griswold present a compelling real-world example of "opportunity cost" by applying the concept to farm subsidies.

This report outlines opportunity costs experienced by transit-dependent poor households, and concludes that when all costs are considered along with benefits of private vehicles, it makes sense to press for more assistance and policies that reduce car ownership costs for poor workers.

"Governments need to make choices and when faced with the protection of either the environment or human health, two truisms must be recognised. The first is that such protection does not come 'free', and the second is that such choices are constrained by limited resources."

"Many accounting textbooks state that the opportunity cost of idle fixed assets is zero. A few exceptions refer to repair, overhaul, employee vacation and congestion, giving rise to positive opportunity cost. We show that in important and frequently encountered situations, idled assets have positive opportunity cost arising from extension of their useful life.

"This Mercatus Center Working Paper discusses the economics of the EPA's interpretation of the Clean Air Act and how considering costs could make society better off."

Economic regulation is often justified, at least allegedly, because of market failure, but recognition that government also can fail suggests that regulation of market activity can generate net losses in social welfare rather than net benefits.

"This paper addresses the initial investment and on-going cost of operation and maintenance of high-performance passenger rail (HPPR) in four of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) sanctioned HPPR regional networks–Northeast, Chicago Hub, California, and Northwest–over a 40 year period."

"Opportunity cost is a core, defining concept of economic science. The early Austrian economists are generally credited with the discovery of the concept and its early application. Here, it is shown that Richard Cantillon, the father of economic theory and method, developed and applied the concept of opportunity cost."

"In the present article, we'll review Bastiat's original lesson and apply it to modern-day disputes over the possible benefits of destructive events."

Introductory college economics courses often cover the opportunity cost of going to college in terms of the wages foregone if the student had been working. However, the authors call into question the usually ignored "work-life" effect.

The author examines if and how the United States should carry on a nation building program through the military.

"The more important purpose of the analysis is to show that a proper consideration of opportunity costs is essential to an assessment of study abroad costs. When viewed from this appropriate economic perspective, study abroad, through an out-sourcing of college resources, is a low cost academic program."

"The costs of rent seeking exceed traditional measures when opportunity cost is considered. When the quantity of resources consumed by rent seeking is large, rent seeking draws consumer surplus out of alternative resource employments."

The author examines the high continued cost of supporting the military on foreign bases. Besides this, he examines some of the non-monetary, or opportunity, costs that result. According to Vine, we all pay.

Video/Podcast/Media

This podcast explains how scarce resources and time force people to make choices. Those choices lead to opportunity cost: something will have to be given up in order to do or have another thing. As the podcast states, "These three concepts – scarcity, choice, and opportunity cost – help form the foundation for economic thinking and reasoning."

"Michael Munger of Duke University and Russ Roberts talk about the economics of ticket scalping, examining our reactions to free and found goods, gifts, e-Bay, value in use vs. value in exchange, and opportunity costs."

"When President Barack Obama cited cost as a reason to bring troops home from Afghanistan, he referred to a $1 trillion price tag for America's wars.

Staggering as it is, that figure grossly underestimates the total cost of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the U.S. Treasury and ignores more imposing costs yet to come, according to a study released on Wednesday.

The final...

"Opportunity cost is one of the big ideas in economics. This Office Hours video helps you understand the concept of opportunity cost using a real-world example of the costs associated with taking a train vs. a plane to Chicago. The train costs less from a monetary standpoint, but takes a lot more time. The plane takes less time, but costs more for a ticket purchase."

"Prof. Mario Villarreal-Diaz explains the scarcity inherent in the world, and how this necessarily implies a world of tradeoffs. In such a world, the pursuit of a choice requires forgoing all other potential choices. Opportunity cost is simply what is given up when a choice is pursued. This is an important concept, as it provides guidance as to where scarce resources will be more productive."

Using the illustration of gathering berries and hunting rabbits, this video shows what the opportunity cost would be of deciding to gather more berries or hunt more rabbits. If the individual decides to hunt more rabbits, it will mean giving up a certain amount of berries; gathering more berries will mean hunting fewer rabbits. The rabbits or berries that have to be given up represent the opportunity cost.

Professor Macomber's video on opportunity cost is a good example of how the term is presented in a classroom setting.

"Paul Solman uses a Boston College football game to illustrate opportunity costs. He also interviews Mary Stevenson, Nobel Laureate Robert Solow, and Benjamin Franklin for their perspectives."

"Does destruction create jobs? After natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and wars, some people argue that these disasters are good for the economy, because they create jobs and prosperity. As Prof. Art Carden of Rhodes College explains, this is an example of the 'broken window fallacy,' a term coined by Frederic Bastiat. When a shopkeeper's window is broken, he will spend money on a new...

Primary Document

This economic classic is noted for providing us with terms for and expositions of such key economic ideas as the division of labor, "invisible hand," self-interest as a beneficial force, and freedom of trade.

"As a subjectivist, Buchanan insists that opportunity costs exist only in the 'eye of the beholder' as envisioned 'alternatives' that are never brought into existence. As a methodological individualist, Buchanan believes that opportunity costs cannot be measured in terms of a collective welfare functional aggregating utility foregone across persons." - Hartmut Kliemt

"This common purpose lasted an instant and perished. The nations of the world divided to follow two distinct roads. The United States and our valued friends, the other free nations, chose one road. The leaders of the Soviet Union chose another."

Henry Hazlitt's classic primer outlines a straightforward and accessible portrayal of free-market economics. An unshackled market, Hazlitt says, is the only path to "full production".

Cantillon wrote one major work which was regarded by Jevons and Hayek as an important early contribution to the theory of marginal utility.

"Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else."

Green examines the difference between pain cost and opportunity cost. While some focus on the value of a thing according to the pain it takes to labor at or produce it, Green finds it important to consider the cost of passing up opportunities. According to Dr. Mark Thornton of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Green was probably the first to coin the English term "opportunity cost."

In his analysis of the workings of human economic behavior, Knight encounters the issue of making choices. He finds the need to make choices comes from the conflicting desires in the inner person that cannot all be fulfilled. Hence, an opportunity cost, or a pain cost. The existence of wants or conflicting desires is the reason the free market works to funnel scarce resources to serve those desires.

In Social Economics, von Wieser puts the alternative-cost doctrine and the theory of imputation into practical application. The work is considered the first overall treatise of Austrian thought.

I have called this book the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, placing the emphasis on the prefix general.

"W.H. Hutt’s Theory of Idle Resources was first published in 1939, surely one of the earliest responses to Keynes’s General Theory.

Hutt goes for the heart of Keynes’s prescription for recovery, which was to get idle resources moving, whether that is money, capital, or labor. If something isn’t being employed right now, it is being wasted.

Hutt responded at length that there is...

"Bastiat's greatest contribution to subjective value theory was how he rigorously applied the theory in his essay, 'What is Seen and What is Not Seen.'... In [this] essay, Bastiat, by relentlessly focusing on the hidden opportunity costs of governmental resource allocation, destroyed the proto-Keynesian notion that government spending can create jobs and wealth." - Thomas J. DiLorenzo

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The reality is that most students (and people for that matter) won't speak out. It's called human nature and it was recognized in the Declaration of Independence: "...all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." While you might feel alone when debating a teacher,...
In the land of the free and the home of the brave, speech codes are a particularly odious example of politically correct repression on many a college campus. In some ways, college campuses are the least free places for thinking and speech in America. Your best friend for fighting your school's repressive speech codes is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Here's a short clip...
Running for office isn't easy, even in college. Not everyone is cut out for it, either. For those of you who are, this completely non-partisan section is for you. If you are inclined to pursue student government, we're not going to spend time on telling you how to get elected. A good place to go for ideas and training is CampusReform.org. Rather, we want to help you in office, as a believer in...