Understanding opportunity cost is pivotal to financial literacy

Opportunity cost, the trade-off of making a particular choice, is typically seen as more applicable to economics than personal finance. However, I believe understanding opportunity cost is central to being financially literate, and is sorely lacking among the general public. For example, most people are not aware of the magnitude of the “late-start” opportunity cost of obtaining a four-year degree. Many psychology doctoral graduates are overwhelmed by debt and wish they hadn’t stayed in school so long. While other factors are partly responsible, on the whole, college attendees do not recognize the sky-high value of their late teens and twenties, nor the opportunity cost of their decision. Moreover, delay discounting research shows that people frequently overvalue rewards now versus in the future, particularly if they have addictive dispositions. In part, this may be due to a lack of understanding or consideration for opportunity cost.

Research on consumer behavior shows that perceptions of value are often unduly influenced by coupons, promotions, and advertising. For example, an individual who knows that Tylenol and ibuprofen are the same might buy Tylenol with a coupon, even though the cost is still higher than the generic counterpart. The coupon is seen as a savings, when in fact it induced a purchase which was actually more expensive.

Retail gas prices are highly visible, and are given undue weight by consumers. The same consumer who purchased Tylenol might drive out of his/her way to save a few cents per gallon on gas, or might experience psychological distress at observing a lower price at another gas station subsequent to fueling up. However, the opportunity cost of the price difference is almost certainly inconsequential. In fact, the unhappy feelings themselves are more costly and are antithetical to rational choice theory, because they irrational and counterproductive. An understanding of opportunity cost can make this irrationality explicitly visible.

Human behavior when receiving a “windfall gain,” the unexpected acquisition of wealth that feels unearned, is a premier example of failure to understand opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of spending the windfall money is identical to the opportunity cost of spending any other money. However, the $3000 that is received as an IRS tax refund is spent more easily than the $3000 that is earned day-to-day, as if spending the former has less opportunity cost than the latter. Not so! Amazingly, many people will fail to understand opportunity cost even when it is merely their money that was withheld, interest-free, and is now being returned to them.

Money or items of value that are received for “free” are free only when received, but not when spent. Travel hackers who gain “free” vacations via credit card sign-up bonuses fail to recognize that only the acquisition of the rewards was trivial, but that the opportunity cost of using them for travel is what could have been received by cashing them in or selling them to mileage brokers (albeit, with varying levels of risk which should also be factored into one’s valuation). Gift card recipients spend lavishly, even when they would self-flagellate for making identical purchases with money they “earned.” However, the opportunity cost of spending money one received as a windfall or gift is usually no different from the opportunity cost of spending “earned” money.

Not only do purchasing decisions have opportunity costs, but also time-usage decisions. The opportunity cost of driving, for instance, is much greater than the cost of gas—it also encompasses maintenance, depreciation, and insurance on one’s vehicle, time spent driving, and risk of bodily harm. If one can earn $50 per hour in their area of expertise, the opportunity cost of doing one’s own secretarial or housekeeping work is quite substantial.

Investors who reject the risk of stocks for the “safety” of bonds or treasury bills do so at tremendous opportunity cost. In fact, over long time periods (e.g., over 20 years), the risk of stocks evaporates so much that one is over 99% more likely to lose money having picked the “safe” investments. Pandering to one’s psychological shortcomings comes at immense expense.

If an employer offers a 401(k) or IRA match, the opportunity cost of not taking advantage is staggering. Putting $50 per week into such an account at Age 25, which will immediately be doubled by your employer and feasibly may double every 10 years in the market even adjusting for inflation, can be equivalent to 1600 inflation-adjusted non-taxed dollars at Age 65! Even if we are conservative and halve this to $800, statistically as an American you are very likely to live past 65 and still need money at this age. Nevertheless, so many young people “need” this money to make ends meet, without even understanding the raw deal they have given themselves by not contributing.

Understanding and applying the principle of opportunity cost can literally be the difference between becoming a millionaire or pauper. In the Jump$tart Coalition’s National Standards in K–12 Personal Finance Education, 4th edition, it is mentioned only as “every investing decision has alternatives, consequences and opportunity costs” (4th grade knowledge statements; p. 24) and “every spending and saving decision has an opportunity cost” (8th grade additional knowledge statements; p. 8). Moreover, most K–12 teachers don’t even understand “technical” topics such as opportunity cost, let alone being able to teach them. What a pity.

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