Bologna Or Turkey? Apples Or Oranges? Understanding Opportunity Costs

Posted by Richard on October 7, 2020

In the thousands of little decisions we make every day, the costs are probably minimal. The difference in cost between taking a bologna sandwich or a turkey sandwich to work for lunch is trivial.
But the difference between a bologna sandwich for lunch and a lunch at a pricey restaurant starts to get our attention.
This is what economists call an opportunity cost.
The bologna sandwich costs a little more than a buck. The lunch at Swells Restaurant costs $40. That choice – the opportunity cost — is $39.
We could even think of the opportunity cost as much higher.
If we buy a $40 lunch every day during a 260-day work year, we would spend $10,140. If we brought a $1 sandwich to work, we would spend about $260. The opportunity cost is $9,880.
You could say that we had the opportunity to do something else with that $9,880 but instead, we bought lunch at Swells.
For some, buying lunch at Swells would be a low opportunity cost if they were negotiating million-dollar contracts at lunch.
For others, this would be a wildly inappropriate way to spend their money. That $10K could be the difference between an emergency savings account or an investment in an IRA for retirement. But one thing is for sure: The money can’t be in two places at once.
Opportunity costs can be dramatic when you look at big ticket items like cars and mortgages, or in savings and investment.
Suppose we did take that bologna sandwich to work every day for a year and banked the $39 per day. We’ll round up our savings to $10,000 for this example.
Now we have a choice. We can keep our $10K in a regular savings account at an interest rate of .01 percent. We won’t make any money, but we have the advantage of having the money handy for emergencies. On the other hand, we could invest the money in an IRA and expect a return of 5 percent or 10,500. Over 30 years, that would accumulate a balance of close to $50,000.
So, we could say that lunch every day for a year at Swells cost $40,000.

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