Opportunity cost

Economists use the term opportunity cost to indicate what one must give up to obtain what he or she desires. In simple terms, opportunity cost is the benefit not received as a result of not selecting the next best option. The idea behind opportunity cost is that the cost of one item is the lost opportunity to do or consume something else. In short, opportunity cost is the value of the next best alternative. In many cases, it is reasonable to refer to the opportunity cost as the price.

Opportunity cost is closely related to the idea of time constraints. One can do only one thing at a time, which means that, inevitably, one is always giving up other things. The opportunity cost of any activity is the value of the next-best alternative thing one may have done instead. Opportunity cost depends only on the value of the next-best alternative.

Opportunity cost measures cost by what we forgo in exchange. Sometimes we can measure opportunity cost in money, but it is often useful to consider time as well, or to measure it in terms of the actual resources that we must forfeit.

Opportunity costs can tell when not to do something as well as when to do something. Opportunity costs are unavoidable constraints on behavior because one has to decide what’s best and give up the next-best alternative.

Identifying opportunity cost

In many cases, it is reasonable to refer to the opportunity cost as the price. If your cousin buys a new bicycle for $300, then $300 measures the amount of “other consumption” that he has forsaken. For practical purposes, there may be no special need to identify the specific alternative product or products that he could have bought with that $300, but sometimes the price as measured in dollars may not accurately capture the true opportunity cost. This problem can loom especially large when costs of time are involved.

For example, consider a boss who decides that all employees will attend a two-day retreat to “build team spirit.” The out-of-pocket monetary cost of the event may involve hiring an outside consulting firm to run the retreat, as well as room and board for all participants. However, an opportunity cost exists as well: during the two days of the retreat, none of the employees are doing any other work.

Attending college is another case where the opportunity cost exceeds the monetary cost. The out-of-pocket costs of attending college include tuition, books, room and board, and other expenses. However, in addition, during the hours that you are attending class and studying, it is impossible to work at a paying job. Thus, college imposes both an out-of-pocket cost and an opportunity cost of lost earnings.

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