“Opportunity cost” refers to what you can potentially lose by choosing one option over another – even when you aren’t thinking about it.
Nearly every choice you make precludes something else that might have been.
Opportunity cost exists in everything from relationships to finances to career choices, but here we’ll focus on that last one. Over a lifetime, the cost of career decisions can be massive.
For opportunity costs that can be measured, usually in dollars, there’s even a math equation.
What I sacrifice / What I gain = Opportunity cost[i]
Let’s say you have two career choices. One is to work as a mechanic at $50 per hour and the other is to work as a karate instructor at $20 per hour.
Opportunity A / Opportunity B = Opportunity cost
Here it is with numbers: $50 / $20 = $2.50
To translate that, for every $1 you earn as a karate instructor, you could have earned $2.50 as a mechanic. The ratio remains the same whether it’s for one hour worked or 1,000 hours worked because it’s based on earnings per hour.
Adding a time element
We can only work a certain number of hours in a week and we can only work for a certain number of years in a lifetime. Adding time into the discussion doesn’t change the math relationship between the opportunities but it does recognize real-world constraints. Sometimes these limits are by choice. You could be both a full-time mechanic and a full-time karate instructor, but most people don’t want to work 80 hours per week. Something has to give, and that’s where considering opportunity cost comes in.
If you only want to work 40 hours in a week, you’ll have to choose one career over the other or split your time between the two. But even in splitting your time, there is an opportunity cost. Think about it like this: Every hour spent in a lower paying job costs money if you had an opportunity to earn more doing something else.
The bigger picture
In our example using the mechanic vs. the karate instructor, the difference in annual income is over $60,000 per year ($104,000 minus $41,600). Over a 40-year working career, the difference in earnings is nearly $2.5 million, and it all happened one hour at a time.
Your career choice shouldn’t just be about money – you should do something you enjoy and that gives you satisfaction. There may be several other considerations as well – like opportunity to travel, the kind of people you work with, and the greater contribution you can make to the world. However, if there are two choices that meet all your criteria but one pays a bit more, just do the math!