Opportunity Cost


In microeconomic theory, opportunity cost refers to the potential benefits an individual, investor, or business misses out on when choosing one alternative over another. The concept highlights that, due to limited resources, every decision incurs a cost—the loss of the best alternative that was forgone.

Understanding Opportunity Cost

To make informed decisions, understanding opportunity cost is crucial. Consider:

  • Explicit Costs: These are direct monetary expenses such as fees, wages, or the price of a product.
  • Implicit Costs: These are less obvious, representing forgone opportunities. Examples include the lost time and potential income from using resources differently.

Opportunity cost is not limited to financial aspects; it involves any resource with alternative uses. For example, the opportunity cost of spending an hour watching a movie could be the lost hour of studying or working.

Calculation and Examples

While there's no single formula to calculate opportunity cost, the principle is:

  • Opportunity Cost = (Return on Best Forgone Option) - (Return on Chosen Option)
    • Example 1 (Individual): Jane can invest $10,000 in stock A (potential return 12%) or stock B (potential return 8%). The opportunity cost of choosing stock A is the lost 8% return from stock B.
    • Example 2 (Company): A factory can produce chairs or tables. If it focuses on chairs, the opportunity cost is the lost profit from not making tables and vice versa.

Why Opportunity Cost Matters

Opportunity cost underlies effective decision-making in the following ways:

  • Resource Allocation: It reveals the true cost of choices, aiding businesses in deciding how to best utilize their time, money, and assets.
  • Evaluating Trade-offs: Explicit costs alone are misleading. Opportunity cost helps determine if a choice brings the greatest possible value.
  • Sunk Costs: Opportunity cost emphasizes that past expenditures (sunk costs) shouldn't dictate future decisions. Focus should be on potential gains from current alternatives.


  • Uncertain Estimates: Opportunity costs often rely on projecting the returns of forgone options. These projections can be inaccurate.
  • Difficulty in Quantification: Assigning a precise value to non-monetary elements like time or satisfaction can be challenging.


Opportunity cost is a universal economic concept, applicable to individuals, enterprises, and even government policymaking. Its awareness encourages wiser choices that maximize potential gains.