I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.– Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I sometimes imagine Thoreau, walking around Concord, throwing out these little bits of advice to his neighbors: “Hey, Mrs. Williams, if you didn’t have so many knickknacks, you could think deep thoughts,” or “Hello, Farmer Sam, why are you worrying about feeding your children when your own mind hasn’t been fed?” But since there are no reports of Thoreau being regularly being beaten up by his neighbors, I’m guessing this never happened. Or perhaps his neighbors just taunted him back with something like, “It’s easy to talk about simplifying when you’re having dinner at Emerson’s house all the time!”
Okay, so maybe I’m the only one who goes around imagining what 19th-century authors were doing in their spare time. Still, this is one of my favorite lines from Walden and not only because I can imagine Thoreau physically tossing rocks out the door. Thoreau’s rocks remind me of what economists call opportunity costs: “The cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action.”
Opportunity costs come in all shapes and sizes and can easily be overlooked in the excitement of buying something new. We’ve probably all had the experience of buying a car and adding on the Blue Tooth and the satellite radio and five or six other extras because the salespeople tell us how wonderful it will be and how easy it is to add them now rather than later. We can so caught up in the mental image of how we’ll look in the top-down model talking on our Blue Tooth that we forget the opportunity costs–that the $3000 more for all the extras might have paid for a trip to New York or made a real dent in a credit card bill or . . . you get the picture.
The same is true for time costs as well. We fall in front of the television and veg out for three or four hours and think nothing of it. But if we consider what we’ve given up to do so, whether it be going for a run, reading a book, playing with our kids, or hanging out with friends, we see that that nightly vegging out starts costing us significant chunks of our lives.
So from now on when deciding to do or buy something, don’t just see if you have the time or the money, ask yourself what else you’re giving up in order to have this experience or item. Make sure it’s truly worth it.