finance · minimalism

opportunity cost: everything comes at a price

A few weeks ago, I spent an entire weekend cleaning.

From Saturday morning to Sunday night, I waged war against the dust bunnies in my bedroom—vacuuming, dusting, tidying, doing laundry, wiping counters, and aggressively scrubbing my toilet. By the end of my cleaning marathon, I was lying exhausted on freshly laundered sheets in my pristine bedroom, proud of the progress I had made. But when all was said and done, there was one thought nagging at the back of my mind: Was there something better I could have done with that time?

Unlike most normal people on this planet, I enjoy cleaning immensely—it’s cathartic for me, an outlet. Imagine a child unleashed in a Chuck E. Cheese after being pumped full of Mountain Dew and Pop Rocks, and you can kind of picture what it looks like when I’m let loose in a messy house. However, just because we enjoy doing something doesn’t necessarily mean we should devote an exuberant amount of time to it.

It all comes down to opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is defined as “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.” Or, in English: When you choose to spend your time engaging in one activity, you forgo the benefits you could receive from all the activities you are not participating in.

For example: If you choose to play video games instead of work out, you may have more fun, but you’re sacrificing the health benefits and the mental satisfaction of completing a vigorous workout.

Another, more tangible example: Let’s say you choose to wash your car in an automatic carwash once a week, choosing the most basic wash option at $7 a wash. That’s $28 a month you spend on cleaning your car, which means that’s also $28 you cannot donate to charity, spend on improving a skill, or put into an investment portfolio, because you have chosen to spend those dollars elsewhere.

But wait—there’s more! Your money isn’t the only currency you’re spending. Washing your car is also something that takes time out of your day. Let’s say the car wash is 10 minutes from your house (so a 20 minute round-trip). You spend 10 minutes going through the carwash, and another 10 minutes afterwards vacuuming out your vehicle. That’s almost three hours a month you’re spending just on keeping your car clean—time you could spend doing literally anything else.

Now at this point you might be thinking, “That’s all fine and good, Amanda, but I am not an obsessive neat freak who needs to drive around a car so immaculate, the queen of England could take her afternoon tea on the hood. I actually can’t even remember the last time I washed my car, so this post doesn’t apply to me.”

Not so fast, hot shot. Take that glowing little rectangle (commonly referred to as a cell phone) out of your pocket and take stock of how many social media apps you have installed. How about gaming apps? Shopping apps?

We as humans are pretty much in unanimous agreement that we spend too much time on our cell phones. And the internet. And browsing the internet on our cell phones. So why do we continue to do it?

If you spent just an hour a day skimming Facebook and browsing Amazon (and let’s be honest, most of us spend more), that’s an average of 30 hours a month spent stalking your ex-boyfriend’s cousin’s sister’s profile and watching two-minute video clips of recipes you’re never going to make. Thirty hours is nearly four eight-hour workdays. What would you do if you had four extra days off work each month? You probably wouldn’t spend it looking at pictures of cats wearing Santa hats.

What a lot of people don’t recognize is that the opportunity cost of their time is incredibly valuable. On his blog “Becoming Minimalist,” Joshua Becker tells of the epiphany he had that led him to minimalism. One weekend, he was watching his son play in the yard by himself while he (Joshua) was stuck cleaning out the garage. Joshua realized the time he spent owning and caring for all of his belongings was time he didn’t get to spend with his son and his family—and he decided a priority shift was necessary.

Here’s the bottom line: If we own less stuff, we can free up our time for the more important things in life. By refusing to spend money on more makeup than you can wear, more books than you can read, or more alcohol than you can consume without puking, you can instead spend it on a class to improve an important-to-you skill; a gift for someone you love; an airline ticket to a new place. Instead of spending your time window-shopping at the mall or starting a new Netflix series, you could visit you parents for dinner, take your dog for a walk, or call a friend just to say hello.

And if you decide you want to spend money on a new outfit or a pedicure or a movie ticket or a luxurious carwash so your vehicle is squeaky clean, then by all means, go for it. Just make the decision consciously, and be aware that every dollar you spend now is a dollar you can’t spend (or save!) another day.

As for me, I’ll most definitely continue to deep-clean my living space from time to time, if for no other reason than it makes me feel like I have some semblance of control over my life. But I probably won’t dedicate entire weekends to it anymore—after all, there are more important things to do.

“Life is like a coin; you can spend it any way you wish, but you can spend it only once.” — Lillian Dickson

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