Questions, Part 2: Cost?

“What’s this gonna cost me?” It is a common enough question. I think, however, that we do not go far enough when we consider the cost of a thing. I believe that we should take into account three costs: direct cost, attendant cost, and opportunity cost.

Direct Cost

The cost most often considered is the Direct Cost. If I were purchasing a gaming console, the direct cost would be the cost of the console itself. This is what is most commonly understood to be asked, I think, when the question of what something is going to cost is posed.

While this is a valid and important metric, it is not, I think, the deciding factor that we so often credit it with being.

Attendant Cost

Attendant Costs are all of those things necessary to get from the item in question what I want to get from it. For some items and in some circles, the Direct Cost and the Attendant Costs added together are called the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). TCO is a much more realistic metric in terms of what something is going to cost me.

To remain with the gaming console analogy, the Attendant Costs are the cost of a television or monitor with which to view the console’s output, the cost of extra controllers if I want to game with friends in the same room, the cost of internet service if I wish to play online or play downloadable content, the cost of electricity to run all of these associated devices — console, television, modem — and the cost of the games themselves.

While this metric is more realistic, it does not give me the full picture.

Opportunity Cost

Opportunity Cost is something we must harken back to our high school economics classes to understand. This is the opportunities lost by choosing a particular course of action.

Back to our console analogy. If I choose console X, then my opportunity costs are console Y, console Z — any and all other consoles I might have purchased, in short — savings toward an excellently outfitted custom computer, and anything else upon which I might have spent that money. This is merely the tangible, however. There is more.

An often overlooked aspect of Opportunity Cost is the intangible. If I choose to purchase a gaming console, then to see a return on my expenditure I must play. But this requires still more expense: the expense of my time. Time I could spend doing quite literally anything else. This is the often ignored Opportunity Cost of a gaming console. Certainly, it will provide entertainment. But at what cost? What other things could I have been doing instead of playing those games?

Broader Application

One of the reasons I have chosen to write on this topic is a conversation I had nearly five years ago. I was at a job fair and was resting before going back in for another round of rejections. One of the people with whom I had been speaking before and during the fair had a stack of offers in front of her. She was in high demand and could literally pick her poison. We took a look at Attendant Costs and Opportunity Costs. Admittedly, we were spitballing — hypothesizing based on known quantities — but it helped her make the decision.

And that is where Attendant and Opportunity Costs are such powerful and underemployed tools. Obviously, neither can help me make a moral or ethical choice — those are made based on my character, not the costs. But for decisions that are between seemingly equal opportunities, these costs may help.

For example, if I am presented with several job opportunities and must decide between them, it might behoove me to consider the costs associated with each job. One might be for a startup while the other is for an established firm. Each has benefits and drawbacks. Again, one may be for a job that is near home while the other would pay relocation costs and still another is a commute against traffic. There are more intangible costs, though, such as what toll the type of work involved will take on me and, by extension, on my home life. How much of any given job can be left at the office? How many extra hours will be expected? While I know that the modern age anticipates employees “going the extra mile” for the company, I am also keenly aware of just how important family is to me. All of these things must be considered. Each of these is a potential cost. Each opportunity not pursued part of the cost of the one that is.

Closing Thoughts

This view of cost as something that incorporates not only what I pay to have a thing, but takes into account what I forfeit in order to have something is, I think, approaching what Jesus had in mind when He told potential followers to count the cost. Certainly, I gain far more than I give up when I choose to follow Christ, but I need to be aware of what I am expected to give up. Christ expects me to give up my right to self-determination and instead follow His instructions. He expects me to take up my cross; to carry the instrument of my own mortification on my back as He did. These are just a couple of the inherent costs in following Christ. For some, the cost includes family and friends. For others, the cost includes position and wealth. One of the things that is most difficult for me to pay is my dreams and fantasies. I know that He wants to give me something far superior, but there is a line from Dragonheart that sums up how dreamers feel about their dreams: Dreams die hard and you hold them in your hands long after they’ve turned to dust.

Counting the cost is not something that is a once and done prospect. It is a continual return to the new thing that God bids me lay at His feet. Though the riches of Heaven are exchanged for what I pay, still I find that there are times when I cling to the worthless bit of nothing that is mine because I have not counted the cost properly.

As with the greater, so with the lesser. If Christ told me to count the cost of following Him, should I not likewise count the cost of other decisions in life?

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