What is Opportunity Cost? How to Use It, Formula and Calculation

Opportunity cost is an essential economic concept representing the potential benefits or value forgone when choosing one alternative over another. It is the cost of the next best alternative that people give up to pursue a specific action or decision.

Why Is Opportunity Cost Important

Opportunity cost is crucial in decision-making because it helps individuals and businesses understand the trade-offs in making choices and allocating resources.

In simple terms, the concept helps answer the question, what am I giving up by choosing this option?

By considering opportunity costs, people can better evaluate the relative value of different options and make more informed decisions that maximize potential benefits.

For example, suppose a business owner has $10,000 to invest and has two investment options: Option A may yield an 8% return, and Option B may generate a 12% return.

If the business owner chooses to invest in Option A, the opportunity cost would be the 4% difference in returns between the two options (12% – 8% = 4%). The business owner is forgoing the potential 4% additional return by investing in Option B.

Opportunity cost applies to various personal and professional life aspects, including time management, career choices, personal finance, and business decisions.

Opportunity Cost Formula and Calculation

The formula for calculating opportunity cost is:

Opportunity Cost = Value of the Next Best Alternative – Value of the Chosen Option

It’s a straightforward formula. But remember that the “value” in this formula can represent various types of resources, such as time, money, or utility, depending on the context.

How Opportunity Cost Leads to Better Choices

Most people neglect to consider opportunity costs, but it can significantly improve decision-making. Here are several ways the concept contributes to better choices.

Awareness of trade-offs

Recognizing that choosing one option means forgoing another helps people become more mindful of the consequences of their decisions. This awareness promotes a more deliberate and thoughtful approach to decision-making.

Comparison of Alternatives

Considering the concept pushes decision-makers to compare and evaluate alternatives based on their potential benefits and costs. This comparison helps to identify the most valuable option among available choices.

Efficient Resource Allocation

By understanding the opportunity costs associated with various choices, individuals and businesses can allocate resources more effectively—such as time, money, and effort. This ensures resources go toward the most valuable opportunities.

Minimized Regret

When considering opportunity costs during decision-making, you become less likely to experience regret. That’s because you have thoroughly considered each option’s potential benefits and drawbacks.

Enhanced Decision-making Skills

Factoring the concept into decision-making processes helps improve decision-making skills. As you become adept at considering trade-offs and alternatives, you become better at making informed choices that align with your goals.

Opportunity Cost Examples

Here are some examples of opportunity costs in common situations.

  • Education and career choices: The opportunity cost is the potential income and experience you could have gained by choosing an alternative major or profession.
  • Time management: If you spend an hour watching television instead of exercising, the opportunity is the health benefits and potential stress relief from the workout.
  • Personal finance: When you choose to save money by not going on vacation, the opportunity is the relaxation and enjoyment you could have experienced.
  • Purchasing decisions: When you buy an expensive smartphone, the opportunity is the other items or experiences (such as clothing, dining out, or entertainment) you could have got instead.
  • Social choices: If you decide to attend a friend’s party instead of studying for an exam, the opportunity is the potential improvement in your test score and academic performance from studying.
  • Investments: When you invest in a low-risk, low-return asset instead of a high-risk, high-return option – the opportunity is the potential profit you could have earned by taking more risk.
  • Leisure activities: If you spend a weekend reading a book instead of going out with friends, the opportunity cost is the social interaction, fun, and memories you could have created.

Opportunity Cost and Risk In Finance

Opportunity cost and risk are intertwined concepts, particularly in financial investments and resource allocation.

In financial decisions, opportunity cost reflects the potential gains or benefits if one allocates resources differently. On the other hand, risk refers to the uncertainty surrounding the possible outcomes of a decision, investment, or action.

It is often quantified as the variability of possible returns or the likelihood of experiencing losses.

You can see the relationship between opportunity cost and risk in several ways:

Risk-return Trade-Off

There is generally a trade-off between risk and return when comparing different investment options. Higher-risk investments tend to offer higher potential returns, while lower-risk investments offer lower potential returns.

Opportunity cost comes into play when selecting between these options, as choosing a lower-risk investment may mean forgoing the potential gains associated with a higher-risk investment.


To manage risk, investors often diversify their portfolios by spreading investments across various assets, industries, or markets.

However, diversification can also lead to opportunity costs. That’s because allocating resources to a wide range of investments may result in missing out on the potential gains of concentrating investments in one high-performing asset or market.

Time horizon

Opportunity cost and risk are also related to the investment time horizon.

Generally, investments with longer time horizons can withstand greater fluctuations in value, allowing investors to take on higher-risk assets with potentially higher returns. In contrast, shorter time horizons may require a focus on lower-risk investments, leading to opportunity costs associated with forgone higher returns.

Risk tolerance

A person’s risk tolerance significantly influences what they are willing to accept.

Those with a higher risk tolerance may pursue investments with greater potential returns, while individuals with lower risk tolerance may opt for lower-risk investments. The latter accepts the opportunity costs of potentially higher gains.

How Economic Profit and Accounting Profit Relate To Opportunity Cost

Economic profit, accounting profit, and opportunity cost are interrelated concepts that play crucial roles in assessing a business’s financial performance and making decisions.

Accounting profit is the difference between a company’s total revenue and explicit costs (expenses like wages, rent, materials, and utilities).

In contrast, economic profit is the difference between a company’s total revenue and the sum of its explicit and implicit costs. Implicit costs (an opportunity cost) represent the value of resources used in a business that you could have used elsewhere, as noted earlier.

Therefore, we can explain the relationship between these concepts as follows.

Accounting profit provides a simple measure of a business’s financial performance, focusing only on explicit costs. It does not account for opportunity cost, ignoring potential returns.

However, economic profit provides a more comprehensive view of a company’s performance since it incorporates opportunity or implicit and explicit costs. It evaluates whether the business is generating returns above and beyond the next best alternative use of its resources.

Opportunity cost is a key component of economic profit.

The Bottom Line

Considering opportunity costs when making decisions helps individuals and businesses more effectively allocate their resources and make choices that lead to better outcomes and overall success.