How to Calculate Opportunity Cost: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to calculate opportunity cost?
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Understanding and calculating opportunity cost can be crucial for making informed decisions in both personal and professional life. It helps you evaluate what you’re giving up in order to pursue a certain action. This guide will walk you through the concept of opportunity cost and how to calculate it effectively.


Opportunity cost represents the benefits an individual, investor, or business misses out on when choosing one alternative over another. Because resources are finite, allocating them to one option means forgoing the next best alternative. Here’s how you can determine what those missed opportunities may cost you.

Understanding Opportunity Cost

At its core, opportunity cost is about choices and the impact of those choices on what we value, whether that’s money, time, or resources. It’s a critical concept in economics that applies to all decision-making processes.

The Formula for Calculating Opportunity Cost

The basic formula to calculate opportunity cost is relatively straightforward:

Opportunity Cost=Return of the Most Foregone Option−Return of the Chosen OptionOpportunity Cost=Return of the Most Foregone Option−Return of the Chosen Option

This formula can help you quantify the opportunity cost in financial terms, but it’s also important to consider non-quantifiable factors like personal satisfaction or societal impact.

Step-by-Step Calculation

Step 1: Identify Your Options

First, clearly define the options you’re choosing from. This could be investing in stocks vs. bonds, spending time on one project over another, or choosing between working extra hours or spending time with family.

Step 2: Determine the Returns of Each Option

Estimate the return or benefit you expect from each option. For investments, this could be the potential earnings. For personal decisions, consider the qualitative benefits such as happiness or health.

Step 3: Calculate the Opportunity Cost

Use the formula to calculate the opportunity cost. Subtract the return of the chosen option from the return of the next best alternative you’re forgoing.

Real-World Examples of Calculating Opportunity Cost

Example 1: Choosing Between a Job Offer and Further Education

Imagine you’re considering whether to take a job offer with an annual salary of $50,000 or to pursue a master’s degree, after which you expect to earn $60,000 annually. The cost of the master’s program is $20,000 for one year.

Option A (Job Offer): $50,000 (annual salary)
Option B (Further Education): $60,000 (expected annual salary after degree) – $20,000 (cost of education) = $40,000 (net gain in the first year)

Opportunity Cost of Choosing Further Education over the Job Offer:

Opportunity Cost=$50,000−$40,000=$10,000Opportunity Cost=$50,000−$40,000=$10,000

Choosing further education over the job offer has an opportunity cost of $10,000 in lost earnings for the first year.

Example 2: Investing in Stocks vs. Real Estate

Suppose you have $100,000 to invest and are deciding between stocks, which you expect to return 7% annually, and real estate, which you expect to return 4% annually.

Option A (Stocks): $100,000 * 7% = $7,000 (annual return)
Option B (Real Estate): $100,000 * 4% = $4,000 (annual return)

Opportunity Cost of Choosing Real Estate over Stocks:

Opportunity Cost=$7,000−$4,000=$3,000Opportunity Cost=$7,000−$4,000=$3,000

By choosing to invest in real estate over stocks, you face an opportunity cost of $3,000 in foregone earnings annually.


Calculating opportunity cost helps you understand the potential returns you’re missing out on when making a choice. While not all factors are quantifiable, applying this concept can lead to more informed and effective decision-making.

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