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Whether you’ve heard the term “cost-benefit analysis,” from an economics class or not, you’re probably already making decisions this way unintentionally.
Cost-benefit analysis is like making a pros and cons list, but assigning a monetary—and emotional—value to each item. It’s often much easier to assign monetary values to your considerations, but try your best to quantify your emotional values too.
If, when you add up the value of the benefits of making a certain decision, they outweigh the costs, the decision passes your cost-benefit analysis and is a good choice under the circumstances.
Let’s take a look at an example. Say you’re trying to decide whether to buy tickets to a concert:
Your total cost for the concert is $225. Now the question is, do the benefits outweigh the $225?
If your enjoyment of the concert is worth more to you than the $225, book it! If not, and you could use that money on something that would benefit your life more, you may want to reconsider.
If $225 seems like too much, but you’d hate to miss the concert, can you make changes to lower the cost?
Does reducing the cost to $175 tip the scales? Then enjoy the show! If not, it might be best to forgo the concert.
Remember: Cost-benefit analysis is a tool to help you make decisions but the value you place on your options is deeply personal. Cost-benefit analysis is also flexible—your first analysis is not the only possible outcome. Be sure to look at things from a different angle and make adjustments as needed. And if something isn’t worth the cost, no matter how you look at it, you’ve arrived at your answer.
When you make the decision to do something, there are sometimes things that you automatically can’t do as a result. You are only one person, so you can’t be in two places at once. If you choose to invest an amount of money, you can’t also use those same dollars to pay down debt. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
The things you can no longer do because of a decision are your opportunity costs.
For example, say a family member and your friend are getting married on the same day. You can’t go to both weddings (making the wedding you miss your opportunity cost). Which would you choose?
Is the decision easier if the family member is your brother and the friend is more of an acquaintance? Or if the family member’s wedding is a destination wedding and your friend’s is in your hometown? The answer depends completely on you and your personal situation.
If you immediately started tallying who you’d upset, your own preferences and the travel costs associated with each, you’re effectively doing a cost-benefit analysis of the situation.
Using cost-benefit analysis becomes even more important when the decisions you’re making carry greater weight on your personal finances now and in the future. Think—the greater the potential impact, the more factors involved in your analysis.
Here is a real-world example to help you start thinking analytically about decision costs and benefits.
Paying off student loans vs. Buying a car
Theo graduated from a four-year college with a business degree about six months ago and he will soon have to start making student loan payments.
He has accepted a job that is an hour bus ride from his home and is considering buying a car to cut down on money ($75/month for a bus pass) and time (40 hours/month) spent traveling to and from work. His hourly wage is $25, so effectively, it costs him $1,000 of his time per month in travel. All in all, Theo spends $1,075 per month getting to work.
Theo has recently inherited $20,000 from a relative. He knows he wants to use this money either to pay off some of his loans or buy a car. If he buys a car, it will take him only 30 minutes to get to and from work, saving him 20 hours per month ($500) in travel time.
Here’s how he might analyze the situation:
Paying down $20k in student loans
Buying a new car for $20k
Total loans remaining: $30,000
Interest rate: 5%
Loan-term: 10 years
New monthly payment: $318
No more bus pass (saves $75)
New monthly time spent on travel: $500
Monthly gas expenses: $100
Monthly cost of insurance: $40
New monthly cost: $640
Looked at this way, Theo may decide purchasing a new car is the better option. However, there are a number of other factors that could be considered:
Put simply, financial decisions are complex. The key to making the right choices is understanding where you are today financially and what your priorities are for the future. Remember—these decisions don’t have to be all or nothing! Cost-benefit analysis is meant to help you quantify considerations and make informed decisions.
For the purposes of this article, these examples are simplified—but real-life finances can be much more complicated, especially when you have many competing priorities. If you have Ayco as a company benefit, connect with an Ayco coach to walk through your own cost-benefit analysis.
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By Brandon Ross
Insights from Ayco InnerCircle 2021