67: Opportunity Cost

67: Opportunity Cost

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Opportunity Cost

A penny saved is a penny earned.

~Benjamin Franklin

Some people learned everything they needed to know in kindergarten. Call me slow, but it took me until college to figure out one of life’s most practical lessons.

It was my college economics professor who introduced me to the term “opportunity cost.” When you choose one thing, it’s a tradeoff at the expense of something else. If you go to the football game, you can’t go to the movies. If you have dessert with lunch, you can’t have it with dinner. If you go to law school with student loans, you’ll be working for twenty years to pay them off. It’s a lot more than a theory; it’s one of the practical realities at the heart of almost any decision we make.

At the ripe age of nineteen, I had my eye on a summer term abroad. I knew my parents didn’t have the means to send me to Europe; they were barely sending me to college. But I had a choice: Accept this limitation as my destiny or figure out a way to pay for it.

Working as many as three jobs each summer, I had managed to cover state school tuition and board for both my freshman and sophomore years. Having been living within my means, I decided it was my turn to live outside of them for a change. So into the debt pool I dove, head first. Voilà, I was heading to Europe.

I had barely enough money for my flights, tuition and board at the University of Dijon, and “living” expenses. I even opted out of meals on the airline to save a few bucks. Lucky for me, my sister gave me a travel pack of butter cookies. They were dinner and breakfast on my flight over.

I had to cut similar corners (if you call eating a corner) to subsidize my journey. For instance, baskets of baguettes were abundant for breakfast at the convent in Dijon where our student group stayed. God forgive me, but I’d snatch what extra pieces I could to bring back to my room for later. (Initially I just gorged myself, but I learned soon enough that I was no squirrel.) How else did I sustain myself? Besides careful choices every step of the way and the kindness of friends and strangers, I found the answer in peanuts. I’d buy a bag a week and ration them — for lunch, for snacks, for dinner.

Don’t feel sorry for me. I traveled almost every weekend — to Nice, Venice, Lauterbrunnen, and Paris twice. The accommodations were modest at best and I was mostly hungry, but that’s not what I remember. It’s the canals, the horn blowers in Wengen, and sleeping on the pebbled beaches in the south of France that I recall.

When I returned home, I was different. Surprisingly not as skinny as you’d have expected, but I had a resilience and confidence knowing that I had made my own way. When I shared the grisly details with my parents and sisters, they asked why didn’t I call — why didn’t I tell them I needed more money: all I needed to do was ask. Today, our country is in the midst of a credit meltdown, and I am reminded of my summer abroad, the loan I took and repaid, and all the peanuts I ate that made it work. It’s what my economics professor said: It’s not that we can’t have what we want, but whatever we want has a cost — a price we must pay. Or, as my business law professor put it, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And when I think back to my summer opportunity, I know what it cost: Courage, sacrifice, and peanuts.

~Kathryn Z. West

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