Sunk Cost vs Opportunity Cost: Understanding the Key Differences

Making smart business decisions requires weighing all potential costs and benefits. Two important economic concepts that factor into decision-making are sunk costs and opportunity costs. While they may sound similar, sunk costs and opportunity costs are distinctly different. Understanding the differences between sunk costs and opportunity costs is critical for maximizing value and avoiding common decision-making pitfalls.

What Are Sunk Costs?

A sunk cost refers to a past cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered, The money has been spent and is now “sunk” with no chance of recouping it,

Some key things to know about sunk costs:

  • They are irrecoverable past costs that cannot be undone

  • They are explicit costs that involved actual cash outlays

  • They are reflected on financial statements and accounting records.

  • Examples include R&D expenditures, equipment purchases, marketing costs.

  • Sunk costs are independent of any future actions and should be disregarded in forward-looking decisions.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

While sunk costs shouldn’t factor into future rational decisions, we often irrationally factor them in due to loss aversion. This is known as the sunk cost fallacy or sunk cost bias.

The sunk cost fallacy causes us to continue investing time, money, or other resources into a endeavor once we’ve already invested significantly, even if we’d be better off cutting our losses. We feel continuing an endeavor somehow redeems or justifies past sunk costs.

Examples of Sunk Costs

  • A company spends $1 million developing a new product. The product ends up being a flop, but the company spends another $500,000 on marketing hoping to recoup their investment.

  • An individual buys a gym membership for $500 upfront. They rarely use the gym, but keep renewing their membership each year because they already spent money on it.

  • A restaurant renovates for $200,000. Business is slow after reopening. The owner continues operating at a loss to try and earn back the renovation costs.

In each case, previous expenditures are sunk and cannot be recovered. Basing future decisions on already-spent sunk costs, rather than future marginal costs and benefits, leads to irrational decisions.

Why Sunk Costs Should Be Ignored

Sunk costs are retrospective costs that cannot be changed. Since sunk costs will remain the same regardless of the decision going forward, they are irrelevant to future decisions. Only prospective costs that vary depending on the course of action (not sunk costs) should factor into rational forward-looking decisions.

What Are Opportunity Costs?

An opportunity cost represents the potential benefit or value that is forfeited when an alternative is chosen over another. Opportunity cost is the trade-off or “cost” of choosing one option and giving up the best alternative.

Some key things to know about opportunity costs:

  • They represent the value of a forgone alternative option.

  • They are implicit hypothetical costs, not actual cash flows.

  • They are not accounted for on financial statements.

  • They require estimation of potential outcomes for each alternative.

  • They are prospective and future-oriented, so are relevant for decision-making.

Why Opportunity Costs Matter

We live in a world of trade-offs where choices involve giving something up. Since it’s impossible to pursue every opportunity, we must consider what is being forfeited – the opportunity cost.

Evaluating opportunity costs is crucial for optimal resource allocation. It helps ensure resources are directed toward the most efficient and valuable uses.

Examples of Opportunity Costs

  • Taking a job that pays $60,000 per year instead of a different job that would pay $75,000 represents an opportunity cost of $15,000 in forgone earnings.

  • Investing money in a stock that earns 8% annually versus an alternative investment that would earn 10% annually has an opportunity cost of 2% in lost returns.

  • Spending $20,000 to launch a new product line shifts those funds away from hiring an additional sales rep that was projected to generate $30,000 in additional revenue. The opportunity cost is $10,000 in potential lost sales revenue.

In each case, quantifying the opportunity cost helps frame the trade-offs involved with each decision.

Challenges in Estimating Opportunity Costs

Unlike sunk costs, opportunity costs can be difficult to quantify for a few reasons:

  • They involve unknown and uncertain potential outcomes that must be estimated.

  • There may be non-financial factors, like time or effort, that are hard to assign value to.

  • Each alternative often has benefits and costs occurring at different times, making comparison tricky.

However, while hard to precisely calculate, considering opportunity costs conceptually still provides critical information and perspective for decision-making.

Key Differences Between Sunk Costs and Opportunity Costs

Sunk Costs Opportunity Costs
Costs that have already been incurred Potential benefits that are forfeited
Explicit actual cash outflows Implicit hypothetical trade-offs
Reflected on financial statements Not accounted for on financial statements
Historical retrospective costs Future prospective costs
Irrelevant to future decisions Highly relevant to future decisions

How to Factor These Costs Into Decision-Making

To make optimal decisions, follow these best practices:

  • Ignore sunk costs – Don’t let money already spent influence future choices. Only evaluate prospective costs.

  • Consider opportunity costs – Analyze what is being sacrificed for each alternative to understand the trade-offs.

  • Focus on marginal costs – Incremental costs that change based on the decision are what matters most.

  • Quantify when possible – Put values on opportunity costs to better compare options.

  • Trust the decision analysis – Go with the optimal rational choice, not what seems to redeem past sunk costs.

Real-World Business Examples

Let’s see these concepts in action with some real business scenarios:

Sunk Cost Trap

  • A retail store has invested $500,000 over 5 years into an in-store pickup system. Use has declined, and the system now loses $100,000 annually.

  • If ignoring sunk costs, the rational decision is to shut down the system to avoid ongoing losses.

  • However, the sunk cost fallacy may cause the retailer to keep the system to try and justify past expenditures.

Opportunity Cost Analysis

  • A company can invest $1 million into expanding its factory or $1 million into new product development.

  • The factory expansion is projected to increase revenue by $200,000 annually.

  • The new product is projected to generate $500,000 in revenue annually.

  • The opportunity cost of choosing the factory expansion is $300,000 in forgone annual revenue from the alternative new product investment.

Key Takeaways

  • Sunk costs are irrelevant past costs while opportunity costs represent the potential value of alternatives.

  • Sunk costs should be ignored, but opportunity costs considered, in forward-looking decisions.

  • Quantifying opportunity costs helps frame the trade-offs involved with each choice.

  • Avoiding the sunk cost fallacy and focusing on opportunity costs improves business decision-making.

Understanding sunk and opportunity costs provides a powerful framework for maximizing value through your decisions. By incorporating these economic concepts into your thinking, you can steer your business towards the most efficient, profitable outcomes.

sunk cost vs opportunity cost

Accounting Profit vs. Economic Profit

Accounting profit is the net income calculation often stipulated by the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) used by most companies in the U.S. Under those rules, only explicit, real costs are subtracted from total revenue.

Economic profit, however, includes opportunity cost as an expense. This theoretical calculation can then be used to compare the actual profit of the company to what its profit might have been had it made different decisions.

Economic profit (and any other calculation that considers opportunity cost) is strictly an internal value used for strategic decision making.

Formula for Calculating Opportunity Cost

We can express opportunity cost in terms of a return (or profit) on investment by using the following mathematical formula:

Opportunity Cost = RMPIC − RICP where: RMPIC = Return on most profitable investment choice RICP = Return on investment chosen to pursue begin{aligned}&text{Opportunity Cost} = text{RMPIC}-text{RICP}\&textbf{where:}\&text{RMPIC}=text{Return on most profitable investment choice}\&text{RICP}=text{Return on investment chosen to pursue}end{aligned} ​Opportunity Cost=RMPIC−RICPwhere:RMPIC=Return on most profitable investment choiceRICP=Return on investment chosen to pursue​

The formula for calculating an opportunity cost is simply the difference between the expected returns of each option. Consider a company that is faced with the following two mutually exclusive options:

Option A: Invest excess capital in the stock market

Option B: Invest excess capital back into the business for new equipment to increase production

Assume the expected return on investment (ROI) in the stock market is 10% over the next year, while the company estimates that the equipment update would generate an 8% return over the same period. The opportunity cost of choosing the equipment over the stock market is 2% (10% – 8%). In other words, by investing in the business, the company would forgo the opportunity to earn a higher return—at least for that first year.

When considering two different securities, it is also important to take risk into account. For example, comparing a Treasury bill to a highly volatile stock can be misleading, even if both have the same expected return so that the opportunity cost of either option is 0%. Thats because the U.S. government backs the return on the T-bill, making it virtually risk-free, and there is no such guarantee in the stock market.

Sunk Cost vs Opportunity Cost | What is Opportunity Cost | What is Sunk Cost

What is the difference between sunk costs and opportunity costs?

Here are some of the key differences between sunk costs and opportunity costs: A sunk cost is an investment a company’s already made, which means it took place in the past. Because a company often learns a venture is a sunk cost after investing, they’re usually one-time expenditures.

Why do organizations focus too much on sunk costs?

In business decisions, organizations often focus too much on Sunk Costs, ignoring the Opportunity Costs. Sunk Costs are explicit and appear on financial statements so it is understandable why these costs are honed in on. Opportunity Costs are implicit and unseen, so they are often overlooked.

What are sunk costs?

For example, an investor must not compare investing in a municipal bond against a high-risk stock investment. Sunk costs can be easily confused with the relevant costs of an investment appraisal. Also, an opportunity cost can be considered a certain opportunity missed in investment evaluations.

How does a sunk cost affect a business?

Sunk costs also affect people, such as when you buy a bus or air ticket and can’t travel. For a company, sunk costs affect its profits. Some examples of sunk cost include: Advertising: An advertisement rarely generates a profit on its own, though it’s a business necessity, making most companies consider it a sunk cost.

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