It's Not the Cost of the Thing That Matters; It's the Benefit of the Alternative


Every Tuesday and Thursday a neighbor girl stays a couple hours with the kids while Kate runs errands and enjoys time to herself.

Once a week she’ll pick me up and we’ll go for a burger or a burrito – a quick weekday afternoon date that typically costs us $15 to $17. (I don’t include the cost of the babysitter because that’s happening whether we go out or not.)

Nobody’s at our regular burger joint at 3:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon. We eat, chat, sip a milkshake. It’s a great time.

After spending almost nothing eating out in April ($76 for the whole month), we decided to go back to one of our favorite local pizza shops in early May. It’s not the most expensive restaurant in the world, but you easily spend $50 if you go for an appetizer and dessert (which I do).

During the meal, I asked Kate a question:

“It’s fun to be back here, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s fun.”

“Would you rather do this once or do three of our afternoon dates?”

“Three of our afternoon dates. No question.”

I said I felt the same way.

Kate’s answer was an epiphany: we’ve always said we enjoy a nicer restaurant, but as we weigh our costs and alternatives, we realize we might not enjoy a nicer restaurant enough to make it worth the lost alternative.

As you spend, pay less attention to direct costs and more attention to alternative benefits.

One nice meal out doesn’t cost $60 – it costs three $20 meals. Is that worth it? Maybe; maybe not. But evaluating the foregone alternative will make you a happier, more conscientious consumer.

*As a post-script, Kate and I also occasionally skip the $60 meal and the $20 meal and go for a couple-mile walk along the river near our house. Let’s hear it for free alternatives with equal or greater benefits!