Assessing the True Cost of Things

Ignoring costs can lead to poor purchasing decisions.

One of my pet economic theories is that all items you can purchase can be analyzed from three cost perspectives: the initial cost, the inherent cost, and the extended cost. I’m certain I’ve picked this up subconsciously from real economists or economics classes, but it has proven quite useful in my purchasing decisions.


Initial Cost

The initial cost is typically the most obvious, and is the price or amount of money you pay for an item. If I’m buying a chair from the department store for $60 or a lawnmower from a neighbor for $100, the initial cost is $60 and $100 respectively. Initial costs are the only thing I record in my ledger when keeping track of my budget balances, and the great danger to initial costs is that they make it easy to ignore the other costs.

Inherent Cost

Inherent costs are those costs that are accrued in the course of utilizing or operating an item. The inherent cost of a car is typically the cost of gasoline, the inherent cost of an apartment is the cost of utilities, the inherent cost of Netflix is the price of internet service. You get the idea. Whatever relies upon the purchasing of an additional item or service is bound to an inherent cost. We are usually aware of inherent costs, but we tend not to calculate their magnitude over large periods of time. Because my commute is so long, I tend to budget around $150 per month for gasoline, but don’t want to think about how this will cost me $1,800 per year.

Extended Cost

Most pernicious and evasive is the extended cost of a thing. Extended costs are additional expenses that complement the item being purchased, and are often established by cultural norms, expectations, and habits. Most televisions or monitors either do not have speakers or come with “crappy” speakers built in. You could argue that manufacturers do this to encourage you to buy a sound bar or sound system to increase the audio quality of your television experience. Most of the people I know have a sound bar for their televisions, and this would be considered an extended cost to the purchase of a television. You may be very excited about your new 60″ television, but unless you have a sound bar, the idea may start to grow in your mind that your new television would really be better off with a nice new sound system to go with it. This is often how extended costs work.

For example, I have considered buying an XBox One S so that I could play games with two of my close friends who recently moved to different parts of the United States. Yes, Black Friday sales approach, but generally these consoles have cost $300, and I have been extremely leery of making this purchase for several reasons. First, although the console may “only” cost $300, the service to play online costs $60 per year. Moreover, in order to make the console more useful, I would want to buy additional controllers so that I could have friends over to play as well, and each controller typically costs an additional $60. Because I don’t like going through large numbers of batteries, I would probably want to purchase the rechargeable controller batteries, which cost around $25 each. So really, for a system with two controllers – and that certainly isn’t enough for having more friends over – I would be paying around $530 to get started*. Oh, and I forgot about the games. Ultimately, though, my long-distance friends don’t have the time or the access to play online, and all of these things have convinced me to set the desire aside completely. I also don’t play video games enough to justify the purchase in the first place. Many friends have decided it is worth it to them, and that is perfectly fine as long as you know what you are getting into.

Although I will be writing about houses and apartments another day, I would like to mention here that having too much space can generate extended costs. Who wants an empty room? Most people will add a guest bed, perhaps a few items of furniture, or perhaps paint the walls. Just having empty space tends to fight very strongly against our cultural expectations of interiors, and will often lead us into spending more money than we planned in order to satisfy those expectations in our minds.

I should perhaps also mention that time and opportunity cost play into these as well. The true cost of a book includes the time you spend reading it, and the true cost of pretty much anything non-essential could be the well-being of your car if you know it has issues and are trying to ignore them by purchasing something “fun”. Nothing is fun about paying for car repairs, but not doing so will cost you in added stress and strain later.

The moral of the story is, don’t just look at sticker price (the initial cost). Consider the ramifications your purchases will have in other areas of your life and across your wallet. When you understand these costs, you are positioning yourself to make better decisions with your money.


* I forgot that most consoles already come with one controller, so this total may be $470 instead, or maybe you decided to buy an additional controller without the rechargeable battery 🙂