Sunk Costs and HP Paperweights

I bought a new printer recently.  (I’m convinced HP designs their computers to seize up on a regular basis.)  I was convinced the old printer was easily fixable, something that Q-Tips and acetone would easily fix.  But after tinkering with it for a week or so I swallowed my pride and headed for the store.

How did I know it was time to quit wasting my time and move on?  It was when I realized that I had spent more trying to fix the old printer than it was worth.  No, I wasn’t foolish enough to take the printer to a repair shop.  The reality of the current economy is that it almost always costs more in labor to repair electronics than to replace them.  But I had been spending my own time, which is valuable and limited.

I’ve found it useful to put a monetary value on my personal time, just as my employer puts a value on my office time.  If I was working as a consultant trying to solve people’s niggling problems, like printers that don’t print, how much would I charge?  In my case, I value my personal time at fifty dollars an hour.  That means that if I spend an hour driving across town comparison shopping to save five dollars, I’ve actually lost forty five dollars in the deal, plus gas money.  (Saved: five dollars.  Time spent: fifty dollars.  Net loss: forty-five dollars.)  This is the classic fallacy behind the satisficing versus maximizing approaches to decisions that makes living in a modern world chock-a-block with choices so difficult.

So when I realized I’d spent a $150 of my time trying to repair a hundred dollar printer, the choice was clear.   I cut my losses and got on with my life.

This type of choice is surprisingly difficult for some people.  The fact that they’ve invested money in the original purchase of the printer, time of ownership and, finally, time trying to repair the printer suddenly makes it seem much more valuable than it ever was.  This is called the sunk cost fallacy and is a key path to ruin for investors and gamblers.  (An investor is a successful gambler.)  We hate to walk away from something we’ve invested ourselves in, even if that investment far exceeds what we will ever get in return.

The sunk cost fallacy applies to people, as well.  The wise among us periodically perform a cost-benefits analysis on the relationships in their lives.  Is it really worth chasing after that person ‘who was never really all that into you’?  Wouldn’t that time be better spent training to be an HP repair technician?  The greatest source of unhappiness is expecting the Universe to follow our rules, for the thoughtless people in your life to suddenly become kind and caring, for HP to build a printer that lasts more than a few reams of paper.  Examine the costs of maintaining the relationships in your life and then ask what you are getting for all that effort.  Remember, things (and relationships) are not necessarily more valuable because we’ve invested a lot in them.

Note that I’m not suggesting that you give up on all your relationships and go live in the desert among piles of discarded HP printers.  I’m suggesting you evaluate your relationships and decide on appropriate courses of action.  That action may be to reinvest in the relationship (doubling down in investing parlance) rather than walking away.  The co-worker who monopolizes your time with his rambling personal stories may be a prime candidate for cutting your sunk costs, while your spouse who has grown distant may almost certainly be worth an additional re-investment of your time.  The decision is yours.

Time is too precious to spend haphazardly.  Know your priorities and invest accordingly.  And, just to be safe, replace your printer every three months or so.

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