In Praise of Quitting: Coming to terms with Sunk Costs

Sunk Costs: Something to avoid in a sailboat

Sunk Costs: Something to avoid in a sailboat

On the way into work this morning I listened to a great Freakanomics Podcast on the economics of quitting. The Upside of Quitting is a great listen if you are new to the Freakanomics team of Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt.  They apply economics theory to a wide range of topics from hitchhiking to child rearing and make the application of The Dismal Science a compelling listen. Their book, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, is an entertaining primer on practical economics.

So how does being a quitter and economic theory have anything to do with our plans, cunning or otherwise? Well, at some level, Melissa and I are trying to figure out how to quit doing what we do and living how we live. How does one quit living in a traditional house, going to a traditional job, and living a traditional American life? There are costs, financial, social and emotional, associated with such decisions and I am still struggling with how this is going to look on the other side.

In the podcast Dubner enlarges on the economic idea of Sunk Costs. Sunk costs are expenses that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. As we look around our home, I cannot help but consider what may well be considerable sunk costs for living as we have. The garage fills with more and more items that are destined to be sold at fractions of their original value or donated outright and it is liberating and crazy-making at the same time.

The trap of mourning sunk costs comes when we expend time or effort  to recover some of its value beyond an item’s worth. Anyone that has invested in a losing stock and held on to it as  a company spiraled into bankruptcy is familiar with the idea of the sunk cost fallacy. A purely rational evaluation of a the stock’s value and prospects should provide sufficient warning that the stock should be sold. But humans are seldom rational, and the sunk cost fallacy hinges on our optimistic valuation of the money or time we have already spent.

And so I look at furniture and other household goods being staged out in the garage and optimistically over-value its resale hoping to recover far more than I actually will. Likewise,  I continue with my current job at least in part because I have already put so much time in with this company and would hate to loose all that time and effort. These aren’t perfect examples of sunk costs but they serve to highlight our conflict.

Melissa has written about our furniture collection and the emotional process of letting go of items that she has worked so hard to restore. We both have put most of our adult lives into creating a space for ourselves and our children to grow and feel comfortable. Letting go of these sunk costs is not easy. Hard hearted economists like Steve Levitt might be able to jettison old furniture, but I hope Dr. Levitt will forgive us for lingering a bit over the loss even as we look forward to the the new possibilities our future life affords.

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