There Are No Free Lunches: Understanding Costs In Daily Life

“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.”  — Jerzy Gregorek

“Mental health is dedication to reality at all costs.”  — M. Scott Peck


We’ve all been there…

You have intentionally set the alarm with two back-ups and plenty of wiggle room to afford yourself the opportunity to defer the inevitable. *Beep beep beep* It’s just that the sheets are so warm, and the body is just flat-out worn down, and the world is too demanding, and it seems like it can’t already be time to face another day. If only I could just keep sleepinggg….

And then the second alarm *Beep beep beep*... and then the third *Beep beep beeeee...

... PANIC!

You overslept all three and now you’re racing to find clothes and make sure you don’t look like you just rolled out of bed, even though you actually did. Then you're trying not to forget anything before screaming down the road in your car, off to go solve all the worlds problems one email at a time.

This all-too common morning routine for the average working American is an experience everyone can relate with (been there, done that), and it illustrates pointedly the message behind this post.

Everything in life has a cost.

Whether it be time, money, effort/energy, sacrifice, or opportunity — simply put: there are no free lunches.

Why We Often Don’t Live With This Belief

Living with this understanding is not the norm. Believing that every decision or action carries a cost is an uncomfortable reality. We would much prefer the carefree living that puts little-to-no weight on our daily decisions. Responsibility often feels like a heavy weight that isn’t worth carrying if there’s an option to have someone else take the load. Isn’t the free option always worth taking?

So much of life is counter-intuitive.

This is ironically illustrated in the sport of golf. Without instruction (and left to our own ideas), every golfer tends to believe that if they are hitting the ball with a slice, the solution is to swing further to the left (for right-handed golfers). In reality, this is the exact opposite of what you should do. To fix a slice or to hit a draw, you have to swing out to the right (for right-handed golfers) in order to make it come back around — the exact opposite of what you feel like you should do.

The point is: oftentimes our instincts can’t be trusted.

This point is further compounded by the reality that our intuitions are more shaped by culture than by our personal thoughts or beliefs. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are largely products of the culture that surrounds us, for better or worse.

Living with the understanding and belief that everything has a cost is a counter-cultural mindset, and thus a counter-intuitive belief. It goes against our instincts in the moment because we all will default to the path of least resistance when we fail to make a conscious choice or live with intention.

The Case For Responsibility

The opposing argument in favor of responsibility, of infusing an understanding of costs into our daily actions and decisions, is found in the benefit it provides. Accepting and embracing responsibility allows us to grow into our full potential.

When we understand that weight is needed for strength to increase, we start seeing the weight as a tool, ally, and friend in the process of growth. Not only this, but we also begin to strive to add on more weight so that we can continue down the path of growth into bigger and better versions of ourself. This allows us to keep pressing upward and onward, striving to discover what our full potential may be, grasping for what’s beyond our current reach and leaning into the discomfort of the unknown.

This is always a challenge because: a) it’s counter-intuitive, and b) it’s never comfortable. Choosing to embrace and take on responsibility means you are choosing the path of greater resistance, the path of discomfort.

Our instincts in the moment will be screaming at us telling us that this is the wrong path. Saying that trying to take on and carry this extra weight isn’t worth it. Encouraging us to follow our intuitions, to follow the path prescribed by those around us and the cultural norms. It’s in these moments when we must realize that our instincts can’t always be trusted, especially when the battle for comfort is involved.

How Does An Understanding Of Costs Really Help?

Once we choose to take responsibility for our actions and decisions throughout the day, we start to understand that every action or decision carries weight, whether or not they are consciously chosen. They all carry costs.

In thinking about the costs, an important distinction needs to be mentioned. This is the distinction between the two different types of costs:

  1. Immediate Costs

  2. Deferred Costs

Immediate Costs are the costs that directly result from any decision or action. They are usually immediately felt and are paid for on the spot.

Deferred Costs are the costs that are put off till a later time, or are passed on to another person/entity. They are usually never fully felt and are considered to be advantageous (in the moment) to the person who deferred them.

The most important difference between immediate and deferred costs is this: deferred costs always end up costing more.

One of the greatest examples of this, in the most literal sense, is a credit card. Credit cards are the banks invention created to capitalize on our human propensity to defer costs. Swiping a credit card seems painless, and it virtually is! Paying your monthly credit card bill on the other hand isn’t as pain-free. But the most painful process are deferring costs beyond your bill’s due date — resulting in missed payments and credit card debt that starts filling up the banks coffers in the form of deferred-profit to the tune of 15-20%.

Committed To Paying A Price

Whether we want to or not, we are paying a price in countless decisions and actions throughout our days. The question is: do you want to pay more or less? And this is a valid question because there can definitely be times when deferring the cost till later is worth the extra cost to come. 

It’s important to remember that when we hear the word “cost” we immediately associate it with dollar amounts or values, but that is by no means the only type of “cost” we pay. The more prevalent costs we face are opportunity costs

Opportunity costs are the price we pay for doing anything. When we choose to do one thing, we pay the price of not being able to do a different thing.

Stated more eloquently: “the price of the next best thing you could have done had you not made your first choice” (The Balance article).

So whether or not your decision or action involves money, there will always be a cost of some kind associated with it, and predominately it will be an opportunity cost. Yet even with opportunity costs, we pay a greater price for deferred costs than immediate costs. When we defer a decision or action till later, we inevitably increase the likelihood that other decisions and actions will be increasingly competing with paying that deferred cost.

Simply put: not making a choice is making a choice. Not taking action is choosing to not take action, whether or not you consciously decide.

The opportunity cost of not taking action or making a decision is a loss of opportunity. The deferred cost that this brings is a step towards the development of creating bad habits such as inaction, indecision, and passivity. It also defers the opportunity to an uncertain time in the future, which leaves little confidence of it’s completion ever happening.

The reason why there are no free lunches is because everything has a cost, whether you pay it now or defer it to the future. And, as we all know, gifts that feel like “free lunches” are usually intended for a specific purpose or outcome, a cost that is expected, albeit often unspoken or hidden.

If paying a price is inevitable, and costs are present in every decision and action we take, and responsibility actually makes us stronger and better, then choosing to make a powerful choice instead of deferring a cost will almost always be the best course of action. Taking ownership of our choices and accepting the associated costs as the necessary reality in life allows us to embrace the process of growth and resist falling prey to our intuitions that can be misleading especially when informed by the culture around us.

The Wildcard

Every now and then there will be situations where neither immediate nor deferred costs are present. This rare and beautiful occasion is called grace.

Grace is receiving a gift you don’t deserve. It’s a removal of all costs that should have been associated with an action or decision we made. It’s largely an anti-human concept, one we are all inwardly opposed to because it feels wrong. We love to believe in justice - the equation where good guys get good, and bad guys get bad (insert every superhero movie ever). 

Grace is the wildcard to this human construct of earning our keep, or of having a cost associated with an action. Yet, it is only partially a cost-free reality. This is because it can only be given through love, and love always costs. Love requires a sacrifice for it to be proven as love, and when we understand this we see that grace costs the giver of that grace their love. It is a sacrifice that the giver makes for the receiver, and because of that sacrifice of love the gift costs the person who receives it nothing in return.

(For the greatest example of grace, read 1 John 4 in the Bible.)

Raising Personal Awareness Increases Personal Responsibility

The next time you find yourself setting three alarms for the morning, think about the costs at play. The deferred cost of not waking up to the first alarm compounds with each alarm that’s missed, and ultimately it leads to a frantic departure that spills over into a stressed-out day, that ends with compulsive binging on food that’s not good for you, and evening activities that cause you to stay up later than you had planned. all perpetuating another round of deferred costs the very next day.

That is the potential damage that can come from deferring the cost of something as simple as waking up when you had planned…

If this is true in something as simple as your morning alarm, I think it’s time we start believing and owning the fact that in life… there are no free lunches.

“We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out.”   — Theodore Roosevelt