Why My Wife Doesn't Cook Dinner

We teach that people make decisions comparing marginal benefit to marginal cost. We labor economists apply this to decisions about work, telling students to compare the return (the wage) to the opportunity cost (the value of non-market time).

This has been an extremely powerful tool, but it masks so many complexities. For example, how is it rational that I cook on weekdays, even though my hourly wage is higher than my wife’s (and I am a truly lousy cook)? The answer is that, as an academic, my time during the day is flexible, so the opportunity cost of my time can be viewed as low just before suppertime. As an attorney, my wife’s time is much less flexible, so her opportunity cost is higher.

I bet there are lots of cases in other areas where the proper measure of opportunity cost varies over time in surprising ways and leads consumers/producers to make apparently anomalous decisions.


Aren't you ignoring the value of a delicious meal over a lousy or mediocre one?

Don't give up on yourself - I believe that anyone can cook, given the proper guidance and motivaiton. At the very least you could spend some of the money that is saved/earned while you are in the kitchen on cooking classes!

Keith MacD

Interesting approach!

I've always wondered about the time frame of opportunity cost calculation.

I suspect that your opportunity cost isn't calculated only in the hours immediately before suppertime, but includes a much larger calculation including more tasks (you cook during the week, she does the laundry?) over a longer time frame (if you don't cook during the week, you'll have to do all the cleaning on the weekend), and probably includes some additional calculation inputs around personal preferences (you *really* hate cleaning, especially on the weekend, so the amount of energy you'd have to spend to actually do that task makes it too costly compared to cooking).

I'm pretty sure this is an old lefty-ish argument however to which there's already a reply...

Interesting stuff!


Perhaps neither of you should cook and go out instead! That's silly though because there are non-financial reasons to cook, like to lose weight or because you like cooking.

Christophe Pettus

One common fallacy about "opportunity cost" is not realizing that the surplus opportunity needs to actually exist. For your wife, presumably, she could bill more hours instead of cooking dinner, so a real opportunity for more income is present. Unless you have other incoming-producing work that is measured hourly, you are paid the same if you cook dinner or not, so it's entirely rational for you to do so.

I've heard a lot of friends say things of the form, "Well, it's rational for me to eat out rather than cook, since the cost of my time is $x/hour," but if no one is actually offering them $x for that hour, that's purely imaginary.


If you'd really organize your day following strict criteria of economic efficiency, neither you or your wife would ever cook, but you'd always eat out in restaurants.

Abhi S

An academic makes more than a lawyer?


And then there is the cost of currying favor with your wife



Exactly. This idea that your time is worth $X an hour because you earn that is useless. If no one is going to pay you for that time, that time's value is without monetary value (but not without other value).

This is the kind of nonsense logic that makes economics work in books but not in real life.


@BSK; It sounds nonsense because you apply it wrong. The major cost for going out/cooking is the money you wish to spend on your "free" time. For people who like cooking this may turn out differently than for people who do not like it. The theory works, but it has to be applied with an almost infinite amounts of variables.


There is more to the story than what was told, regarding preferences, availability of time, and other factors in the relationships. The professor was referring to a real life deviation from a simplistic model which is bound to happen. As he is not telling us all the factors that made up his preferences, we can not simply look at his hourly rate to determine whether he will cook or not on weekdays. The low opportunity cost before supper time does not make sense either. Doesn't make sense to have one's opportunity costs of his time change throughout the day.


One possibility is that - the professor is overpaid.


Chris in 11:
> Doesn't make sense to have one's opportunity costs
> of his time change throughout the day.

Why not? Electricity costs more at 4 p.m. on a hot summer afternoon than at 2 a.m. on a winter morning. There are things that I can only do during certain hours. There are some hours when I can do nearly anything. Why wouldn't I value a high-opportunity/high-demand hour more than a low-opportunity/low-demand hour?

In the time just before dinner, practically every store is open (I can run any errand); practically every person I want to spend time with is available (I can enjoy friends and family); practically every task that requires daylight can be done; practically every task that needs doing today is due right now.

Why shouldn't I think that how I use my time shortly before dinner "costs" me more than how I use my time, say, shortly before bedtime?


"Doesn't make sense to have one's opportunity costs of his time change throughout the day."

Yes and no. The minute-to-minute costs do not have an appreciable delta, but there is a point of diminishing returns.

Certainly we can say that the professor must sleep a certain minimum number of hours of the day, and during that time he will not be able to work. So let's imagine an ideal artificial scenario where his employer will pay rate X per page for an unlimited number of pages in academic papers written. There is suddenly the question of scaled productivity. If he decides to work 20 hours a day, but due to lack of sleep he actually gets less done than if he had scaled back to 10 and not burned himself out, then his opportunity cost to work each additional hour is correctly expressed as variable (and indeed at some point the opportunity becomes negative).

In the more complicated case of reality, there is reasonably some market limitation to a normal person's time -- specifically that one *could* probably get fast-food jobs with round-the-clock flexible hours, but finding unlimited hours in other occupations may "cost" so much that it is simply not a reasonable possibility. At some point a supervisor will likely jump in and say, "The quality of your work is suffering, so I'm redirecting some of your workload. Go home."



Another consideration: The wife has a higher opportunity cost because she (or her firm) bills her time by the hour. So if she works a few extra hours, she earns revenue. Even if she is salaried, her billable hours probably count heavily toward her raises, promotions and (if applicable) partnership distribution.


I don't 'work' in the paid, traditional sense. I stay home and look after our two year old so my time is reasonably flexible.

My husband works and is always very busy at work. Yet, I never cook dinner.

I am no economist so how does our model work? Would love to know...


Hammermesh does this a lot. It is not correct to use your working wage as your opportunity cost.
Your wage is higher, so your time is more valuable.... when you are doing your job. Not any other time.
If your wife's time in the evenings is less valuable than yours, the economically efficient arrangement would be for her to spend enough leisure time for the two of you, and you can work twice as much.
Just cook, Breadwinner.


Buy more simple cookbook books!


All of my meals are prepared by Adam Smith's invisible hand.

It's efficient, but it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Ed Chang

Any economist can learn how to cook. Here are three basic principles, as translated for an economist:

1) Use Fresh Ingredients (think Inflation). Generally speaking, fresh inputs make better outputs. Different ingredients (currencies) go bad at different rates. Raw hamburger at room temperature = Hyperinflation.

2) Know how long to apply heat (think Elasticity). Some foods are very sensitive to changes in cooking time (souffle, anything caramelized). The simmering time of stew, on the other hand, is quite elastic.

3) Use the right amount of salt (think Marginal Utility). At some point, adding too much salt even results in negative utility!


My husband cooks dinner because he values control over the menu higher than I do...this has held when I out-earned him, as well as when I have been a grad student. Pickiness or whatever makes him value cooking the meal he wants over having somehing available that he doesn't choose.

This will probably continue as our relative hourly wages fluctuate...the value of our cooking skills probably contributes...he could be paid for cooking (having honed his skills), me, less likely, so an hour of his time produces a better quality meal.