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Chapter 5 Life Decisions

Life Choices

Some economic decisions, like how to spend your money and your time, are everyday decisions.See Chapter 4 "Everyday Decisions" for more discussion. There are also bigger and more difficult economic decisions that you confront only occasionally. In the months and years after graduation, you will face major life choices, such as the following:

  • Upon graduation, which occupation should you choose?
  • Should you go to graduate school?
  • Should you purchase a new car?
  • Should you purchase a house?
  • How much of your income should you save?
  • Should you purchase health insurance?
  • Should you purchase insurance for your home or apartment?
  • What should you do with the money you save?

These economic choices are more complicated than choosing how many chocolate bars to buy or how much time you should spend watching television today.

Two things make these decisions hard. First, there is the element of time—not the 24 hours in a day, but the fact that you must make decisions whose consequences will unfold over time. In choosing an occupation, deciding on graduate school, or picking a portfolio of financial assets, you must look ahead. Second, there is the element of uncertainty. Will you be healthy? Will you live to an old age? Will you succeed as a rock musician? The future is unknown, yet we cannot ignore it. The future is coming whether we like it or not.

We cannot tell you whether you should buy a new car or if you will be a rock star. But we can give you some tools that will help you when you are making decisions that involve time and uncertainty. In this chapter we tackle the following questions:

  • How do we make decisions over time?
  • How do we make plans for an uncertain future?

Road Map

The chapter is organized around the two themes of time and uncertainty. We begin with a brief review of the choice between two goods at a given time.This decision is analyzed at length in Chapter 4 "Everyday Decisions". Then we look at choices over time. Economists typically assume that individuals are capable of choosing consistently among the bundles of goods and services they might wish to consume. The ability to make such a choice is perhaps not too onerous in the case of simple choices at a given time (such as whether to go to a movie or go to dinner). It is more difficult when we consider choices over a broad range of goods from now into the future.

  • There are goods and services that will be available to you in the future that you cannot imagine today. When people chose among different types of handheld calculators 30 years ago, they could not imagine that today they would be choosing among different types of tablet computers. Many products that we now consume simply did not exist in any form until comparatively recently, and when we make choices now, we do so in ignorance of future consumption possibilities.
  • Your tastes may change. When you are 20 years old, it is difficult to predict what goods and services you will want to buy when you are 30, 40, or 50 years old. Your future self might regret past decisions.

We tackle time and uncertainty separately. To begin with, we will suppose that the future is known with certainty. This allows us to focus on including time in our analysis of economic decision making. We begin with a discussion of the choice between consumption and saving and explain how this decision is affected by changes in interest rates. We then look at problems such as how to choose an occupation. A major part of this analysis is an explanation of how to compare income that we receive in different years.

We then turn to uncertainty. We explain the idea of risk and then discuss the kinds of risks you cannot avoid in life. We explain how insurance is a way to cope with these risks. We also discuss uncertainties that we create in our lives—through occupational choice, portfolio choice, and gambling.