I was sitting across the table from a friend during lunch when I realized that anyone eavesdropping on our conversation probably thought we were crazy.
Somehow we had stumbled onto the topic of the Opportunity Wedge.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s a visual model that’s basically a wedge shape – wide on the left then narrowing to a single point on the right – that represents the number of available opportunities in any given situation over time.
The idea is that we usually start out in the wide range of the wedge. We have a lot of opportunities to choose from. But eventually, as our situation changes, we generally move toward the narrower part of the wedge and our opportunities decrease.
Life itself is one of the biggest models of the Opportunity Wedge.
When we’re young we have a massive amount of opportunities in front of us. What college to go to, what career we want, who we date, where we live, the sights we see and places we go.
But as we get married, have families, get deeper into our career and eventually find ourselves in our 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, our opportunities have been slowly (or rapidly depending on how we live) decreasing over time. We stay closer to home near family, job opportunities are limited to our chosen field of study, kids and cars and housing costs eat up all our money, and eventually physical ailments and mobility start to limit us.
But we can also view the Opportunity Wedge from a financial perspective. That’s the model my friend and I were discussing…because we’re weird like that.
If we choose to bury ourselves in debt – financing expensive cars, buying the very best house we can afford, running up charges on credit cards that we can’t pay off – we are willfully choosing to cram ourselves into that very small pointy part of the opportunity wedge, that is, limiting our opportunities.
All of a sudden a vacation opportunity comes up, but we have to say no because we can’t afford it. Our expensive car needs service or repairs, but we don’t have the room on our credit cards to fix it. We want to buy a house but just can’t get any traction saving up for a down payment. The kids want a fun swing set in the backyard, but we just can’t afford it.
All the choices we made weeks, months, maybe even years earlier have pushed us to the right along the Opportunity Wedge, drastically reducing our opportunities today.
But maybe this is good news.
If we can make choices that reduce our future opportunities, that means we can start making choices that increase them instead.
We can choose to drive an older paid-for car, ditching a car payment. We can choose to live on a budget and spend less than we make each month. We can choose to eat at home the majority of the time and only eat out (like I am with my friend) a couple times a month. We can choose to say no to spending all our future money in the form of debt.
Making those kinds of choices today actually increases our opportunities in the future.
So let’s say a close family member decides to get married 1,000 miles away in New York? We get to willing choose to take our whole family of 6 to celebrate, while also staying an extra week to visit Niagara Falls and playing around in Canada. (True story. Coming in August.)
The air conditioning goes out in our car in this brutal Texas heat? We just take it to the mechanic and get it fixed with all the spare cash we have lying around. (Another true story that happened last month.)
Our stay-at-home spouse has an opportunity to work on some fun and interesting projects but needs time away from the kids to focus? We hire some help to watch the kids a few days a week. (Yep. That happened too.)
Even though time and age will all inevitably lead us into the tiny corner of the Opportunity Wedge, by destroying our debt, living below our means, and investing to build wealth, we are effectively slowing our progress down the wedge. In fact, we may be reversing it.
For my wife and I, every choice we’ve made over the last decade has been a choice to keep opportunities on the table today.
“So do you ever think you’ll want to drive a brand new car,” my friend at the restaurant asks while peeking out the window at my beautiful 16-year-old SUV in the parking lot.
“Not if it ever costs me the opportunity to spend more time with my family, travel the world, build stronger relationships, or be able to pursue meaningful work and hobbies I’m passionate about. I just don’t think a fancy car is worth giving all that up.”
Looking at all the other cars in the parking lot, I wonder how many people around us in the restaurant made that trade without even realizing it.
Maybe you did too.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
But keep in mind, living a life that keeps us in the fat part of the Opportunity Wedge will also make us look weird to the people around us.
What will they say if you choose not to go out for lunch? What will they say if you work overtime or take on a side job? What will they say if you decline that shopping trip? What will they say if you sell your fancy car and buy an older car with cash? What will they say if you downsize your home and move to a different neighborhood?
Trust me, they will be talking about you.
But your super power will become not caring what broke people say.
Don’t let their choices that have crammed them so deep into the tiny part of the Opportunity Wedge affect your decisions to move in the opposite direction.
There’s a difference between doing something because you have to and doing something because you want to.
Skipping lunch out because you want to is different than skipping it because you have to. Selling your fancy car because you want to is different than selling because you have to.
But only you know the difference. To people on the outside it all looks like desperation, financial struggles, or hardship.
From the outside, it never looks like an Opportunity Wedge getting wider and wider and wider.