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My wife won 2 tickets from a major airline at the company she works for, after they did a employee only raffle that was free to enter. The problem: there is a caveat: the ticket must be booked for a trip no later than December 15 this year (for extra context today is October 31st). The tickets cannot be exchanged for anything else, nor can they be transferred to or utilized by someone else.

We just went to a very difficult ordeal that have our finances in a difficult situation, so basically, we cannot afford to travel right now. My wife is extremely upset because she is convinced that she is "losing money" for not being able to use the tickets. I think you can't lose what you never had in your possession on first place. My question is, is there an economic concept that I can use to explain to my wife why she is not really "losing" any money?

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    Not an answer, but while it might not be everyone's cup of tea, you can actually go very low budget if needed. Sleeping in a dorm room in a hostel may not be Raffles or the Peninsula but you still get to sleep. Most hostels also have a kitchen and you would need to cook at home anyways. Depending where you live and can go, the cost of food can be so low compared to what you pay at home that you can almost get the hostel "for free".
    – AKdemy
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 2:39
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    @AKdemy It's not just hotel costs, though. There are also transportation costs, costs for food in a foreign country, potentially costs for baby or pet sitters, opportunity costs for taking time off (e.g., if you are self-employed), etc. My feeling is that some people are great at travelling really cheap (the cliché "backpacker"), but it's not a skill that everybody has and many (most?) people aren't really in a place in their life where that's even an option.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 10:39
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    Please note that in the US, many companies will automatically (and without telling you) withhold federal income tax on "free gifts". If you decide not to take the trip, make sure your wife formally declines the tickets so that you don't take on any tax liability. Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 13:55
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    If possible, go see relatives. If your relatives are anything like mine, won't need to fund anything but food.
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 16:33
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    It's great that you want your wife to feel better, but usually people don't stop feeling upset when you explain that they're wrong to feel that way. It might be worth empathising with her broader feelings around the situation, rather than focusing on a strict literal interpretation of her words. Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 15:18

10 Answers 10

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This is a variation of the sunk cost fallacy. What you paid or didn't pay for the tickets should have no bearing on what you decide to do. The only question you should ask is if this travel will be a net positive for the two of you, taking into consideration the time and cost that will still be required, not to mention the opportunity cost of what you might do instead.

I would say your wife is correct that you are "losing value" by not using the tickets, at least in isolation. (Though this is the opposite of how people usually feel; they tend to want to make sure they use something they paid for, but if they got it for free, they're less concerned.) But it still doesn't make sense to let how you got the tickets influence whether or not to go.

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    Opportunities don't work this way. As such, whether you paid or not does matter, since that is a major portion of the opportunity. In the future, they will have to pay for the tickets to have a vacation. The problem here is that this particular opportunity cannot be seized because of other reasons. The free tickets are lost, as is the opportunity they present.
    – user26460
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 14:52
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    The three opportunities are: (A) Use the tickets now but incur $X financial costs now, (B) Let the tickets expire, but buy similar tickets later at a cost of $Y, or (C) Let the tickets expire, never in your life buy similar tickets. The asker appears to be comparing A<->C), in which case he's right ($X now is bad and never needed), and the wife appears to be comparing A<->B, in which case she's right ($X now is better than $Y later). Both are false dichotomies. Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 17:48
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    @DeanMacGregor: Sure, you can add option (D): Pay $X to use the tickets now and also pay $Y later to take another similar vacation. But if the OP is balking at paying $X now, they're unlikely to be able to afford $X + $Y any time soon, either. Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 20:07
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    … Also, for folks living on a low income, special events like plane trips to a foreign country can be closer to "durable goods" than you might think: they're something that gets saved and planned for over months if not years, and the investment only makes sense with the assumption that the experience and memories will provide emotional value and enrichment for years to come. Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 20:07
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    @DeanMacGregor For most people, what you might want to do next year usually depends on if you go on a trip now or not, and are therefore factors in the opportunity cost. Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 20:33
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If the tickets are worth e.g. $1000 and you need another $1000 travel expenses to use them, the free tickets basically are a 50% discount on the whole trip.

This is very similar to a $2000 TV that is 50% off. You got free $1000 already just by seeing the ad. You only have to spend another $1000 to redeem it. Do you lose money by not buying the TV? (And don't trust the ad that says you do.)

This assumes the trip itself doesn't have a value.

So you shouldn't completely ignore your wife's opinion[*]. The tickets may hold value (and you would lose that value) e.g. if the trip is something you would do anyway at a later time (with future money that actually has a value now). Or maybe it is a life long dream of your wife to see the Eiffel tower, and this might be the one chance to make it happen. So it might be worth to spend $200 for a weekend in Paris with a free flight worth $3000.

If the trip to the airport is cheap enough, maybe you could just fly somewhere for a day, or just to have breakfast in a foreign country, without spending any significant money, just to use the tickets, and have some fun. (Which might not be very eco-friendly, though.)

This is assuming you can actually not give them to someone else. Or, depending on the rules, maybe your wife could fly with someone else (e.g. not you) that actually needs a flight somewhere, which could save them some money.

[*] Which might also be smart in other situations than this.

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    "Which might not be very eco-friendly, though" - the airplane will fly no matter whether your two seats remain empty or occupied. And the tickets are already paid for, so it's not even the case of "if there is less demand, then they will remove some flights".
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 9:30
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    @vsz this is another fallacy. It's not about the decision of an individual but about the community. It's a matter of principle. The less people do it, the less planes will fly. You have to be one of them to contribute to change. Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 10:16
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    @vsz: Flying for the sake of flying cannot be eco-friendly (and even if it is just the fuel that 150kg additional weight would require). Nevertheless, the tickets are not tickets yet, they still have to booked something specific (so they only use resources if they are redeemed). E.g., if the airline raffles away 1 million tickets, you cannot make the argument "it doesn't matter for the environment, the tickets already exists, let's all fly around the world to eat breakfast in Japan". The same holds true for just 2 tickets. It's an indiviual choice, didn't want to start an eco-discussion
    – Solarflare
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 10:17
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    If you "did not want to start an eco-discussion", then why mention it in the answer?
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 10:36
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    +1 for "...don't trust the ad that says you do". Reminds me of xkcd 870.
    – Heinzi
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 12:35
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Not really an economic concept, but the phrase "just because it's on sale doesn't mean you need it" comes to mind.

Am I losing money by not buying a car that's suddenly $2000 off?

This is basically an on-sale vacation. You pay the hotel, rental car, food, and entertainment and the airfare is free!

Or, discuss numbers. Say the tickets are worth $1000. Now add up food cost, hotel for a few nights, and a rental car. That would easily reach $1000. Are the tickets really free if it will cost you $1000 to enjoy them?

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    If you need a car in the year, maybe you are losing money by not seizing the opportunity now.
    – user26460
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 15:05
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    "That would easily reach $1000. Are the tickets really free if it will cost you $1000 to enjoy them?" Since the experience is otherwise $2000, yes, the tickets are free, at the moment.
    – user26460
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 15:07
  • Well if that's your take, you can indeed use the tickets, then sleep in the streets for the weekend and use the return ticket. More seriously, from context nuggethead means the tickets cannot be considered independently from the other expenses using them would incur.
    – spectras
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 3:32
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I agree with other answers that you must look at the overall value of the experience for you compared to the cost, not how much would you save for forcing yourself into going on some holidays that you cannot afford or will not enjoy as much.

Other consideration is that, depending on your local laws and on how the company has defined the terms, this could be subject to taxes. Either as part of your wife's salary (*) or because of taxes on gambling prizes.

There are lots of things to consider: the laws, how did the company manage this (if there is a tax on prizes maybe they will pay it so your wife must not pay anything), the value of the prize (has it a value now or it depends on the flight you book?)...

Your wife should go to HR and ask them for the tax implications of the prize and possible options that they can give if it is not possible for you to use them: delaying the expiration date, an exchange for something else (including some money), or the company allowing you to pass them to someone else (perhaps another employee?)...

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    I don't know how it took this long for taxes to be brought up. In most cases in the US (where the question author's profile says they are from), tax for the "free gift" will be withheld silently and automatically. Even if it's not possible to do the things you suggest, it should at least be possible to not receive the tickets and take on the tax liability. Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 13:54
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    Also strange, to me, that a company is giving away open destination tickets, but they expire in less than two months?!?! Next question "My boss won't give me time off to use the free tickets the company gave me." This smells like a company pretending to do something nice.
    – user26460
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 15:11
  • @user26460: I'll admit it is a bit odd, but I tend to assume these are tickets that the airline has already determined it can't sell, and so the raffle people probably got them at some kind of discount (for example, they may have paid for "two vouchers to a destination of the airline's choice, to expire on a date of the airline's choice between X and Y months from today, only usable on flights specifically designated by the airline as eligible").
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 2:28
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As other answers have noted, you don't lose any money by not accepting the tickets, but you do lose an opportunity.

Is the opportunity worth taking, given that you'll have to spend money in a tight financial situation to do so? That's for you and your wife to decide. When discussing this, keep in mind that the value of things like vacation trips is entirely subjective and emotional, and thus it's not only possible but almost certain that your wife will value the opportunity presented by these tickets differently than you do.

Or to put this in simpler terms, it's entirely possible that your wife really wants or even needs that vacation with you and that she knows that this is her one and only chance of getting it in the near future, even though the timing is really awkward.

Note that this doesn't mean that she wouldn't be able to live without the vacation if she couldn't get it — it just means that, given that she can get it, she feels that the opportunity is worth taking even in your current difficult financial situation. Maybe you don't currently feel the same way; maybe you even feel that the financial difficulties would make it hard to enjoy the trip at all.

You wife probably doesn't want to take you on a trip where you would be unhappy, but on the other hand, presumably you also wouldn't want to deprive your wife of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience or a desperately needed break from constant stress. That's why the discussion part is important, and why you'll need to be open and honest with you wife about how the financial stress you're experiencing makes you feel, while also accepting your wife's feelings about the whole situation as valid, however much their might differ from yours.


All that might sound off-topic for a finance Q&A site, but there's actually a way to cast all this in perfectly valid financial terms. Specifically, what you and your wife have here is a limited-time discount on an joint investment opportunity. The return from this vacation investment will be emotional and personal for each of you, but no less real for that.

Your task, together with your wife, is to evaluate this investment in the context of your current financial and emotional situation and to decide whether taking the opportunity now — while it is discounted by the price of the tickets, but while your access to liquid funds is limited — is a better decision than either taking a similar trip later (when your finances might be in a better shape, but you'll also have to pay more for the flights) or forgoing the opportunity entirely.

To do this, you will have to balance financial and emotional costs and benefits. Fortunately, while you cannot generally convert things like happiness, self-actualization, memories, richness of experience or stress into money, you can (more or less reliably) go the other way and estimate the emotional costs and benefits of financial decisions over time. So the question you need to ask is whether your expected enjoyment of the vacation, should you take it, is emotionally worth the stress from the financial hardship it would cause you.

And of course, as this is a joint investment between you and your wife, you'll need to carry out this evaluation together, taking into account also the emotional value each of you derives from the other's happiness and from time well spent together.

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Loss aversion is the term for people's tendency to over-value things that they already have and might lose, versus things they don't have and might not get. People are usually far more upset by getting something and then losing it/not using it, versus simply never having that thing in the first place. This is why your wife is upset by the notion of getting two free tickets and not using them, but would have been fine with the idea of not having the tickets to begin with. Consider how mundane it is to not win the lottery, but how infuriating and depressing it would be to have picked the right numbers but lost the winning ticket!

Most people view the utility gained by gaining something as somewhat smaller than the utility lost by losing it - it's a common view that you really are worse off than before by simply returning to the status quo! This is purely a psychological effect, however, as there obviously is no real difference in either state where you simply do not have the item. Never having the plane ticket is functionally the same as getting the ticket at no cost and not using it, but there is a real psychological effect that makes the latter "feel worse" - the value of the ticket is psychologically greater when it is viewed as a loss rather than a gain.

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    More like FOMO. Loss aversion is when you are hesitant to invest, because there is a chance you might lose money.
    – user26460
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 15:11
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    @user26460 Loss aversion merely states that losses loom larger than gains, although you of course have to have something to lose in the first place in order for it to apply. There's no investment in the OP's case, but the psychological cost of "losing" the tickets is larger than the benefit from "gaining" them - it is psychologically worse to get the tickets and not use them than it is to not get them in the first place. Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 15:29
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The problem: there is a caveat: the ticket must be booked for a trip no later than December 15 this year (for extra context today is October 31st).

On Delta's website I can book something all the way into September of next year.

Is your wife open to a tentative vacation? If finances permit then take the scheduled vacation. If not then eat the cost of rebooking to 2025 or let it expire?

Try picking obscure routes or timeframes which have a high chance of involuntary cancellation due to schedule change. I believe any involuntary change which alters your schedule by 2-3 hours will become the airline's full responsibility so in theory you could rebook for free into 2025.

We just went to a very difficult ordeal that have our finances in a difficult situation, so basically, we cannot afford to travel right now.

I'm sorry to hear about your troubles.

My wife is extremely upset because she is convinced that she is "losing money" for not being able to use the tickets.

Impulse buying/"saving" is no accident. All marketing crafts such mindsets.

I think you can't lose what you never had in your possession on first place.

Correct, unless you were planning to take a vacation anyways. The free tickets are not a justification to spend new money on a vacation.

Instead of a vacation, do you have distant relatives you'd like to visit? Spending time with family should be cheaper than a materialistic vacation.

My question is, is there an economic concept that I can use to explain to my wife why she is not really "losing" any money?

Yes, math.

If you take the vacation then you will return with less money than you started. Not sure how else to sugar-coat that concept.

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Another analogy to this situation is the concept of "found money". Imagine you find a wallet and it contains $1,000 in it. You have the choice of keeping the money or returning it to its rightful owner.

If you "do the right thing" and return it, you no longer have the $1,000 you found. But did you really lose it? You're no worse off than you were before you found the wallet. You didn't do anything to earn that money, so you're not out any effort, either.

In the case of the raffle winnings, the only thing you lose is the pleasure of having won something.

I know you say that the tickets aren't transferable, but you might check on how well they enforce this. If there's just some kind of promotion code you enter when buying the tickets, they may not really check. Giving the free tickets to family or friends may be a way to assuage the feelings.

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I think there is a conflation in the answers here between the terms "money" and "value".

Your wife's claim that you are losing money by not using the tickets is fallacious. You received the tickets for free, and in doing so, your monetary situation now is no different than they would've been had you not gotten the tickets. As such, if you were to let the tickets lapse without using them, there is no initial investment that would have gone to waste. You can't lose money that you never spent.

If, however, we were to replace the word "money" with "value", then yes, you are losing value by not using the tickets. The tickets themselves have a value that can be exchanged for a service, but after December 31st when they expire and can no longer be used, that value goes away. In this sense, your wife is correct, that if you don't use the tickets, you will have "lost" a hypothetical amount of money equal to the tickets' value.

Ultimately, it comes down to perspective. You can choose to focus on either the fact that you gained ephemeral value in these tickets that you will lose in a couple months, or on the fact that gaining these tickets cost you nothing and, as such, if you choose not to use them, you won't be any better or worse off for having had them in the first place.

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Let us, just for the sake of argument, imagine that I am considering giving you one million dollars. Then I change my mind, and decide not to give you anything. Have you lost any money?

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