Is Free Lunch Even a Good Thing?

Free lunch

The first adage I can remember my dad teaching me is “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” While I probably took this too literally as a kid, I now think of this saying as my earliest lesson in opportunity cost. When I used to get that “free pizza” from the dorm activity in college, I would remind myself that the pizza was actually far from free- my parents were paying through the nose for that over-priced dorm I lived in, and some of their money was going to my “free” pizza. Someone always pays a price, and even when it’s not you paying the monetary price, you will often have to pay in some other way. Sometimes you pay with your time, and sometimes you sacrifice your waist-line, but no matter what, someone always pays.

So what about when programs or goods actually are free? This sounds like everyone’s dream, right? Suppose someone said to you, “You just won a free trip to Italy for ten days! All expenses paid! You can take all your friends with you! And you can time it whenever you want so you don’t need to miss work!” In theory, winning this trip would fear close to winning the lottery. You are literally paying nothing. Of course someone is paying for this, but let’s pretend that it’s a large corporation with dollars to spare and, in the scheme of things, your trip is just a drop in the bucket. Essentially, this is the free lunch.

Though this sounds good, is “free” actually good? This issue came up in a professional meeting I was having the other day, where a program director said, flat out, “free is the worst thing you can offer.” Talking about tuition costs for program participants, he continued, “Ask them to pay, and they feel invested. Pay them to attend, and they feel entrusted.”

Let’s think about this. When you get something for free, how much do you really appreciate it? You invested absolutely nothing to be there, and neither did you do anything to earn that free something. You didn’t spend your money to get it, or didn’t work for it, or win a contest for it. Free doesn’t just mean free of cost. It also means free of responsibility. When we don’t feel responsible for what we have, rarely do we appreciate it to the extent we should.

When I pay for the gym, I am infinitely more likely to go and use it often. When I am paid to attend a conference, I feel responsible to the people paying me, so I make the most of my time there. But when I am given a book for free, for instance, because too many copies of it were made let’s say, I usually won’t read it. Now, if I had paid a whopping $15 for that book, you can bet I will be reading it. Every word of it.

So yes, we may all like to have things for free, but we may not always like those free things once we have them. Next time my dad says, “There’s no such thing as free lunch,” I’ll respond with, “Who wants free lunch anyway?!” Take that, adage.

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