But is there such a thing as a “free” cell phone?

I often ask my Economics classes to brainstorm about the phrase “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” This phrase is used by economists to illustrate the fact that every choice made involves giving up other options, and is used to describe the concept of “opportunity cost.” The idea of “opportunity cost” highlights the fact that every decision to do something involves giving up the possibility of doing something else.  As doing something involves time or effort, it therefore involves a “cost” of some kind. Going to class means that a student chooses not to nap or to go to lunch with that time, and certainly means that they don’t get to work to earn money with that time. This concept therefore increases the true cost of attending a class well beyond the value on the check they wrote for tuition to pay for that class.

When I ask my students to try to come up with examples of truly “free” lunches, the result can lead to interesting suggestions. Are the dinners given by some resort companies to try to entice people to buy time share condos an example of “free lunches?” I see their point, but to claim those dinners, potential customers must sit through a presentation about the resort, there preventing the diners from doing anything else with that time. And what about a dinner created from leftovers in the refrigerator? To prepare those leftovers involves some investment in time and effort, making them not exactly “free.” Indeed, any choice made involves some opportunity cost, even if the cost is not always immediately apparent.
I found myself thinking of this recently as I learned of a new version of a cell phone that will soon hit the market. Costing about what I paid for my first desk top computer, they have new details that I am sure will encourage many to rush out and buy them. I, however, still own a flip phone, something that my students and family sometimes tease me about. While I see the convenience in having a smart phone available at all times, I believe that having a flip phone and a laptop gives me almost the same accessibility that a smart phone gives me. As my flip phone is paid for, and hooking up to it on my husband’s plan does not increase his payments, I like to say that I have a “free cell phone.” Of course, being an economist, I know that I should we suspicious of saying that anything is truly “free.”
While I don’t have to pay monthly bills to run my flip phone, there are still some costs associated with not having a smart phone. Not long ago, I looked into the possibility of calling “Uber” without a smart phone, and, while there are probably ways to do this on a lap top, I was not able immediately to figure out what they would be. And when I received a coupon via e-mail that would not allow me to print it out, the people in the store told me to just bring in the coupon on my smart phone. When I travel with my family, I arrange for the boarding passes to be sent to my husband’s smart phone, even though I am the one who makes the travel arrangements. Recently, someone asked me to send them an electronic photo of my family, and I felt like a bad parent for not having immediate access to such a picture. And, more and more, organizations are using smart phone apps to communicate with members, something that makes being on top of the latest events at my child’s school and my parish more difficult. While the monthly payments to keep my flip phone working appear to be zero, I am learning the economics lesson that there really is no such thing as a “free lunch” (or, for that matter, a free cell phone.) I am sure that I will eventually join the crowd and trade in my flip phone, but for now I am holding out to see how long it will be until I purchase a smart phone.
Are there any of my readers who (for now) also choose not to own a smart phone, and if so, why?



September, 2017


I want to wish a warm welcome to my new readers to this site on what is the first blog posting under the title of “Marginal Musings.” A special welcome goes out to my former readers, who knew me until the middle of August as “Math Geek Mom” under the “Mama, Ph.D.”  blog in Inside Higher Ed. When it came time to put my identity as “Math Geek Mom” aside, I decided that I didn’t want to stop blogging, and so I set up this space. While I don’t plan on writing here every week, as I did for Inside Higher Ed, I do plan on posting in the beginning of the month. And, while “Math Geek Mom” often wrote about topics tangentially related to Math, this space will focus on Economics (with no promise that Math will not sneak in, occasionally.) After all, it is my reclaimed identity as an economist that led me away from being “Math Geek Mom” and into this space.

As my former readers have heard, although I never imagined myself as a “blogger” (and am still not sure I like that term ), I stumbled upon this role after writing a chapter in the book “Mama, Ph.D.” by Elrena Evans and Carolyn Grant, published in 2008. As for finding that book, I was looking for information on possible ways to re-structure a maternity leave when I saw the call for proposals for that collection. Although I was not a literary person, my chapter was included in the book, and, several years later, I began to write for the blog by the same name in “Inside Higher Ed.” That experience, which lasted for nine years, was life changing, and has led me to see myself as kind of a “writer,” beyond the equation-centered work that I (occasionally) produce for academic journals. When my position at Ursuline College changed, in part due to new rules by the Higher Learning Commission which accredits us, I had a difficult time imagining myself not writing a blog of some sort. Hence, the creation of “Marginal Musings,” which officially begins today.

So where did the name “Marginal Musings” come from? Economists, as my students will tell you, think of decisions as being made “on the margin.” Just like the edge of a paper has a “margin,” economists see decisions as being made on the “edge,” when answers to questions such as “what is the cost of doing more of this” and “what are the benefits of doing more of this” are compared. If the costs outweigh the benefits, then it is wise, from an economics point of view to pursue the direction being examined (but perhaps not from other perspectives; it may be economically logical to commit crimes, but not a good idea). Many people are familiar with the term “cost-benefit analysis,” and the idea of making decisions on the margin is just a more technical way of describing that approach. Of course, after teaching Calculus for most of the last twenty years, I can’t refrain from noting that such marginal decisions relate to the value of the derivative of a function, if you can imagine an economic decision as being characterized as a function (which is something we economists like to do, even about such unusual things such as marriage, suicide and volunteer labor.) While I was conscious of representing Ursuline College as “Math Geek Mom,” this blog will be produced on and posted from my own computers, and will therefore not reflect the opinions of Ursuline College in any way. In addition, this time I will not be writing about my daughter, who deserves to live her life without her mother telling the world about her on a regular basis.

And so, welcome to this space! I plan to write here near the start of each month, and I hope that you will join me as I share thoughts relating to what is happening in the world, all seen through the perspective of someone who likes to turn life decisions into mathematical questions. I hope that you enjoy what I post here. I look forward to writing for you in the future.

If you want, please step forward and introduce yourself. I look forward to hearing from you!

                                                      Have a wonderful LONG weekend!