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?