Waiting for Free Cheeseburgers: Worth the Opportunity Cost?

There’s a long line of students snaking around the courtyard near my office.  They’re queuing up to get a “free” cheeseburger, courtesy of Dave’s Hot and Juicy Tour of America, a Wendy’s promotion. A student near the current end of the line will spend 15 minutes in the sun to get the burger. A Wendy’s cheeseburger usually costs $2.99. I certainly wouldn’t be out there, even if I liked cheeseburgers.

If the student’s opportunity cost of time exceeds $12/hour, waiting for the freebie is a bad decision. But since there’s some evidence that people value time outside of work at 1/3 their wage, and since it is unlikely that many students’ hourly wage rates exceed $36/hour, standing out there is sensible on narrow economic grounds for nearly all students. But: This doesn’t factor in the likelihood of heat stroke—it’s 101º in the shade!

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  1. rawckee says:

    I’d say from my own experience that standing in that line is perceived as even more valuable than the data you showed us.

    It was only after I left school and actually started to support myself that I even had a notion of how much an hour of my time was worth so I’d say that most of the students don’t even factor that into the decision. If one’s salary is perceived as 0$/h then 1/3 of that is still 0$/h.

    Plus there must be a social perk into it which makes that experience much more valuable than just the cheeseburger. Standing in line with your mates socializing and/or the perception of getting the famed free lunch if nothing else.

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  2. Martin says:

    What about the opportunity cost of not getting the free burger? They’d have to go buy lunch…

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    • Brian says:

      You also need to subtract out the time it would take to stand in line waiting for the lunch you will be buying. When I was in school it typically took 5 minutes or more to get to the front of the line and order my food.

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  3. Paul Doerwald says:

    Students will line up for free anything. Offer them free vaccinations and watch how they line up!

    Seriously though: your argument may make sense, but money is in limited supply for the students. If they spend the $2.99 on the burger, then that’s $2.99 that they won’t be able to spend on beer, and when they only have $x for the year (I don’t know what the kids need at school these days) then a free burger, even with 15 minutes of queueing, is of enormous value, far beyond the mere dollars-and-cents of it.

    I think your opportunity cost calculation missed a few aspects — it’s not just time, but it’s also what else could be done with that $2.99 now that it *wasn’t* spent on a burger. At that point the students’ decision makes perfect sense — to me, at least.

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  4. The Regular Joe says:

    I find it odd that people price their free time as 1/3rd of their salary. I price my free time at much higher rate for it is scarce and rare therefor more expensive.
    there is no greater waste of time than standing in line, traffic and such
    I wrote a post about the value of time
    print it and hand it to the students down there

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  5. ilkka says:

    Wage is not the same as opportunity cost, unless you need to specifically take unpaid leave to do something. In practice few people get to make the decision between working overtime or waiting in line for a cheesburger. I would assume that even you are paid a flat salary that does not depend on whether you spend your day waiting in line at Wendys or sitting in your office.

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  6. Peter says:

    This is under the assumption that they would use their wage on cheeseburgers…

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  7. jane.flower@indigoice.ca says:

    The same argument could be made re: pancakes @ Stampede! Except its not just students lining up!

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  8. Jay says:

    101 degrees in the shade? To quote the punchline of my grandmother’s favorite joke, “Fine then…I won’t sit in the shade.”

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