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!


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.


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

Paul Doerwald

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.

The Regular Joe

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


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.


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


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


101 degrees in the shade? To quote the punchline of my grandmother's favorite joke, "Fine then...I won't sit in the shade."


I've heard people make this argument before, but to me it seems like the equation isn't putting enough thought into what the students would be doing with the their time otherwise. I participated in several of these kind of things in college and I knew that if I hadn't been standing in line for free food that I would probably just be at home playing video games. You also can't discount the great feeling that comes along with getting something for TOTALLY FREE.


In this case, it would seem the cheeseburger is secondary to the event itself. People participate in flash mobs and happenings without compensation. People shop on "Black Friday" and wait in line all night for concert or game tickets when the economic payoff does not equate to their wages. Maybe there is an economic incentive for being where the action is as oppose to the alternative.

Dash of The Newport Dashers

The picture of that burger does make it standing in a long line very tempting, but I will pass. After factoring in the heart-burn that the burger is sure to give me, I've decided it is not worth it.

Eric M. Jones.

Opportunity cost:

My boss asked me to deliver a lamp to a photographer at Condé Nast publication in New York City. They are the publishers of glossy magazines such as Vogue, W, Glamour, Allure, Self, Teen Vogue, Lucky. Their offices and studios are absolutely stuffed with gorgeous women; some for photo-shoots, but also many models who retired into the fashion magazine business. The call the place "Condé Nastie".

I barely squeezed into an elevator packed with a stunning crowd of beautiful young women headed to various photo studios. I inhaled the intoxicating perfume and slyly mentioned to the elevator operator, “Now THIS is the happiest place on Earth”. He chuckled.

After a few more floors the elevator emptied, and I asked the operator, half kidding, “How does one get a job like this?”

He said, “You just apply at the front desk in the lobby. The pay is really great, full benefits, AND since most of the models are lonely and from out-of-town, you can date all the hot supermodels you could possible want. So make sure you pick up an application on your way out…then take the bus to Cleveland.”

“Cleveland?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “That’s where the back of the line is.”


Mike B

With the advent of smartphones time spent waiting is no longer time spent forgoing other activities. Just like previously if you had a book or newspaper to read while in line, the waiting becomes a value added if you were would to read that material anyway. Smartphones now enable a greater range of necessary activities to be done on the go allowing for even more double booking of time and thus more value added.

Michael Moore

The value of time spent hanging out with friends for food is higher than the time spent hanging out with friends not for food.

On my campus free food events like this were typically accompanied by other fun things (music, games, maybe a raffle) so it's not just a burger that you're exchanging your time for -- you got to hang out with friends, have some food, music and entertainment. The eating and being entertained time also lasts longer than the 15 minutes spent in line, you don't just get your burger and then go back to studying.

Of course the 101 degrees thing makes it not worth it, no matter how good the burgers were.


I've waited 15 minutes to pay for a burger more times that I could count. Free is better. What else could the student do during his lunch hour to get free food. Beg for change on the street? Far less pleasant than waiting in line. Busking for tips in the quad? Far more complicated than waiting in line.

Even at a nice corporate salary, if you could get a $3 burger just for waiting in line for 15 minutes, most people take that every day and subsidize their lunches as often as possible. The alternative is you could pay for another lunch with less waiting and watch YouTube videos at your desk during your break. Is that a better use of your time and money? Of course, you could just work through lunch, and it may help your career. Or just make you bitter and less productive overall.


Hey, *I* waited in line for half an hour at the state fair for a freebie. When I looked in my wallet, it was still empty - if my time is worth $12 an hour - WHERE WAS MY $6????? that should have materialized???....But I wouldn't stand in line in 101 degree weather to see anything, no thank you, pass...Those students waiting for the free burger weren't going to be doing something else that would net them $12 an hour, they got a free burger out of it! Otherwise, they'd be drinking coffee, walking across campus to another building, or sitting on their messy beds in the dorm texting on their cell phones. None of which activities would make them any money.


But most students probably didn't queue up alone. The wait was also time spent hanging out with friends. Hanging out at bars and cafe cost money, so this could still be a good deal.

m henner

If some of those waiting were spending their time listening to the Freakonomics podcast, would you have changed your post?


Don't you have to wait in line to BUY lunch anyway? And lunch isn't normally offered in the quad -- usually closest to most classrooms -- but instead a few minutes walk to the cafeteria/fast food restaurant/deli/food truck/etc.

I'd guess the students are not only getting their food for free, but even faster than normal.


Unfortunately we all missed the fact that we will wait for fifteen minutes in a line to actually pay for food, so the opportunity cost is still the value of the product. A local restaurant chain is able to pull a thirty minute line that people do not feel concerned with waiting in, and they are still paying for their meal.