Skipping the Free Buffet

(Photo: Dan Taylor)

Rational? I’m at a hotel and was given a coupon allowing me to eat the excellent breakfast buffet at no cost. Sounds good; but instead, I go next door to Caribou Coffee and buy a coffee and blackberry scone for $5. Is this utility-maximizing? 

I think so. I know that if I get the “free” buffet, I’ll eat a lot—probably orange juice and a large Belgian waffle with lots of syrup. Having pigged out over Thanksgiving, my weight is already up. Spending the $5 is a self-control mechanism: I know that once I’m done at Caribou, I’ll be sufficiently less hungry that I won’t want to spend time at the buffet (and won’t have eaten more than I should). There’s more to utility than increasing income and/or reducing spending!


A fine example of a First World problem. Possibly even One-percenter problem.


No, it just means you have little or no self-control.


Humans beings are rational and act in a rational manner. It is the economist's definition of rationality that need rework.

The scone + caffeine will bump up your insulin and make you hungrier for those office pastries and lunch. Eggs and bacon are the thing and, hey, you already paid for them.


Spending the $5 is a self-control mechanism: I know that once I’m done at Caribou, I’ll be sufficiently less hungry that I won’t want to spend time at the buffet

Here's the part where this fails:

I'd just end up spending $5 and still eating second-breakfast, like a Hobbit.

Anna Turtle

I think it is hard to answer this question without knowing your income and net worth. My guess would be that $5 is a negligible amount for you. If you asked someone who had only $5 and a free breakfast coupon what was utility-maximizing, I don't think it would be Caribou Coffee. Somewhere between him and you it becomes a really hard choice.


Well, Mayor Nanny Bloomberg would certainly agree with you, but I think America is a little too food plentiful to hide from temptations in order to avoid adult discipline. And adding a financial component on it is even lamer.

Save up the 5 bucks a day and join a gym.


Along with the breakfast you also get $5 worth of satisfaction with your financial position. People often make rational economic decisions in order to have money to spend on things they don't need.


I think that you missed the fact that not going to the buffet was to avoid people thinking that you were dumb for going to the buffet and only getting coffee and a scone. The $5 was what you paid to avoid that embarrassment.


You passed on Bacon. FAIL.


You make an interesting point. In your case, you're policing yourself by expressing a willingness to pay for something rather than accept a "free" perk from your hotel that has negative externalities. A different question I have has to do with the marginal utility of the free food if you were not concerned about calories. How bad would the free food have to be in order to entice you to spend $5 on something else? In my case, I might be tempted to dine at Caribou Coffee because: 1) I'm not really much of a breakfast eater and 2) I value good coffee in the morning. 3) I hate fighting the crowds that are inevitably drawn to "free" buffets (especially the families with fussy kids).


Starbucks scones have 400+ calories in them and basically no nutritional value. The ingredients are more or less the same in the waffle and the scone - as well as the calories. If you want to be virtuous, then you should have had some ham, orange juice, some wheat or rye toast and some fresh fruit.

David Barg

Consider keeping Kosher on the road. It doesn't matter much what they serve at the buffet, for me it is a banana and a packet of of oatmeal and a cup of coffee to go.
True, there are often Kosher bagels available, but members of the tribe know that a hotel bagel in Des Moines cannot possibly be a real bagel.