"There is no such thing as a free lunch." In Economic terms, what does this mean?

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The term "free lunch" was a common phrase in the United States from the mid 19th century onward. Interestingly, it wasn't a term that was used to describe meals being handed out to homeless individuals. It's a phrase that was used to attract drinkers to bars and saloons. Order a drink and get a "free lunch." Some places wound up getting into legal trouble for false advertising because the only way to obtain the free lunch was to pay the business in some format. From a general economics perspective, what the phrase "no such thing as a free means" is that someone somewhere is paying for that lunch. My friend can take me out and pay for lunch. For me, that lunch was free, but it did cost something. If I win a free lunch for being the 100th customer to walk through the door, my meal is being paid for by the business. All of the items used to make my lunch cost that business something. By not charging me the cost of my meal, that business is paying the cost.

The other thing that the phrase could be referring to deals with the idea of "opportunity cost." By having that particular lunch and spending that particular amount of time eating that lunch in that place at that time means that you couldn't be doing something else somewhere else with someone else. It might be something as simple as continuing to work. The fact of the matter is that time is money and that free lunch did cost you time.

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The meaning of this in economic terms is that scarcity exists and therefore everything has an opportunity cost.  Since everything has an opportunity cost, nothing is ever free.

If I am given a lunch for "free" there is still a cost to that lunch.  The chicken that I ate for my lunch could not be used in some other way.  The feed that the chicken ate while it was alive could not be eaten by anyone or anything else.  The resources and labor that went into making the chicken feed and raising the chicken and butchering it and transporting it and cooking it all could have been used to do something else.  All of those "something elses" will never happen since I have gotten that "free" lunch.

Thus, my lunch was not free because of the opportunity costs of making the lunch.

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