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March 15, 2002

My "Free" Lunch

I don't get a lot of mail at work. (I'm talking post mail here, not the electronic variety. That I have plenty of.) I look at some other people's mailboxes and they're overflowing daily. Some of that prodigious volume is internally generated documents, but they still have much, much more mail than I. Once every couple of weeks I'll get one of the two or three magazines that I have a free subscription to, and once in a blue moon I'll have a fax waiting for me, but that's about it.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I found a hand-addressed business-size envelope sitting in my mailbox recently. It wasn't something I normally get. I took it down, and upon inspection, saw it was from the new restaurant just a block away; a new Crabby Joe's location. Immediately, I suspected what the letter was: the business card that I had put in their fishbowl three months back at a goodbye lunch for a former employee had been drawn, and I had won a Free Lunch! Sure enough, I am hereby entitled to one free Express Lunch menu item and non-alcoholic drink, courtesy of that little piece of card stock that I deposited with them those few months ago. Of course, now I have to find an excuse to go there with other people - nothing says "social leper" quite like having lunch alone, especially if you aren't engrossed in a newspaper or diligently pecking away at a laptop.

So I get a free lunch. Neat. The obvious question becomes, "is there such thing as a free lunch"? To fairly assess that question, I have to determine how much it cost me to get to that good-bye lunch at Crabby Joe's those few months ago.

Realistically, there's no point in starting from the very beginning. After all, the first 18 years of life (assuming you stay at home) are pretty much free, save for life-saving items like your own phone line and pizza money. (Remember, I grew up when cell phones were bricks and cost $1000, and the Internet hadn't even been mentioned outside of academic and/or military campuses. Hence, no cell phone, no cell phone bill, no pager, no computer... life was pretty inexpensive. Especially since my draconian parents wouldn't allow me to purchase a car, so I was spared that expense as well.) So we'll start at the end of high school.

High school finished, I enrolled in university and moved a good 3 hours away from home, a nice, safe distance. None of that really cost me much, as my parents were footing the university bill until I actually had something to contribute. That time started when, as part of my degree, I started co-operative work placements. For 4 months at a time, my academic studies would halt, and my classmates and I would compete for the few jobs available for barely-out-of-high school professional wannabes. I managed to find something each time, and considering what I knew (pretty much nothing) I was paid fairly well. I'll estimate that I paid for nearly half of my higher education, so we'll peg that at a conservative $20 000 for my nearly five-year program.

Trying to assess how much getting into this job cost me is a difficult matter. Can one put a dollar value on switching jobs, either positive or negative? I suppose one could assume that your salary should increase (theoretically) with inflation, plus increases based on your performance and increasing skill base. Anything that deviates above or below that could be construed as either a profit or a cost to you. With that in mind, my first job we'll discount. After all, it set the bar for what my industry value was, and will be our baseline. So let's start from when I left that job for my 2nd job.

My first job was interesting, and at times fun, but was going in the completely wrong direction for me. I did not want to become a corporate monkey, wearing the white or vivid blue work shirts nicely pressed with a subtle yet playful tie and nicely creased cotton pants. No thanks. I needed out of that job, and with a quickness. A very nice job came up which I eventually took and was happy at. Unfortunately, it was a cut in pay, and increased my commute time (unpaid, whereas mileage was paid at my previous job). I was at that job for 16 months, so let's say, just as a wild-assed guess that the cut in pay for 1.25 years and more than doubling my commute cost me, in total, about $10 000. That may be low or high, I don't know, and I probably don't really want to find out.

Now, we'll take a look at getting into the job I currently have, where I was positioned to have a fellow employee leave and thereby attend his good-bye lunch. The pay was increased, and the commute lessened. However, as referencing my baseline (my first job) the pay wasn't increased dramatically, and the commute is almost exactly the same, so we'll call it a draw, and coming to this job didn't cost or pay anything. However, going to lunch to say good-bye to someone cost me about $11, tip included (a decent 15% tip, thank you).

Adding it all up, we come up with a completely inaccurate total of $30 011 for my "free" lunch. Ouch. At least I only had to pay half of my university degree, and I didn't take any advanced degrees. Can you imagine how much a doctor's free lunch would cost? It would almost make me want to fast! No it wouldn't - I love food too much. But I'd feel really guilty about it.

One factor I did not count was other free lunches I may or may not have had. I can't remember any off the top of my head, but if there was one other free lunch in there somewhere, that would cut the "cost" of my "free" lunch in half. More, and it would cut the cost even more. So maybe it isn't such a horribly expensive lunch after all. I guess I'd better start winning more often, and get that cost down. After all, I am on a budget now.

In conclusion, there isn't a free lunch, but I could have had my free lunch a LOT cheaper than I did. Instead of going to university, moving 14 times, buying and getting rid of various vehicles, and commuting all over hell's half-acre (a.k.a. South-Central Ontario) I could have spent maybe $100 on a huge box of business cards made up in Word, printed on cardstock and cut by hand, and sprinkled in all the fishbowls and uniquely-large goblets in restaurants around my home. If done right, I could maybe survive for a fair amount of time solely on lunches and/or dinners that I win with my cards. I guess I'll never know.

If anyone's in town sometime soon and wants to hit Crabby Joe's with me, please let me know. I have an expensive free lunch coming to me.


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