Last week, a friend posted a photo on Facebook of our local Wawa coffee shop, where the lines wrapped through every aisle of the store. It was free coffee day.

I wondered to myself, "Is saving a buck or two on coffee really worth waiting in that line?" I thought of other times I'd heard people talk about standing in long lines for a freebie. Rita's gives away free water ice on the first day of spring. Ben & Jerry's has an extremely popular free ice cream cone day each year. IHOP has its free pancake day. 7-Eleven gives away free Slurpees. You get the idea.

And when Chick-fil-A gives away food, not only do people stand in line, they often do so dress up as cows, spending more money on a costume than the meal could possibly be worth.

chick-fil-a-day On Chick-fil-A Day, people take it one step farther and dress up as cows to get free food. (Photo: Amy the Nurse/flickr)

I don't see myself doing this, especially when I could either make that cup of coffee at home or buy it much more quickly at the coffee place down the street. It doesn't sound like a smart way to save a buck. But it turns out, there's a reason many people do — and it has little to do with being cheap.

I asked my Facebook friends why they would stand in line, and I got some surprising responses:

  • I know someone is going to ask me if I got my free Wawa coffee today. Of course, I want to be part of this activity, so I will do it. I don't really want coffee, so I will give it to a coworker. It's definitely psychological, not monetary.
  • It's a ritual or a tradition (particularly with Rita's).
  • I can understand wanting to be part of the "event," socializing with others about the "thing."
  • I think of my clients and I know it gives them something to look forward to, something to do, and something to enjoy. (This response from a social worker.)
  • My kids like being part of a tradition. All the kids talk all day in school about Rita's and Wawa. It's a cool thing to do and be a part of.
  • It's a novelty and a "treat."
  • When there is free coffee, it seems the whole store is in a great mood.
  • It's like getting a little present, and it's not even my birthday! I always see someone I know at our Wawa, so then it becomes a social visit too, which is an unexpected bonus.

In addition to it being a social activity, for some it's a free family outing.

  • When we would go to Rita's free water ice day, we would go because for a family of five, it was a cheap day out with the kids and give us a chance to celebrate the beginning of spring. And, the kids wanted to go because it was free water ice.
  • I used to take the kids for free Rita's when they were young enough to not have full school days, so there were no lines. Money was tighter then, so I was always looking for free activities to do with them and friends.

One of my friends did say the "free" aspect was a draw for her, and she spoke up for anyone who's on a tight budget. "Don't underestimate the folks who are still underemployed or unemployed. It can be a real treat to grab something for yourself that you are currently making at home — one of the numerous things done to save money and make ends meet," she commented, also noting that making coffee at home is one of the first things financial advisors tell people to do when they're trying to save money or reduce their expenses.

Some people commented that they were learning something from reading everyone's perspectives on the issue, including my fellow blogger Starre Vartan.

"Now I know why I wouldn't do any of these things and never have! I am anti-social; I'm the kind of person who would pay to NOT stand on line," commented Starre. "I never thought about it as a 'fun, social"' thing to do, but this comment thread has enlightened me. I always thought a lot of people were just really, really cheap, which I kind of admire. (I'm an idiot with money.)"

I was enlightened, too. People who stand in line do so for many reasons, and it seems one of those many reasons isn't because they're cheap.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Waiting in line for a free cup of coffee isn't just about saving a buck
People who wait in long lines for free coffee or ice cream — even when they can afford it — are more likely to be social than cheap.