The High Price of Free

High Price of Free (1)We’ve all heard the cliche that some things are too good to be true. In the case of “free”, sometimes there’s a much higher cost than anyone expects. In our consumer culture, the notion of free shows up in a lot of ways. Sample day at Sam’s Club (the horror!). Mail-in rebates. Buy one, get one free. Free gifts with purchase. Free trial subscriptions. Vouchers for free lotions from Bath & Body Works, underwear from Victoria’s Secret, haircuts from a new Great Clips. But sometimes we get–or give up–more than we bargain for with these screaming good deals.

Don’t Trade Your Time

True confession time. I love redeeming those Bath & Body Works lotion vouchers for travel size lotions. I grocery shop in close proximity to one location that offers the lotions. The bottles make perfect add-on gifts for coworkers, neighbors, and friends. And they’re free. The other night, I flipped a freebie card over that had been sitting next to my computer for weeks and finally examined the expiration date. The deadline? The very next day. I mentally started rearranging my schedule, replotting my errand route, and then I promptly got up and tossed the card in the recycle.

Sure, I could have saved myself five dollars and added to my gift box*. But between time spent and gasoline wasted, I wasn’t saving anything. In fact, that free bottle of lotion would have cost me invaluable minutes of a weekday that I could have spent on more productive things like grading blogging watching The Big Bang Theory. All that stress over 3 ounces of lotion? No thanks. 

Don’t Swap Your Space

One of my very dear friends has a sickness. She collects freebies and roadside finds like no one’s business. I am all for saving a buck, but she lives in a studio apartment and has broken a seemingly endless stream of closet organizers because she has too much stuff. Not only that, but she often complains about having a dearth of space. While it seems simple to suggest she just shirk some of the excess, sometimes these brag-worthy bargains seem too noble, and it becomes exceptionally hard to part with them. An even simpler solution that I’ve tried to adopt is if I don’t have an immediate use for something and a place to store it, I don’t want it–free or not.

Don’t Waste Resources

Sample day at Sam’s Club, I hate to love you and love to hate you. Samples can be a great way to try out new items without the burden of purchasing something, tasting it, wondering why in the world anyone thought mango-flavored kale chips were a good idea, and tossing it. However, in my experience the amount of napkins, plastic cups, flimsy spoons, and other sample-size necessities make sample day an exercise in waste. Not to mention the number of children and adults who take one sniff, grimace and toss the food before trying it. The same goes for sample cosmetics. The amount of plastic used in making those teeny tubes and tiny vials certainly does not justify the one-time use in my mind. Sometimes there are costs other than financial factors that are worth considering.  

Don’t Betray Your Principles

I’ve written at length about my extremely stupid couponing habit, but what I haven’t touched on is another sad realization that hit me about a month into my stockpiling frenzy. I was so impressed with myself for being able to follow the tips on couponing blogs, track down the right coupons, and beat all the other coupon queens in my area to the good deals that I completely overlooked the fact that I was buying brands that I didn’t truly support. Even though I wasn’t actually spending money on the toothpastes or the soaps, I was promoting the sale of products that test on animals, use harmful ingredients, or rely on other questionable methods that I normally object to all because of the overexcitement surrounding free. In this modern society, how we spend our money is one of the single most persuasive tools we possess. No free toiletry is worth that swap.

*Preparedness is next to frugalness, folks.

So Tell Me…Has the notion of free ever cost you big time? What freebie finds are you most proud of?

Disease Called Debt
The High Price of Free

22 thoughts on “The High Price of Free

  1. I don’t pursue free quite like I used to. For example, I used to get up on Sundays and head to CVS to get the free toothbrushes/toothpaste – or whatever coupons matched up. Now I would rather sleep in and have a lazy morning with my family. Trading the best family morning of the week for some free toothpaste is a terrible idea.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. This is a really important reminder for us all. Great deals, freebies, and sales are great, but not at the expense of what really matters to us. Just because something is “on-sale” doesn’t change the decision of whether or not it’s important to us. For me, it’s t-shirts. I have way to many “free” t-shirts. It may be time for a donation run!

    Another great post Penny!

    1. Thanks, Mike! We were so excited the last time we were in Vegas when we scored free shirts. No need to buy a souvenir. The only problem is I think they’re still packed away in our luggage. Though if free shirts are my only regret from time in Vegas, I guess I’ll count it as a relative win.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I used to be so impulsive about free things. I remember feeling almost panic-striken over trying to get a store to get the free whatever-it-was before anyone else. How silly that seems in hindsight.

  3. Free stuff is probably the most contentious money topic in our marriage. My husband’s parents have way to much stuff in their house because they are scavengers of sorts (and friends just give them their old stuff). They repair everything, but it’s still cluttered and unnecessarily a lot of stuff. My husband has inherited that from them.

    As a result, I feel like I’m constantly going through his stuff and saying, “when can we throw this away. Or If we keep this can we get rid of that?” It used to drive him crazy, but he’s starting to be a little more picky (we got rid of 2 out of 3 ladders, so that’s good).

    I must admit though, his hoarding ways came in handy this week. I just did my monthly stock up at Target and I didn’t buy shampoo (which we were all out of). My husband found his stash of hotel shampoos, funneled them into our shampoo container, and now we’ll be good to go for a month or so.

    1. Ah, yes. I tease Mr. P that it’s the scouting mentality of always being prepared. It’s hard to break them of that habit when they save the day, as your husband did with the travel shampoos!

    1. So true. I think that’s why tracking your spending can be so painful for some people. You have to confront your reality – there’s no talking it away.

  4. Good point on trading space for free stuff. I worked at a used book store for years and got so many books that I will never ever ever read, simply because I didn’t want them to get thrown away. It didn’t take long to get pickier, but I still have a lot of stuff that I probably wouldn’t have paid for. Now I have 3 houses worth of books crammed into my house.

    1. Oh, books. That’s another post for another day. For years, I never parted with any book ever. I worked in a bookstore through high school and college, and then I went to undergrad as an English major. Now I’m much more of a library person. Just clutter. Beloved clutter, but clutter nonetheless.

  5. I’m so with you on this! I once had a couponing habit, too, and used HUGE amounts of time matching coupons with sales, driving between all the different stores and then arguing with cashiers about which coupons hadn’t scanned properly. Blech, I get a little nauseous now just thinking about it! Plus, as you said, buying all this junk food and junk products that didn’t match our values. On the plus side, I used to donate a TON to a women’s shelter, because I’d buy basically any personal care item that was free or almost free and then donate it. But the negative was that we ate our least healthy diet at that point, and supported corporate bad guys. Now we spend about three times as much on groceries, but we eat healthier, and we feel good about who we’re supporting. And we almost always turn down the freebies!

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