The Problem With Free

The following is a guest post by Brooke McAlary of Slow Your Home.

the-problem-with-free

“Bottom line is, if you do not use it or need it, it’s clutter, and it needs to go.” —Charisse Ward

When was the last time you were given something for free?

It may have been a gift with purchase, a deal sweetener, or an added bonus at no extra charge. You may not even be aware of it, but I can almost guarantee you’ve received at least one free item in the past 12 months. I know I have.

And aside from adding to our collection of Things We Didn’t Want or Need, what is the purpose of these freebies? They are designed to get us to buy.

More specifically, these giveaways are designed to rope us in to buying something we may or may not need, just so we can score a free doodad that we definitely do not need. They are designed to make us feel as though we’ve come out winning.

How often do you gratefully accept these freebies, only to toss them out months later because, strangely enough, it wasn’t what you were buying in the first place and, shockingly, you have no use for it?

Me too.

Recently I decluttered my bathroom cabinet. In there sat my well-used travel toiletries bag. Next to it were two brand new toiletry bags I’d been given as promotional offers. For free. Of course.

Needless to say, they were added to a box bound for the charity shop, but they left behind a sinking feeling. Donating these items and ridding myself of their burden will not help anything if I keep accepting the freebies.

Maybe you’ve seen these free offers before. Maybe you even have a few of them floating around your home. Maybe even more than a few:

  • Beer glasses
  • Key rings
  • Pens
  • Drink bottles
  • T-shirts
  • Hats
  • Tote bags

You’ve probably been handed these free items at the checkout, or when redeeming a coupon. You may even use these items regularly.

So, what’s the harm?

The truth is, these items are not free.

There are, of course, the resources used in their production, money spent on the marketing campaigns and wages to pay those who sell the actual products you’re buying.

But there is also a major cost to you.

Sure, you paid no (extra) money for it and you may even make use of it. But did you need it in the first place? Was it necessary? Or is it simply contributing to the clutter that stresses you out?

At some point you will have to pick it up and decide where to store it or how to rid yourself of it. And to be honest, I think your time is more important than that. Your well-being is more important than that.

The status quo will not change and marketing campaigns will continue to include these freebies, unless we start sending the message that, “No, we don’t want this.”

So next time you’re offered something for free, try saying no. See how it feels.

That’s what I did recently when I was buying some make up, and the result was… interesting.

Shop Assistant: “And you get a really nice tote bag for free.”

Me: “Oh, no thanks. I don’t need another bag.”

Shop Assistant: “But…it’s free.”

Me: “Oh, I know. But I don’t need it. Thanks though.”

Shop Assistant: “But… it doesn’t cost you anything. I can give it to you right now. You could give it to someone for a gift. It’s actually really nice. And it’s free.”

Me: “Uh, no, thanks.”

Me: “Can I have my make-up now?”

Now, as I’m two years into my simple living journey, I have cleared out, decluttered, de-owned, sorted, donated, and thrown away thousands of items. And looking back, I find myself wishing I’d said no a heck of a lot more.

What are your thoughts on accepting freebies?

***

Brooke McAlary is the founder of Slow Your Home and the creator of the helpful Slow Home BootCamp, where she helps others create the simpler life they want. Connect with her on Twitter.

Image: Vincepal

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve always been too logical I think. When asked if I want something for free, whoever is with me jumps and wants to answer for me. Then they hear me say, “No thanks, I don’t need it.” This gets everyone crazy and they ask why anyone would turn down anything FREE.

    You’re right. It may free with no extra charge to you, but that’s one more thing to keep track of, one more thing to have to own. Why take something I’ll make no use of?

    Right now I’m on vacation in California and I miss my home back in Arizona where my room had only things I wanted to be there. I’m borrowing a room that is cluttered with so many things and looking around I see a stack of papers that we got for free (which I’ll never read,) a free pen, a free cd, free computer monitor, and a few other things. I’m grateful for the room, but I’m aware of how different it is. The “free” items are not stored anywhere but instead they’re lying around in places where I need to actually put things (like my laptop to write.) Ah, the cost of free.

    • says

      Ah yes, this typifies the problems of “free” gifts – the freer something is, the less you want it! Whereas when you save up to buy an expensive item, it leads to you valuing the purchase even more. I think I’ll write about this effect some time, it interests me!

      –Eric

  2. says

    I accept the free things I know I’ll use (like trial size toiletries, for carrying on the plane when I fly).

    Back when I used to accept all the free stuff, it quickly became clear that not only do you end up with stuff you don’t need, but the free stuff is often junk. All of the free drink bottles we ever got leak, for instance.

  3. Stacie says

    I have done this before, said no to a sales girl trying to stuff freebies in my bag, and got a similar reaction. Although it caused an awkward moment, I felt so light walking out of the store with only what I went in for. I also shop from a list pretty much everywhere I go. That prevents me from just browsing the store and finding tempting items that I don’t really need. I save money and time that way.

  4. says

    Ah, I’m visualizing my own drawers of unused samples, tiny lipsticks, and empty bags. I don’t know why the heck I keep them?!?!? I suppose it seems like they don’t take up that much room and maybe, just maybe, I’ll turn into someone who likes to experiment with products.

    Truth is…I’ve never been interested in experimenting with products. I like my tried and true items and stick with them. Hmmm, time to go clean some drawers!

    • Vanessa says

      If your toiletry/makeup samples are unused, I’m sure your local women’s shelter/refuge would be very happy to accept them. A lot of women escape abusive relationships with absolutely nothing, and while it seems silly, a lipstick could really cheer someone up, especially since it won’t be a priority to spend money on while she’s setting up a new household.

      • Kelly Stottlemyer says

        Vanessa,
        Great idea. I think, too often, we get rid of things in a very unsustainable way. Everything in the trash as we’re just desperate to clean. Think I’ll take a few things down to a shelter soon.

      • GoddessMel says

        That’s an awesome suggestion Ree. I recently donated a bag of work clothes to an organisation that specialises in getting women of limited resources back into the workforce, but I never though of organisations like shelters. I know exactly where my ‘gifts with purchase’ are heading :)

        • Michelle says

          My husband’s work has a drive for the local shelter a couple of times every year where you can turn in things like the travel shampoos, etc., so I have a bag on a hook in the hall closet and all the samples of things like that go in it and then go to the shelter. If there is something like that around you, it’s a great way to pass things along.
          Pet supplies are great for the local humane society.

  5. Tom says

    I think you raise an important point. When you hear people talk about living a more sustainable live style it is often the same people that have a house full of stuff they don’t need or use.

    The argument I usually hear is always the same: “You don’t know when you will need it.”

    What’s more concerning though is that these free items are generally made of very low quality. As a result they will break and be discarded a lot sooner than the better made version that people pay money for because… well, because they actually need it.

  6. says

    I have the same every time I shop for clothes or shoes (I have kids – they grow) and say no thanks to the bag they want to stuff it into. I always carry a backpack so I just put everything in there – without extra bags. Now, the thing is even more interesting because I live in Luxembourg where all shop staff are French, speak only French and think they must have miss understood me since my own French is pretty much non existing :-)

  7. Teresa Forrester says

    More stuff costs us time, energy and money. Time: We get it; put it in the car; and then carry it in the house. Then, we put it somewhere. Energy: All of this carrying it around stuff, deciding where to put it, moving it out of the way and at some point (hopefully) getting rid of it. Money: We pay rent/mortgage to house this mess, then we air condition it (all of these things must stay cold or they’ll die). If you can’t tell, I’ve come over to the “use it or loose it” attitude. I’m tired of the clutter controlling my time, energy, and money.

  8. says

    I tend only to accept what I can use or re-purpose. Professionally, I work with many who are homeless and in poverty and those free tote bags, pens, tee shirts and water bottles are much needed – so I take them into work. I can see your point however as I do have some of the “junk” freebies that I need to rid my home of and like you say be more selective of what “free” items to accept. I tend to rarely if ever turn down free food but I suppose I could be more picky about that too. I wonder about your thoughts on “freecycle” programs and other modes where people just give stuff away to whomever takes it (i.e., Free to a good home…) Thanks for the insights.

    • says

      There is a vibrant Freecycle group in my town. I recently gave away a centrifugal juicer that we hadn’t used for a year (and was in full working order), and a wooden toddler-sized table and chair that my kids had outgrown. I am happy that these items went to people who would use them, rather than to landfill. A cynic (realist?) may say that the juicer is just clogging up someone else’s kitchen cupboards and will end up in landfill eventually!

  9. says

    I believe that accepting freebies is fine, as long as it is purposeful, such as in the instance of the reader who accepts tote bags and t-shirts to donate to a specific group. The freebies are then going out into the world to do good, instead of sitting in a closet or warehouse. We can see the free items as opportunities instead of possessions. Fill the tote with groceries and drop it off, anonymously to someone in your neighborhood who is in need. Offer the perfume samples to a single mom on a limited budget, who never buys anything for herself. These opportunities can be a lot of fun.

    I believe it is hard not to accept something that is given with the hand. Our social conventions equate refusal with rudeness or disingenuousness. So when the sales woman offers a tote, we feel bad saying no. I found that saying something such as “I am already so blessed, would you please offer the tote to the next person you see who could really use it?”

    This past fourth of July, our family attended a town celebration complete with free games and small novelty prizes for participating. My children played many games but c only chose one prize each to play with while the adults socialized. No lectures or prompting from me. Conversely, one boy, also present, was bragging that he had collected 27 prizes and was going to get to 50 by the end of the day. This proves, I think, the great influence we have over our children in regard to stuff.

  10. Mel says

    I usually turn to the person next to me at the counter and ask them if they’d like the free item as I don’t need it. They’re usually really happy … And so am I. Win-win.

  11. Jo says

    Went with my daughter to an upscale dept. store where she bought some very expensive cosmetics. She got a “free” tote bag and some “free” make-up with her purchase. They then offered me some of the “free” make-up also. I don’t wear make-up and live a much simpler life style so I refused. Neither one of them could understand why I didn’t want it. By the way, my daughter gave me the free tote bag because she thought it was ugly. It has been sitting here for 2 months collecting dust. Time to send it by-by. lol

  12. Matthijs says

    I find it fascinating to see the look on on a persons face when I say: “but I do not need it”. You can see them thinking about those 6 words, like it is something totally unlogical what I am saying. I find it amusing and at the same time a bit sad to see how much our brain has been wired for consumption.

    • GoddessMel says

      I think that’s the rub isn’t it – people expect that if it’s not costing you cash you should just take it. My husband has a terrible ‘wombling’ habit and will often haggle for something extra when making a purchase, any purchase!! Hence the accumulation of building materials for projects he doesn’t have room to work on; more stubbie holders and caps than he can use in a lifetime; electronic equipment being stored ‘for parts’; not even contemplating the motorcycle rebuild that has been a decade in the making or the 2 partially demolished cars in the yard *sigh*.

      I know a lot of it comes from having very little as a child – part of him doesn’t want to miss out and part of him is excellent at making do. I get it; I grew up the same way and when I finally had an income I spent more than I saved and now I’m regretting the waste. But we’re now at the point where the stuff is taking up the space he needs to do; I try to put my foot down but it’s hard for him to see he’s stuck in a cycle.

  13. Northmoon says

    The reaction of some people to turning down a ‘free’ item shows the unfortunate way our society puts a monetary value on everything. So of course you would take it if it’s free, no thought to the other implications.

    Even saying just take it and donate it is not helpful. How many cosmetic bags do people need? Eventually all the extra cosmetic bags will end up in landfill that we pay for. Donate a t-shirt? The reseller market in clothing from donations has destroyed local fabric and tailoring businesses in third world countries. Better to tell the marketers these campaigns don’t work – refuse to take the items.

    • says

      Yes, good point! It is totally wasteful to produce items that people don’t need. I live in Australia, and each Australia Day one of the newspaper companies gives away a free hat with each newspaper purchased. They must makes thousands of these pathetic, impractical hats (that provide minimal sun protection) each year. This is just one example in one city of the world. When thinking globally about these ‘giveaways’, one can’t help but feel that it is a massive drain on precious resources.

  14. says

    Oh yes, those pens… and those many, even unbranded plastic bags at stores and farmers markets that open up so easily to swallow your merchandise and swell your recycling bins after just one use.

    We can turn this freebie giveaway thing around though and ask ourselves how do we make those people feel we are passing them over to, along with the burdens they represent, along with the same subconscious stress they create.

    I know I have felt remorse several times when so-called gifting someone I cared about with the things I had received and never or no longer needed (for example because my principles changed, in the meantime I became more conscious of a consumer). In a way we help others by doing so, but rarely is it the case that we save that person from plummeting way under the bare minimum standards of a decent human existence.

    No, more often than not we are just satisfying a “want”, perhaps of less conscious standard than ours.

    It is keeping bad products in circulation, similar (unfortunately) to recycling, where we – despite our good intention – usually keep bad materials in (re)production.

    Indeed, the solution seems to be to send as strong message as possible to the issuer that we do not want those unsolicited products or services in the first place.

    And then, perhaps help in the creation of the good.

    • GoddessMel says

      Yes, the burdens of ‘gifting’. My husband still has to argue with people who, when his birthday approaches, ask him what he’d like for a present; he tells them nothing, they insist they want to show their friendship by giving him something. He reinforces there’s nothing he needs or wants, or he’d have bought it for himself. The person inevitably ends up bringing him a gift that he no longer wants or needs but they think will be fun, then think him ungrateful when he doesn’t thank them or refuses to take it!

      We got around it for his 40th a few years ago by telling everyone who asked that he wanted a gift card from a particular store, but not to spend a lot. All those $20 and $50 gift cards added up to almost cover the cost of a tool he’d been coveting and that he uses for his business. But generally he’d rather have nothing at all and have that friend come over for a beer and a chat sometime; they’re company his worth more to him than anything else they could give.

      I understand many of you will be thinking ‘well why doesn’t he just say thanks and fake it, then pass it on; it’s a present, he should be grateful’, but it’s the same as accepting those freebies at the store. If you don’t want it and don’t need it, and you’ve let the person know that, I think it’s incredibly bad manners to have someone foist an item upon you in the name of social ‘niceties’.

  15. Lola says

    Think also of the massive environmental cost to produce these “free” items, most of which are then tossed in the trash or kept around cluttering each home. There is a massive amount of waste in our society.

    Thanks for the post.

  16. Amanda says

    I had a similar experience at the makeup counter. My brand has a recycling program where you get a free lipstick when you return a certain number of products. I don’t wear lipstick so I told them to keep it and the ladies did NOT understand. I ended up giving my freebie to one of the other customers standing in line who wanted it.

  17. Stephanie says

    I recently ordered two Happy Meals in McDonalds for my children and requested the meals without the toys. The sales assistant was astounded and commented that “no-one has ever asked that before” (to her anyway). I had had a conversation with my boys before we went in. The piece of plastic was irrelevant to them, so I explained that we didn’t need to bring it into our home. They were fine with that and enjoyed their meals regardless.

  18. Celina Luna says

    Good, valid point. i say no to freebies unless it was something i really needed. For example, i was in real need of a makeup bag. so when i got a lovely little one as free gift with purchase i accepted it. Otherwise i say no, it’s more clutter in my life that i have no need for.

  19. says

    I am now free…. Thank you for helping…
    I got all my remaining stuff into boxes and I moved everything in three little Ford ranger pick up loads…..

    I have made it… from huge house… to condo…. to a rented room in the forest on Maui.
    no more stuff! I even am keeping everything in boxes, now it is even easier to further minimize my stuff…. it is amazing what I don’t need!!!

    People, just do it……
    Find what is essential
    Get rid of everything else
    Freedom can be yours!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I am sooooooooo happy to out of all the little things all the entanglements… I can actually think of nothing without the something rearing it’s ugly head and stealing my energy from my new reality!

  20. says

    People are surprised when I refuse freebies. In fact, they sometimes look at me as if I grew a third eye. A few times, the individual tried to pressure me into accepting it, but I remained firm in my refusal to take it.

    And you’re spot on about freebies not really being “free.” Great post.

  21. says

    It’s a long process, learning to turn down free stuff. (A bargain hunter by trade, I found a lot of freebies!) Even after I started to realize I didn’t need most of it, I would still take it rationalizing I could give it to someone else. But I didn’t.

  22. says

    I also often decline free stuff. There is a price to be paid for everything, even free stuff. Once you take ownership of an item, it is your responsibility. I have decluttered a lot of stuff I received for free and I don’t want the clutter coming back. If someone gives me a strange look when I turn something down, I often explain a little bit about all of the decluttering I have been doing and that I really don’t need the item. The person usually becomes more understanding.

  23. Annie says

    I get these kinds of offers via email all the time. I used to allow myself to get suckered by it and buy stuff I truly didn’t need to get something for free, or a bigger discount. Now I consider the offer very carefully and follows my rules:
    1. It must be something I regularly use.
    2. It must not cause me to buy anything more than I really needed from that site in the first place.
    3. If it is for someone else they have to agree in advance to accept it.
    4. I have to wait at least 24 hours so that I am not buying on impulse.
    5. If I am unsure after that time I delete the email since I most likely didn’t need to buy anything.
    Following these rules has resulted in my accepting these deals MAYBE once every few months, instead of at least once a week as I did before.

  24. Michelle says

    Nothing is free. The cost of your “free” item is factored into the price of the item you are purchasing. Refuse the “free” item and ask for a discount on your purchased item, now that will really confuse them! lol

  25. Charles says

    The problem isn’t having too much stuff. It’s that you don’t know how to deal with it effectively. If too much stuff was a problem then you’d just walk into a library and die, or every time you go on the internet your head would simply explode. You are stressed by your stuff because you don’t know how to own it.

    • Fiona Cee says

      utter crap! who wants to ”deal” with stuff if you don’t need it. you sound like a hoarder.

      i’ve got stuff i don’t need and i don’t die when i walk into a library and i am on the internet and head is quiet happy thank you.

      and i’m not stressing over it. i know it’s going and that’s that!

  26. J says

    I cannot love this enough. It’s so easy to say, “yes, thanks,” when what you should be saying is “no, thank you”. Conference backpacks are another nightmare in this vein. I was offered a free water bottle when in the service station the other day, and surprised the check out guy when I turned it down.

  27. says

    I love this to. It’s interesting to me as I start a young aromatherapy company that whenever I give samples, it doesn’t actually translate into sales. People like getting them but seem to forget to try them. If they do try them they seem to buy – but the numbers are better when I’m there, in person, helping them. And so, that led me to think of all the samples I save, and all my good intentions for slipping them in my purse and using them at the gym or when I travel…and I almost never do. I buy an expensive brand of cosmetics – they are good products, I know exactly what I need, and I wind up spending less as a result, you know? But because it is a significant purchase and my friend works at Saks and I buy from her to up her sales numbers, I would get heaps of their free skin care samples. Like, 20-30 samples of their $400 face cream. But the thing is – their cream gives me zits. But I felt bad throwing it out because…it was $400 in the store. So I amassed ever greater amounts of these sample tubes until I realized I had a giant 1 gallon storage jar full of them. One day, I just boxed them up and sent them to a friend who travels alot and loved receiving them. The next time I purchased makeup I told my friend – NO SAMPLES ON SKINCARE – and she got it and my bathroom is so much happier.

  28. Morghan says

    My free item was $5 in farmer’s market tokens.

    Definitely useful.

    Don’t really see that as I shop the farmer’s market and co-op, never go to department stores or the mall, so I pretty much only ever see the word “free” associated with shipping on things that aren’t available locally.

  29. marcelj says

    You don’t really need all that makeup. Its the tv that is telling you how to walk talk dress etc. One of the first things I got rid of as I became a minimalist was the tv. When I get rid of something I make sure it can never be used again. I want to rid the environment of all the poisons that are in all the products. Becoming a minimalist was the most awesome thing I have ever done…wow!! I now live this amazing pure life!!

  30. Sam says

    I can usually use most free things I acquire and if not then I sell it for really cheap to someone else and use the buck I made. Who could ever turn down a free t shirt? After doing summer activities like picking blackberries in the mud all day my t shirt looks like someone ran it through a shredder, I’ll take all the free ones I can get

  31. says

    I have started to turn down the “free” offers. Its a challenge though since my whole upbringing was more like “if its free then its for me.” I turn down reusable shopping bags regularly it seems. They are the freebie du jour, I guess. But really, who doesn’t have one who really wants one?

  32. LJ says

    I love this post. I volunteered at a conference the other week, and I was that person who sits on the other side of the table of a non-profit cause. We just had a limited supply of 2 kinds of freebies (pens and notepads), many interesting booklets available to browse (and buy online), and a contest for a free daytimer. People were shameless, and I was embarrassed for my profession. People would walk directly down the tables with eyes scanning for freebies. They would ask what freebies we were offering, already with a mindboggling fistful of non-sensical freebies. A free pen is a happy score on the day I forget one, but how many pens does one really need? And guess what I noticed – a completely non-technical observance – the bigger the person, the more freebies in hand (or in freebie bag), and the harder to engage even briefly in our cause. Well, I carry about 35 extra pounds, and I started to wonder, am I in that category? I’ve been in the merge lane to minimalism the past few months, but do I grab/hoard/collect food in the same way I was watching people grab and prize stuff? I realized – with great discomfort – that I do.

    • CJ says

      LJ, you hit the nail on the head with me! I also carry extra weight, and up until a year ago when the minimalist bug bit me, was the “Queen” of free/yard sale/ thrift store/bargains…it embarrasses me to think back on it…and yes, food….

      I have been decluttering/de-owning, and making a lot of headway, just this week-end I started thinking about the connection with my weight, and trying to figure out how to apply the minimalist mind set to my diet. I would love to hear any feedback on that aspect if anyone has any. Thanks

  33. Rhonda says

    So true! I have a bathroom closet full of makeup bags and sample make up and skin care it us ridiculous! I am going to say no from now on and not buy products I really don’t need because I get a free gift if I do.

  34. says

    Great post – but PLEASE be polite and kind to the person giving you the freebie.
    I’ve worked registration at a conference where some of the people declining the conference tote were obnoxious.
    “Higher evolved” in green-sense AND kindness or you are spreading a different type of toxicity.

  35. says

    I’m guilty, I go to shows, and they are always giving things away. My wife dislikes it very much. Everytime I go to one, she tells me to not bring anything home. I started thinking I would let the grandkids play with the trinkets, but even they don’t play with them for very long.

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