Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

The Real Cost of Free

The other day I was walking down the street with my family, where a couple of people were handing out coupons for free premium ice cream. I like ice cream. My two year old son certainly does. I knew the retail value for this ice cream was about $6 per coupon, and here they were giving it away. It was like free money. How could I not take it? BUT, we were about to go home and feed our son; the ice cream would have likely killed his appetite and amped him up before bed. My wife and I had just finished eating dinner, and we probably didn’t need to put a dollop of sugary-frozen-cream on top of the not-super-healthy meal we had just eaten. Taking the free ice cream would have meant compromising my son’s appetite and my own and wife’s health and sanity. The ice cream might have been free, but it had costs.

Just as free food is the enemy of the health conscious, free stuff is the enemy of the minimalist. Here’s how it works: Let’s say that someone gives you a nice tent. In the years past, you borrowed a tent for the three or so times a decade you backpacked. You never needed your own. But now you have the opportunity to own one (for free!)–one whose retail value you happen to know is around $500. The tent takes on that monetary value, even though it’s a sum you did not–nor would have ever–paid. You have a hard time refusing it. If you take it, you might have a hard time getting rid of it. It’s like throwing away $500.

But do you really need it? Was it so bad borrowing a tent, even one of those with the splintered fiberglass poles? Do the advantages of ownership outweigh the hidden costs–the clutter it creates, the volume of storage it occupies? What seems like a free and benign object, when looked at as an aggregate of a larger mass of possessions, becomes a creator of chaos and clutter. As Dave Bruno so eloquently put it, “Stuff is not passive. Stuff wants your time, attention, allegiance.”

One mental hurdle with free stuff and minimal living is that minimalists, or people who are drawn to the idea, tend to prize thrift and abhor waste. This is why we don’t actively invite stuff into our lives that we won’t use or use enough in the first place. So refusing free stuff can feel like making an active choice to waste resources–even when the net effect of accepting the stuff is inconsistent with our desire to simplify our lives.

If you have a hard time refusing free stuff or getting rid of stuff you got for free, here are a few things to think about either before or after you receive that stuff:

  1. Before accepting free stuff, ask yourself “Is this something I’d buy?” Chances are if you weren’t willing to buy it (even if the sum you’d spend was small) you probably don’t need it.
  2. Assess the free stuff’s real value to you. A Lamborghini Aventador costs somewhere in the ballpark of $500K, the same amount you’d pay for a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan or a two bedroom in Seattle or mansion in Indianapolis. For many the Lamborghini would be a liability and thus be worthless. For some, living in NYC is a nightmare…and so on. Everything has a different value relative to the circumstances and values of different people–and these values are only loosely associated with the price. If the free stuff is valuable–it’s something that will likely be used and appreciated–take it, use it, appreciate it. But if free stuff is not valuable–even if it’s worth a lot to other people–don’t take it.
  3. Even if you’ll use it, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to bring into your life. Let’s say someone offers you a free pasta maker. You use it a few times a year. You love the pasta it makes. But you love having a clutter free kitchen too, and buying fresh pasta or hand-cutting your own works too. There are many useful, lovely and practical things you don’t need. Keep this in mind when offered one of those things for free. Most times, when deliberating whether to take a free thing (or purchase something for that matter), the right answer is no.

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  • experiencedgrandmother

    A very good and valid point, that free is not necessarily free.

  • George Sears

    The worst thing is ‘free money’. I’ve been reading Packer’s book “The Unwinding”, some stuff about the housing bubble. People genuinely believed there were no strings attached to the whole house flipping thing, no consequences, even no end point. That ended well.

    Supposedly, the Fed is keeping the price of stocks and bonds up with very loose money policies, actively buying bonds, etc. The theory is you ‘have to’ play this game because it is ‘free money’, money chasing the only assets that can absorb all that money, which is logical, but insidious.

    The irony is that the people making billions can’t buy all that much ‘stuff’ so they don’t push the economy by buying goods, anyway. But overall, we need an economy where people do buy a lot of stuff, since it is a consumer economy. But this is self-defeating if the premise that stuff has many ‘strings’ is correct.

    It always seemed like the problem with Obama is he bailed out the old economy, rather than creating a new one.

  • Maggie

    This post takes me back to the book Stuffocation. I’ve stopped taking ‘free’ stuff unless it truly is free to me, with zero hiding costs. Not much passes the test!

    However, I love people who still want to take free stuff. I’ve been getting rid of items through Freecycle and giving other things to friends and colleagues. Although there is a cost to giving stuff away (generally, time), it’s made my downsizing a little less guilty about disposing of items that have perceived ‘value’.

  • Sandy Lorentzen

    Folks might enjoy E. B. White’s entertaining 1957 essay, “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street,” in which he describes the challenges of ridding oneself of possessions in order to move out of his Manhattan apartment. He writes, “A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day–smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up.”

  • Ani

    Good article. This is something I’ve come to realize over the years. Some things such as a wood stove I was given or snowshoes have been useful and treasured. The key is to only accept things that will be worth having to take care of and store. I’ve been offered a free bread machine and I’m trying to decide if I should go that route; I may try it and see how much I use it.

    The downfall for many who tend towards hoarding is the abundance of free stuff out there. They can’t resist taking things home. I have learned from experience to be really choosy about what else I invite into my life.

  • Jonny Figgis

    I do this all the time. I never just accept something or even when I go into a store to looks at clothes, books etc. I always ask myself do I really need this? There is a real freedom in saying no I don’t and walking out empty handed. I’ve made this a habit so it’s not something I really have to give tonnes of attention to. I have less stuff, less clutter and a clearer head. Not to mention a healthier bank balance. It’s a win, win, win 🙂

  • DianaBGKY

    Last fall I thought maybe I’d make coffee at home. I mentioned this to a friend, who offered a free coffee maker. I said I’d borrow it instead, to see how this went. It didn’t go well. I am a person who prefers coffee someone else has made, and with embellishments; I also don’t drink it often. A few months into the experiment, I packed the coffee maker up, but the friend didn’t want it back. I figured I would donate it to a charity next time I took a load. But then I also kept thinking, maybe I’ll want it next winter. Ouch. Then another friend, someone who drinks coffee daily, mentioned that she needed to buy a coffee maker because hers had broken. She has the coffee maker now and loves it. This story has a happy ending for the three of us and a valuable lesson for me on free stuff.

  • WithheldName

    Every “free” object that comes into your house eats away at some of the remaining available square footage that you pay so much money for. For example, if you have a 500 square foot apartment and you bring a 8′ by 3′ wooden table into it, you just lost 5% of your total living space to that object. You could have done whatever you wanted in that space. Now it’s occupied. If you pay $1,000/month for your apartment, it’s like you just effectively lost $50/month in space by filling it up with that object. That’s $600/year in lost space. It’s the same with small objects. It’s the same with our time. It’s the same with our thoughts, our minds. Don’t fill your life with junk. Don’t fill your days with wasted diversions. Don’t fill your mind with useless thoughts and influences. Everything comes at a cost. Economists call this an “opportunity cost”.

    • landshark123

      So unless you keep said apartment empty, its usefulness is being stolen by things you might bring in? A table is in fact useful, you keep things on it, and eat on it. What about a bed, or is it better to sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag?