Are You Addicted to Free?

As my birthday approaches, this thought started popping into my mind: “I should register that Starbucks gift card I got so I can get a free drink. Maybe I could sign up for Dunkin Donuts perks too, now that I have smartphone. I wonder what other free treats I could get?

The parents I know (including myself) are always sharing how to get the kids free treats, free (new) small toys, free tickets to events…all the local free offerings. I like free stuff as much as the next person. Probably more. And I appreciate it when people tell me how to get free stuff.

I’ve done my share of sharing how to get freebies here. I openly embrace the following forms of free:

  • All things library—normal circulation and also summer reading prizes. Summer = summer reading program to me.
  • Hand-me-downs—they’re simply the best.
  • Trash-picking—if it’s something you need or really want, and it’s not just clutter, why not?
  • Credit card rewards—we are happy to collect some free hotel stays and occasionally flights through our normal spending and the business travel expenses we have to charge.

But regarding the birthday treats, I’m saying no. If I want to splurge on a special coffee that day, fine. Four dollars is not going to change my life. And I’ll pass on the kids’ birthday clubs, too. The $3 Toys R Us coupon is, we all know, just a seduction to spend much more than that. Though, quite preciously, my 3-year-old chose to use hers on a $5 water bottle. Gotta love a practical kid!

Add to the list “free” items offered by overpriced stores, “free” items that are more than 5 miles from my home, buy-one-get-one “free” items when the first is overpriced or just unnecessary, “free” store credit coupons when they create a cycle of needless spending, “free” shipping when you spend an astronomical sum that negates all the “good” prices you’ve found, and “free” giveaways that require you to sell your personal information and convince all your Facebook friends to do the same.

Why am I such a Scrooge? Who doesn’t want free stuff?

I want my time more than I want to sit in a drive-thru line or fill out online surveys because I feel obligated by “free.”

I want my brain power more than I want to remember to sign up, carry around, use before expiry, and unsubscribe from ceaseless marketing, all in the name of free.

I want my money more than I want to buy each kid a treat when anyone in the family has a free birthday treat.

I want peace more than I want to deal with telling them no, you can’t have a treat, when someone else gets one. Maybe this will get easier once everyone is out of preschool, but it’s just not worth it at this juncture.

I want freedom more than I want to be tied to driving around to get all this free stuff.

But even more importantly, I want to choose a contentment that doesn’t rely on a special freebies to keep me happy. I want to stay free from the cycle of treating myself, or my kids, on a regular basis. I want our daily lives to be rewarding enough that we enjoy what we already have instead of always needing something more.

And sometimes we make better choices about consumption when money has to change hands. Most of the free items on offer aren’t exactly the most healthy or high-quality items. Chances are you’ll be trying to lose that unnecessary weight from your body or your home before long.

The other glaring problem with “free” is that it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Let’s be crystal clear here: stores are not handing out free items because they’re expecting to lose money on it. So often, that freebie comes with a coupon for a percent of your next purchase. Or a catalog full of wonderful “sale” items. Not to mention the freebies are of course funded by other consumers–including you whenever yours isn’t free.

And if that special treat doesn’t leave you hankering for another one next week, you’re an unusual person. We all know it’s a marketing ploy to get you hooked, and maybe even feeling goodwill toward this benevolent company that graced you with a freebie. Next week’s treat feels justified—even feels like it’s half-price. After all, last time it was free. And if you just buy five more, the next one is free!

Next time you get a BOGO coupon for something you weren’t going to buy in the first place, tear it up. Break the cycle of addiction to free. Enjoy “free” selectively, when it doesn’t infringe on your time, thoughts, spending, and habits.

Have you ever found yourself caught up in the “freebie” cycle? Which freebies are worthwhile to you? 

12 Responses to “Are You Addicted to Free?”

  1. Stephanie Manley says :

    Well said. I hate to tell you how much I have spent in searching for gifts with purchase. I am a sucker for when fancy cosmetics companies give out gifts when you purchase so much. I assure you have time and time again spent far more than I should have.

    It takes up a lot of brain power to keep up with all of the free stuff. Your post certainly gives me food for thought.

  2. Julie C says :

    Living in a small town helps me to limit the number of “free” items I actually get. There are only so many places available and driving 30 or more miles to get a free scoop of ice cream doesn’t make much sense. Most of the ones we participate in are local businesses that we patronize already, so I do like getting a freebie. For example, my 10th smoothie or coffee drink is free at our local coffee hut plus they use coffee from a local roastery which is about the only place we buy our coffee from (and they give us $1 off when we re-use the bag). But something like, if McDonalds is offering a free drink if I buy a Big Mac, I’ll pass on that.

  3. Tonya says :

    I have a thought that goes through my head whenever someone does a company email broadcast saying something like, “cake in the kitchen!” You practically hear a stampede to get to that first slice. The saying is, “just because it’s free does not mean it’s good.” Similar to what you are talking about, there are more “costs” associated with it than you think. Let’s see, a sugar crash, unnecessary calories, perhaps medical costs down the road? Is it really free then? hmmm

  4. Sarah De Diego says :

    Dear PTBP,

    Last week, McDonalds had a one day deal (I’m a newsletter subscriber), “get a free small fries with a minimum 50 cent purchase”. It turned out to be on my shopping day so I was going to be in town anyways. Who doesn’t like “free”!?

    For the record, nothing at McDonalds costs 50 cents. The cheapest item (I’m in Canada) is a vanilla cone/small coffee for ~$1.29. Since I don’t drink coffee and have two young kids, that would have required me to spend $2.50 for a free fries which I didn’t want. Yes, I could have only bought one ice cream cone (and I have in the past) but I was feeling generous. And, it almost worked! McDonalds almost separated me from my hard earned money.

    However, as luck would have it (yes, luck, read on), the app had a bug in it and I wasn’t able to login. I contacted Customer Service and after a few back and forths and the day coming and going, I missed out on my free small fries.

    I followed up with corporate via Twitter and as a kind gesture, to compensate me for my loss, they are sending me two coupons for medium fries. At the end of the day, I will have “saved” ~$6.50 (my original $2.50 and $4.00 for fries, we go to McDonalds a few times a year when we’re travelling).

    To make a long story short, I totally get what you’re saying and agree. If I really wanted the fries, I would have just bought them and shared with my kids and saved $1.20.

    Effective immediately, I am no longer a newsletter subscriber. Other people can get all the “great deals”.


  5. Amanda says :

    I used to get caught up in “free”. And I actually think I spent more money in the process – through gas and spending while at the store getting my “free” item. No more. I’ve since taken the approach of less as better. Less shopping, less errands, less stuff, less spending, less stress…

  6. Gary from Super Saving Tips says :

    I tend to be fairly addicted to free. In fact, today is my birthday and I’ve already had my free breakfast at IHOP. This evening I’m going to a free movie (tickets won in a contest) where my wife and I will each get a free popcorn (her birthday was last week). The sodas, however, will cost a small fortune.

    Some freebies are worth it to me (including the library and credit card rewards), while others as you said take up too much money, time, mental thought, driving, or whatever. Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. I’ve wanted some freebies where my wife has talked me out of it. Things that I don’t really need that will only add to the clutter in my home. Next time I have a freebie offer staring me in the face, I’m going to think about this post and carefully consider if it’s really worth it.

  7. kddomingue says :

    Ah. Free stuff. Only it isn’t. Well, it is stuff but it’s not really free because it comes with strings attached. Consider free samples of food in the grocery store. Is the store providing these free samples because they’re kind and considerate and they want you to have a nice little snack while you’re shopping? Lol! Of course not! They want you to buy this thing that you didn’t even know you wanted until you put that “free” sample in your mouth! It’s all a sales tactic to get you into a store and part you from the money in your wallet. Don’t get me wrong, I love sampling items that are new to me in the grocery store. I hate spending money on something that I’m not sure we’re going to like and samples let me try before I buy. But, for the most part, I avoid “free” stuff. Once in a while I’ll use a coupon like the one Penney’s puts out, $10 off a $10 or more purchase. Used one this weekend to get my husband 8 pairs of sock….$13 minus $10 is $3 for 8 pairs of socks. He needed socks otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered.

    I have a cousin who has been totally addicted to all of the freebies that you mentioned for as long as I can remember. She still is to this day. She spends an inordinate amount of time in stores and an inordinate amount of money on stuff that she doesn’t need and it’s cluttering up her house, spilling out of her closets and stealing her time. Whenever I ever need to be reminded that all of that “free” stuff isn’t really free, I just walk over to my cousin’s for a visit.

  8. Oldster says :

    Couldn’t agree more. There is nothing that is truly “Free”. Marketers are generally smarter than the rest of us and they know that once they have is inside the store/catalog/restaurant, we almost certainly spend more than we intended. Best just not to enter into the zone of temptation. If I had half of the money back that I “saved” buying things on sale, I’d be writing this comment from the French Riviera!

  9. Linda Sand says :

    The Minnesota State Fair is coming up soon. There will be all kinds of drawings for free prizes. I mostly won’t sign up. Which amazes the vendors. I tell them, “I don’t want to win something on which I wouldn’t want to pay the taxes.” That seems to make more sense to them than saying, “I don’t want to be on your mailing list.”

  10. Josh says :

    My wife and I only signup for free offers that we actually visit. Otherwise, we end up spending more money than we want to. We still do even with places we do visit.

    My birthday was in July and signed up for the Moe’s Southwest Grill birthday club for the first time since I just upgraded to a smartphone this year too.

    Unfortunately I think you have to download their app to get the coupon now and we never got it. We still went anyways even if we did have to pay the extra few dollars.

  11. Hannah says :

    Free things that I love: Diet Coke from Rob’s school (after they have an event he always snags one for me), Student events (since so many grad students have kids, they have a bouncy house at most grad student events), babysitting during church events

    I usually pay for hand-me-down clothes and items, and we’ve not gone to the library much lately.

    I hate that Kenny has a knack for finding free food and toys, but I’ll indulge him if he’s brave enough to talk to the adult to go get them. Shirley thinks everything is free, so I have to keep her from becoming a thief.

  12. Pamela says :

    Well I really am unemployed, no income and nothing but a small inheritance in terms of money, (inherited paid-for house and all) but living here in the “wealthy middle-class” suburbs I grew up in, there’s not much actually free around here…I got a free bus pass due to having no income and am relying on the distance I can get on the buses in a reasonable amount of time, and at the moment it’s just for free food at food pantries and free donated things I need. I limit myself to what I can carry on the buses in my backpack, obviously. I have my schedule every week revolving around the free food pantries in the area, the ones I can reasonably get to on the buses. It feels like an “addiction” when really it’s just a necessity of EATING with no income whatsoever, you know.

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