Closeup of freshly baked homemade pizza

The Real Cost of ‘Free’ Stuff

Freebies often come with hidden costs.

Closeup of freshly baked homemade pizza

Is that free pizza really free?

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The word “free” generally elicits either unabashed excitement or wary suspicion. While it’s fun to get excited about “freebies,” a healthy dose of skepticism might not be such a bad idea.

While free means no exchange of cash, it still typically requires an exchange of something. The simple fact is, if you are giving something up, it isn’t free. Here are just a few of the hidden costs typically involved in claiming your favorite freebies:

Space: Nothing teaches you the precious value of real estate like a small apartment. Just think of how much you pay for a storage unit. Every square foot of your space is worth something and when you bring new items into that space, you need to evaluate if trading that space for storage or display is worth it, even if the item itself is free.

Most promotional items and free swag is junk and clutter anyway. Don’t put your blinders on to assessing utility and value just because you didn’t have to pay for the item. You’re still going to need to store it.

Time: Free items often have a high time cost. Your friend might be giving away free furniture, but you still have to take the time to go pick it up. The bakery might be giving away free cookies, but how long will it take you to get there and back or wait in line? Could you get more out of spending that time working, working out, cooking dinner or simply relaxing at home with your family or a good book? 

Money: Even free items carry monetary costs. Transportation is the most common. If you have to go out of your way to pick up your freebie, there’s not only a time cost involved but a gas or public transit cost too. If the item is particularly large, it may require some additional moving costs like a truck or soliciting the help of a mover.

Some items can even affect your monthly budget. It’s great to score a free Kindle or smartphone as a gift or from a friend who’s upgrading, but if you need to make purchases or increase your spending to actually use that item (like a data plan or e-book purchases), then you need to evaluate if that kind of added expense is realistic for your budget. 

In some cases, free trials and subscriptions also wind up costing you money. Most require credit cards to activate so they can charge you on the next billing cycle. Even vigilant consumers can forget to cancel, and when they try to, they have to spend time interacting with customer service.

Effort: “Stuff,” whether it’s free or not, generally requires maintenance, cleaning, upkeep and repairs. There’s also effort involving in donating or selling the item if and when the novelty wears off.      

Personal Information: Giving away your email or mailing address might not seem like much to pay until you start sifting through piles of spam on a daily basis. Is that free 4 ounce sample of lotion really worth it? 

Health: Consumable freebies are great because they don’t take up any space. You get a free granola bar, you eat it, and it’s gone. Unfortunately, most food freebies come in the form of unhealthy treats and fast food. How many times have you been enticed into something by free pizza or beer?

Treat freebies like anything else you’d spend money on. The fact is, you’re going to be trading something for it. If it’s not money, then perhaps it’s your time, your space or your health. Make a fair and honest assessment before deciding whether or not “free” is really worth it.