It’s a powerful word. Magical, really.
Out of all the four letter words, this one really stops people in their tracks. People clamor into stores en masse, wading through a sea of people only to endure time-halting lines.
And free is good. In a world that often has complete disregard for their bottom line, opportunities to save should be savored.
But free can also be too good. In recent weeks, I’ve found myself flexing a new kind of willpower: saying no to free even if it would mean less money spent or more money made.
Free is the Enemy of Decluttering
Free books. That was the subject of the email. As a teacher and bibliophile, there was no way I wasn’t going to open it. I quickly discovered that a colleague had unearthed a stash of books and was giving them away.
Suddenly, I was a cartoon character. My feet and legs were already in motion, waiting for my torso, arms, and head to catch up. Normally, I would have been out of my seat in a single unified bound. Instead, my eyes stayed locked to the email no matter how hard my feet willed me to go, go, go, before someone else gets all the good ones!
Perfect for your classroom library, it said.
My classroom library. In the hierarchy of classroom libraries, free is supreme. Used library copies sold for pennies on the dollar is next. Then, discounted retailers like Scholastic and Half Price books. Then, full price titles. As someone who has poured thousands of dollars into a library over the past decade, free feels fantastic. Sort of.
In truth, I have spent weeks organizing the books in my classroom. Sorting by genre, repairing torn covers, gluing broken spines. I have also purged dozens of titles, offering them to other teachers and even students. It has been a labor of love, and my shelves are nearly perfect. They are also at capacity.
No, I told myself. No.
It would be more work. It would be more stuff. It would take me away from tending to other responsibilities at the start of the school year.
An equally enticing offer came in the form of a text message over the summer.
Hey, I have some nice things. Want them?
Then, there were photos. Candlesticks, figurines, vases (vAHses – they were that fancy). My gut reaction was to say yes to all.
Silver candlesticks. How elegant. How posh. Wouldn’t they be lovely? We don’t have anything like that in our home.
That’s when I realized we don’t have anything like them in our home by design. It isn’t due to a shortage of money but rather a shortage of space. Nice things are still things. By saying yes, I would undo all of my decluttering progress. Never mind the fact that I am very much anti-end-table and have no idea where we would put them.
RELATED POST: How I Know I’m Not Done Decluttering
Free is the Enemy of Time
The hardest pass, though, has to do with items that are not only free but could also be profitable.
The other day, my family and I were headed to a park. That’s when I saw it. A little doll set was perched in the exact spot that a driveway and curb meet. In suburbia, that means one thing and one thing only. FREE!
And if it isn’t claimed, it turns into trash on garbage day.
I could claim it. I should claim it, I thought. Before I could help myself, I started running the numbers. It would take us 15 minutes to walk home, 10 if we really got a move on. Then, we could get my husband’s car and load it up. Except, I would have to send him and stay home with the baby. But wait, what if my husband couldn’t lift it himself? What if my husband wouldn’t lift it himself?
We could all go. But then, we would have to try to fit it in the front seat. Or maybe it would work in the truck even though we couldn’t fold down the backseat because that’s where the car seat it. Maybe we could bring some tools and take it apart.
Sure, that would take some time, but it was in good condition. It was adorable, actually. It was a crib and changing table, complete with a little mobile, but miniaturized. Perfect for a kiddo who is wanting to play Make Believe with dolls. I could easily list it for $20, maybe even $30 on OfferUp. Surely, I could fetch $10 for it.
“Do you want this? Let’s turn around now if you do.” My husband saw the garbage-pick glimmer in my eyes.
I looked back at my husband. I looked at my son.
There was no way that we would have time to come back to the park before dinner. It was either go to the park or scoop up the trash find.
Suddenly, I realized what I was actually choosing between: a very real opportunity to play at the park with my son on one of the last days of summer or a hypothetical $10 that could potentially be earned after at least a half hour of work, likely more. Never mind the fact that it was also entirely possible someone else could scoop up the item up as we headed home and back again.
I picked the park.
Final Thoughts on Saying No to Free
I’m not saying I will always turn down free things. I don’t have that much willpower.
But I will say that I am starting to have a much better sense of the ultimate purpose of tracking my spending, managing my finances, and following a mostly frugal lifestyle. I am not interesting in pinching pennies for the sake of pinching, just like I am not interested in acquiring free things simply because they are free.
Instead, I want my financial choices to help me optimize my time, not squander it. If I bring things into my life, they should serve a purpose.
Maybe, just maybe, I’m finally getting the hang of seeing the financial forest, instead of all the trees $10 extra mortgage payments.
RELATED POST: The High Price of Free
So Tell Me…Have you ever passed on anything that was free?
Free is a really interesting idea in minimalism. Free stuff has been a category of stuff that I’ve dealt with on a case by case basis during my shopping ban. Sometimes, it’s super handy to have the option if free stuff (my mother is the queen of free samples and she normally gives them to me when they don’t work for her). But the flip side is I have a million tiny sample packets around my house. The clutter vs the utility factor is one that very much depends on the situation and whether I’ll actually use the thing that is free.
I often catch myself wanting the free thing because it’s free, not because I could actually use the thing. That’s the mindset I’m working to change with the ban so in those instances, it’s a hard pass from me.
Ugh, the dreaded mini sample. I mean they sound great in theory, but I have baskets of perfectly good perfume, hair care, self-tanner samples that I feel bad about getting rid of. But you know what? I don’t wear perfume, my hair is super fine and straight, and self-tanner always looks orange on me. Who am I saving these for?!
So true, Heather! I was so pleasantly surprised to see that people on Freecycle get excited about samples. I rounded up a bunch of baby samples that came from registries and all sorts of different things, and I think I had 7 different people ask for them! Who knew?!
That is exactly my mindset. If saving money is good, free must be better. WRONG, PENNY. Wrong.
Sarah @ Couple of Sense
Agree. I have been making an effort to use all of my free samples to delay some purchases but I’m now very mindful of what I bring into the house. I was also super happy to give them away to make room before the baby arrived.
It always amazes me the lengths some people will go for “free” food giveaways. Some people definitely need that “free” Doritos Locos Taco or “free” stack of pancakes, but when everyone else also goes to stand in the same horrendous line to save $2 (at the expense of 45-minutes standing in line), I know that I’m better suited coming back another day and not contributing to the insanity of those lines.
Kudos for finding something even more precious than a $10 dollhouse, because a summer evening in a park sounds lovely!
Oh my goodness, Josh. This exactly! Build-A-Bear did an event a few weeks(?) ago. It wasn’t free, but you only paid your kid’s age. I have a Facebook “friend” who stood in line WITH HER KIDS for 14 hours.
If Dante wanted to add a circle of hell, I found it!
Free is why I hate receiving presents! I feel like I have to keep whatever present someone gave me forever, even if it doesn’t fit into my life because they spent money on it. We got some furniture from a relative of mine and now my husband is concerned we have to keep it forever even though it isn’t our style. It’s more functional than what we had before and was lovely to not cost us anything, but we don’t want to keep it forever.
The older I get, the less bad I feel about passing gifts along. I always send snail mail thank you cards, and I really try to delight in the sentiment. But then if it isn’t for me, it isn’t for me.
We are currently experiencing a new wave of this with baby things. So another “trick” of mine is to take what he’s given and exchange it for the exact outfit but in a bigger size. That way, I can still send people photos of him in “their” outfit, but then he doesn’t end up with 914897456123 things that he will only wear for two more weeks.
All that to say..gifts are tricky!
Nothing is really free. There is a cost to ownership, whether it’s paying actual money for repairs and upkeep, or your time cost (as you discovered on the way to the park). Just like any other thing that we bring into our lives, we need to ask, “Will this bring value to my life?” before taking on free stuff. Great post!
Thanks, Jennifer! Yes. That’s where I am. I want what is in my home to serve a purpose.
Now to get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t 😉
Gary @ Super Saving Tips
Good for you for having the willpower to turn down free. I know it’s difficult. When I see “free”, my eyes light up. And sometimes that’s a good thing, but plenty of other times my wife has to talk me out of something that would only take up space.
Yes! And when it’s not secondhand, I always think about the packaging waste and other things like that. It is a hard thing to resist, though!
Mrs. Picky Pincher
Ohhhh yes. This gets me every damn time. I’m awful at turning down free stuff; I have a natural packrat “I might need this later” mentality. But you’re right that it’s just extra crap crowding up the house. Now I use the Frugalwoods three-day rule before accepting free stuff. It gives me time to calm down and logically reason through whether I really need a bag of free clothes.
Eeeek! That three-day rule would be tough for curb finds! I think I am also starting to realize how so much of what is given to me can be passed on. Sure, I might like all 50 of the cute onesies that someone gives HP. But can he wear them all? No. So now, I keep some and share some 🙂
The other thing is free Tshirts at volunteer events and the like. I really don’t want them, but I understand the organizations needs for branding and a uniform look. This summer though, I’ve gained 5 Tshirts that I will never wear.
… I’ll always take free food though 😛
I was so awkward at FinCon last year. Everyone was like, “Bring a suitcase for swag”. And I just stood there politely declining almost everything.
(I also make tomato ties out of t-shirts from different fundraisers my students do. Shhhh!)
This is my issue with my mum! Everytime we see each other she either brings over a bunch of stuff or sends us home with a bunch of stuff. I guess it’s her love language 🙂 Some /a lot of it is useful but not all…
I have gotten so much better about being very gracious and grateful when I receive gifts…and then I pass them along. Thankfully, my mom is really good about just loading us up with things we can eat. The plastic grocery bags that she loves to package things in are another story though 😉
Erin | Reaching for FI
Oh I have such a problem with free! I’ll accept most things if they’re free BECAUSE they’re free, not because I need or want them. Which makes my ongoing decluttering efforts even harder. My weakness is definitely books, but honestly I’ve got a list years long of things I want to read, and I’d rather get through that than put a random, free book on my shelf and assume I’ll possibly be interested in it later (if later ever happens). I’m trying to be much better about getting rid of the free books I’ve already acquired and not picking up others.
I am trying SO hard to be better with books. One day, I will finish the post I started almost when I first started my blog. I do not have even a single bookshelf in my home by design. Because I know if I had one, I would seriously have at least four in every room. My classroom is wall to wall books on 1.5 sides (darn chalkboard is in the way!). I figure that’s enough 😉
Boy this hit home for me. I have also arrived at the realizations you mention, but FREE is a hard habit to break. I am trying mightily to quit curb shopping. Rummage sale season is coming up though…gotta stay the course!
Free is a habit, isn’t it? I find it especially difficult when some of the blogs that I read talk about money that they make “flipping” curb items. I just have to keep reminding myself that is awesome for them, but I don’t think it’s something I want to wade into right now. Wishing you strength from rummage sale season. Ha!
Free steals your time! So true, Penny. I’m glad you have that memory at the park with your family, instead.