“Free” Comes at a Price

Last month I attended an informative and enjoyable business women’s conference, and when I checked in at the registration desk, I was immediately handed a big bag full of stuff. My initial reaction was, “ooooo – free stuff!” Upon second glace, I realized that I had received yet another pile of generally cheap, mostly useless junk that would only clutter up my home and office, fill my trash can, and linger in my local landfill.

As I sorted through the pile, I was reminded of the allure of “free stuff” that isn’t really free at all. It seems that every event these days comes with a take-away – tote bags, pens, pads, mugs, etc., etc., etc. You simply can’t walk away from a sports tournament or a road race without another t-shirt or water bottle in hand. Jumbo plastic cups come with every drink in every stadium, fast-food restaurant, and movie theater. Even Broadway theaters in New York have succumbed – drinks in the theater now come in grown-up style “sippy cups” – enabling them to charge even more inflated prices and leaving patrons with a “souvenir” to stuff first into their suitcases and then into their kitchen cabinets at home. Conferences come with bags of all shapes and sizes, and absolutely everything is covered with someone’s logo! While I understand the marketing value of some of these items for businesses, most of this stuff just ends up stuffed in our office desk drawers, piled on top of the desk, shoved into the back of our closets or tumbling down on our heads every time we open our kitchen cabinets. So often, while sorting through items in many of my clients’ offices, we come across many of these giveaways. Folks bring them back home, throw them in a desk, closet, cabinet, or drawer, and forget about them. Slowly they pile up and become part of the sea of clutter that infects our living and working spaces and fills our landfills. We struggle with the guilt of throwing stuff away, but who really needs and uses 18 water bottles and 27 tote bags with corporate logos on them?

The frustrating part of all of this “free” stuff is that most of it is not really free. One of my husband’s favorite expressions is, “it’s not free, it’s included!” It came about many years ago when my husband and oldest daughter were on one of those seemingly endless college tours we took with both of our children during their college searches. The earnest, energetic, and almost painfully enthusiastic young man leading the tour was extolling all of the wonderful activities that a student could take advantage of at this particular college by just showing a college ID card. After each glowing description of the various activities, he would exclaim, “and it’s all FREE!” My husband had finally had enough after the umpteenth declaration of all of these “complimentary” wonders, and grumbled, “it’s not free, it’s included – for the bargain price of about $50,000 a year!”, much to the delighted agreement of the other parents on the tour (and the mortification of our daughter.) I am reminded of this every time I attend an event, or come across piles of this “free” stuff in my clients’ offices and homes. It’s not free, it’s included. Included in those conference and event fees and in the marked-up prices on store shelves. Included in the price of those “happy meals” and theater drinks. Included in every “buy one, get one free” sale.

So, where does it stop? Do we just keep accumulating stuff until first our spaces, and then our landfills are overflowing? Why not just say NO? Just because something is there for the taking doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to take it, whether or not we want it or need it. When you’re handed a water bottle at the next road race, or a t-shirt at the next tournament, or a bag full of stuff at the next conference, hand it back and say, “no, thank you.” At the end of the meal, leave that cheesy giant plastic cup in the restaurant trash (or take it home and put it in your own recycling bin – just not in your kitchen cabinet!) And on those ubiquitous evaluation forms and surveys after every single event, let the coordinators know that you would much prefer a lower fee as opposed to accumulating more stuff for the landfill. Maybe if they end up with boxes and boxes full of left-over giveaways, they might get the hint and think twice next time!

The hidden cost of “free” is embedded into so much these days that sometimes it’s hard to recognize and even harder to turn down. But keep in mind that “free” almost always comes at a price. Before you succumb to the allure of free stuff, consider not only the financial cost, but also the price you will pay in giving up both your space and the peace of mind that comes with having less stuff to manage and keep organized.

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