Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why is “Free” So Irresistible?

For some reason we overvalue things that are free. My wife jokes that she chose her university program based on the fact that they gave each new student a free T-shirt. We seem to be willing to do quite a lot to get something for free.

Anticipating a free bag or other trinket at the end of the year keeps me doing volunteer work. A bottle of liquor with an attached sample-sized bottle of some other drink seems much more appealing than some other bottle without a “free” sample even though the first bottle is more expensive.

I recently made a poor choice because I couldn’t turn down a free lunch. The owner of the building I work in offered tenants a free lunch. This lunch consisted of hot dogs, warmed up pre-cooked hamburgers, coleslaw, and fries. I was nauseous the rest of the day and even had trouble sleeping that night. The worst part of it was that I knew this would happen and I ate it anyway.

I’m interested in hearing of other stories of free things that would have been better to have turned down. Even better would be to show me how to avoid the next stomach-churning free lunch.


  1. That's a funny story. We saved a bunch of bread UPCs to get a free panini press which we've used once. That we paid $15 for shipping makes it even worse.

    Recently I turned down a free doughnut, even though I was tempted. I just reasoned that I would not pay the very modest price for a doughnut, so why would I take a free one? Although the doughnut was free, it would have a slight health cost to my health.

  2. A friend of mine told me that when he was in University, they needed volunteers for 20 min survey and offered people $20 for their time. No one showed up for the survey so the following week they put up posters for a free case of beer to whoever fills out a survey and they had hundreds of people lining up. A case of beer costed $14 back then. And they say university students are the best and brightest? Indeed...

  3. @Gene: Don't say "panini press" too loudly. We have every other possible kitchen gadget.

    @Addicted: That's a great story that illustrates our fascination with "free".

  4. @Preet: If you mean a magic bullet to resisting free stuff, then the answer is no. I was hoping that a commenter might have a good idea.

  5. @CC: OK, that one from Preet went right over my head. I'm hoping that my family are now immune to pitches for things like this.

  6. I'll admit that I signed up for many stupid things back in university just to get free stuff, like credit cards ... of course I didn't know back then that credit checks have some impact on your credit rating. On the flip side though, I find that whenever I've tried to give stuff away for free it never works as well as charging a small amount for it. Great example was a garage sale we had. We had a set of four tires off to the side with a free sign on them all day. After many hours of no bites, we changed the sign to say $20 and they were gone within 30 minutes. I guess people must assume it's junk if you're giving it away free.

  7. @Chris B: Good counterexample! I've experienced this as well at garage sales. It's better to charge a dollar than to offer an item for free.

  8. If you ever have an invitation to "free luncheon seminar" on investing or estate planning..............I would like to assure you that the investment "advisor" is a commission salesperson in a clever industry disguise.........and the "estate planner" is the clever hidden name for someone pushing life insurance sales.
    If you follow the money, you will find that nearly every advisor in Canada is a salesperson in disguise.
    see the movie at

  9. @Larry: Your warning reminds me of an investing seminar I attended a long time ago. I remember being confused at the time when the instructor insisted that I was wrong about avoiding advice from people who have a financial bias such as those who have something to gain if you follow their advice. In retrospect, I understand now that the instructor was just a mutual fund salesperson using the apparent legitimacy of a seminar to gather in clients.