Free Stuff is Still Stuff

If you read my post about my cosmetic obsession, you won’t find it hard to believe that I used to love free make-up specials. “Spend $29.95 and receive a lipstick that is not your color, a mascara in case you lose the other two, perfume you will never wear, and a shiny bag to carry your new stuff that you will never use.” I bought so many things that I didn’t want, so I could get free things that I didn’t need. And I thought I was getting a deal.

Just because something is free, doesn’t mean it won’t cost you. Time and attention are some of your most valuable resources. Even if something isn’t costing you money, you are gonna pay.

You’ve heard the saying, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” and it’s true. Free stuff steals all of the things you have been trying to protect with a simpler lifestyle. Sometimes, free stuff seems appealing, especially if you are trying to save money, but if you didn’t need it in the first place, free stuff is still stuff.

3 free things we pay for:

1. Clutter

Let’s be honest. You don’t treat free stuff the same way you treat things you buy. If you have a junk drawer, look in it. I bet there is some free stuff at the back of the drawer.  Where does your free stuff come from and why are you holding onto it? Maybe you attended a trade show and got free stuff. Perhaps you got a goodie bag at a party, or worse, you brought home something from an office party gift swap.

All of that stuff you got for free is distracting you from the stuff you love. Not to mention, you have to dust it, display it, hide it or store it. All of those things require effort on your part. You do have a choice. You can stop taking home the free stuff. Now, about that junk drawer…

2. Rewards Programs

I just started my Christmas shopping this week and noticed that everyone wants me on their rewards program so they can email me special offers all year long. I wanted to respond this way:

I do not want more email.

I do not want special offers.

I do not want what you are selling.

Not even if it’s free.

When someone asks you for your email address, I recommend the response I actually went with, “No Thank You.”

3. Ebooks and Other Digital Products

Read the whole paragraph before you get upset that I am bashing e-books. I love e-books. I am writing e-books. I recommend e-books. I pay for e-books when they apply to my life. I even download free e-books, when I think they will be useful.

I am a vegetarian, so why would I download an e-book about beef stew? Because it’s free? Uh, no. Not even if it’s free. Especially because it’s free. Because it’s not. I would spend time downloading the free e-book. Then I would spend time reading it. Next thing you know, I am giving attention to beef stew, and I don’t eat meat. What a waste of time and energy. That free e-book really cost me.

I know that a vegetarian downloading a book about beef stew is an outrageous example, but think about what you are downloading. If you aren’t going sky diving, do you need a book about the best parachutes. If you’ve cleared the clutter, do you need an e-book about decluttering? Put value on your time and attention, and you will choose more wisely.

In addition to e-books, pay attention to online forums, clubs, seminars and other digital products. Spend your money, time and attention on things you truly care about, on things that really speak to your life.


Pretending that free stuff isn’t clutter and doesn’t cost you, is like believing that cookies don’t have calories during the holidays. So please, leave the free pens, coffee mugs and lipstick. Walk away from the buy one, get one deals, so you don’t end up with two of something you don’t want. We are talking about your time, your space, your attention–your life. When you invest your heart and soul, there is no point in gambling. Even when it’s free.

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  1. says

    Often, we confuse free with value.

    As you note, just because something is free doesn’t mean it has any value to our lives.

    When I am buying/receiving anything, I try to ask myself:
    -Do I need this so much that I would I pay double for this (whether free or with a price tag)?
    -How long until I exceed the value of this item?
    -Would my life be better without this thing?

    Hopefully my suggestions help a reader or two.

    Have a great day everyone…

    David Damron

  2. JLouise says

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m constantly turning down free stuff and people think I’m crazy. A friend always admonishes me for declining free stuff….”You can give it as a gift!” she says. There wouldn’t be much thought behind that gift I’m thinking. I don’t want junk in my life, and free junk is still junk.

    As for giving out e-mail, I just always say “It’s unlisted” (just like my phone).

  3. says

    Aw, man, Courtney! Why did you have to break my bubble? Cookies DO have calories in December? Darn it! 8-D
    This is SO true! And what is so funny, I have been decluttering, and if my hubby gets hold of the boxes before they go out the door, he’ll pull out stuff to try to give to our oldest daughter. She has 6 kids and her own house full of stuff! There are some things of use and value to her that I will set aside, but for the most part I avoid trying to give her “free” stuff from Mom because then she will feel like she has to keep it, lol! I don’t want to declutter my house at her expense! I just try not to let hubby see the boxes!

  4. says

    Amen to that.
    We have loads of street marketers here handing out samples of shampoos, lip balms and food. I’ve started to purposely avoid the corners they are hawking on or really emphasizing my no thank you.

  5. says

    You know you have turned the corner when you see an advert by a very high profile cosmetics company that offers a free travel bag with your purchase and all you can think is “Why on earth would I want that?”

  6. says

    Great post! You’ve made some really good points. I agree with you that free stuff doesn’t necessarily mean free because it takes up your time, energy and space. I used to be crazy about freebies and would get stuff that was free just because, not anymore. Now I only get freebies that I think are useful or something that I need or will definitely use. You should only get free things if it’s something that you would use even if it wasn’t free or to give away to shelters or someone else who can use it.

    • says

      Thanks Amanda. I agree. It’s great to think about donating free (or paid) items to shelters. In fact, I love the idea of buying extra products when you do your shopping and dropping them off somewhere on the way home.

  7. Holly says

    I have been thinking about this subject a lot lately… Not just free stuff, but “good deals.” For a while I was so consumed with “saving” money that I would clip coupons and buy things we didn’t want or need just because I was getting a great deal. I could look at my receipt and see that I had saved 78%, but most of the things were items that I would never have paid full price for. Now I am focused on buying only the things we actually use and skipping all those “good deals.” It is better to save 100% on things that we don’t need.

    • says

      Holly, Back “in the day” (a few years ago). I used to have a credit card at Macy’s Dept. Store. I shopped there like crazy because of the “good deals” card holders got. What a silly vicious circle. Now I laugh when someone says, “Do you want to qualify for our credit card? You can get 10% off your purchase!” – Oh please!

  8. says

    Very timely, Courtney.

    You know where I see ‘free stuff’ out of control? With kid-related activities. So many times, our kids are bringing home this and that from school or birthday parties or another activity. I’m not trying to sound like a party-pooper, but why oh why do people feel the need to load so much stuff (read: crap) on the kids? Plastic stuff, paper stuff… They play with it once and then it’s forgotten.

    I think all that perpetuates this mindset that stuff equals happiness; that stuff equals care and compassion. Layer on top of that the environmental impact of all the upfront manufacturing and distribution of this stuff and then the post-use life in a landfill — and it’s a lose-lose all around.

    We can do better. We have to do better. Thanks for calling it out. Be well!

    • says

      Good point Bill. My daughter is 15 so we have moved out of that stage but I remember. I think parents want to make sure all the kids get a present, but when you are buying for 10 or more the present is bound to be a throw away. Maybe you should write about how to have a gift free birthday party and keep all the kids smiling!

  9. Shellie Anne says

    I just found an entire collection of National Geographic – the entire series from 1888 onward on CD for PC in my husband’s luggage from his trip to Seattle. Probably sold at Costco 5 or 10 years ago…now it is in MY house.

    I am sure the library would appreciate this, which is where is will go either on the sly or after a discussion that we don’t need more stuff to sit and collect dust.

    Nothing is free. For me is steals energy as I have to figure out what to do and store it which will never be used. UG

    • DGF says

      >now it is in MY house
      >which is where is will go either on the sly

      Good for you. If you let this kind of thing continue, he might start to think that it’s HIS house too, and God only knows where that could lead.

      Try this on for size: “I found an entire pouch of makeup in my wife’s purse — blush, eyeliner, foundation — after her last trip to the mall. Now it’s in MY house. I am sure that the local women’s shelter would appreciate this, which is where it will go on the sly.”


      • Debora18 says

        I do understand what you are saying but I think Shellie Anne’s premise was that her husband really didn’t want the National Geographics but had just brought them home because they were there and he would never look for them again. Obviously (I hope) we do not get rid of things our S.O. finds valuable and lovely. In fact, when I am motivated to get rid of his “junk” I always try to get rid of a bunch of my “junk” first. It is however a challenge to deal with partners that bring a lot of stuff home and then leave it around for their partner to store, find a place for, etc. anyone have help for that problem? (live with a much-loved packrat)

  10. says

    Amen to that. I was attending our company Christmas luncheon on Monday, and they had a sign in sheet at the entrance. On top of the sheet it said “Sign in to get a free deck of cards.” I knew the cards would be clutter and I didn’t want them, so I asked if I still had to sign in. I think that caught the sign in guy off guard, and he was like, “yeah, I guess so.” I’m probably the only person there that didn’t take the “free” clutter maker deck of cards.

  11. says

    Hey Courtney – I always feel so happy when I read the sentiments of true kindred spirits! I SO often find myself telling friends and family members that it’s not a “deal” and they’re not “saving money” if they are purchasing something they didn’t plan to buy in the first place. I’m with you; the deal-makers can keep their free stuff and keep right on down-sizing MY stuff and my debt in the process!

  12. says

    Sometimes free feels special because of the hype that comes with it: “It’s free, wow!”

    I remember a radio station were giving away free showbags at a shopping centre and I got given one. What was inside? A cuppa noodles, some stickers, other promo stuff and yeah, nothing else. No value and it’s not even necessary. It’s just junk!

  13. says

    So true Courtney. We don’t value our time. I’m finding that after only a few months on the internet I’m realizing that everyone’s offering something for free (even me) and if it doesn’t resonate, I better not download it. It just ends up in a file of unread stuff – and like you say, free stuff is still stuff (for that matter, discounted stuff is still just stuff and not a great deal if you don’t need it). Great post. You always give me something deep to ponder. Thanks for that.

    • says

      Thanks Katie, There is such a wealth of resources available online but I found that as soon as tried to keep up with it, I couldn’t keep up with the important things. Just because it’s not good for me though, doesn’t mean it won’t matter to someone else. Glad people are out there creating good things, but also glad I gave myself permission to walk away from it.

  14. says

    Nothing truer has ever been said! “Time and attention are some of your most valuable resources.”

    I’ve definitely cut the ebooks and I do very little “regular” shopping. Whew! I’m pretty free of the free stuff and all its dangers as you describe!

  15. says

    Great post. It is sometimes hard to resist the lure of FREE stuff but your are so right, it adds to clutter. Free stuff can rob you of time as well. The time it takes to collect it, to read it if it is a free e-book, newsletter etc. Reward points are tempting but often you either never use them or you end buying stuff you probably would not have bought and it often ends costing you money as well.

    Great advice, be very selective about what FREE stuff you accept. Does it enhance your life or not. If not, FREE is still TOO costly.

  16. says

    Let’s shout this from the rooftops! Growing up one of ten kids one of my core beliefs is “There is not enough for me.” My life changed in 1995 when a therapist identified this for me. Now I know there is always enough for me. Besides I don’t need anything. You just keep getting better and better Courtney. Your message is universal.

  17. says

    I have been thinking about this A LOT when it comes to my inbox. So many emails that aren’t adding anything. I got rid of all the emails that I didn’t do anything with immediately. I stopped getting subscriptions. And it feels so much better : )

  18. says

    Oh, Courtney, you just hit the ground running on this one. That first paragraph (especially) is sooo funny! Mainly because it’s so true!
    Thanks so much for pointing all this out and in such a delightful yet powerful way.
    (I read your post on zenhabits and loved it so that’s why I’m here. I didn’t know you were such a lively writer! I’ve subscribed.)

  19. says

    That is one very important point, you mentioned above. I have a collegue always telling where things are cheap to get.

    These things first of all I don´t need and second the place where I can buy these things are far away, so it costs me time and money (fuel) to get there.

    And that are points I didn´t understand, but it is great to show it to the people by you! 😉

  20. crunchycon says

    Great post, and I think the most important concept is around paying attention. We’re so conditioned to think that “free is good” that we automatically jump at freebies of all kinds (and yes, I used to be a sucker for the cosmetics GWPs).

    @Shellie Anne, As a former public librarian, the CD might not be a welcome donation (unless they can put it in a book sale). For some reason, EVERYONE gives their old NGs, print and digital, to the public library (we called these donations “the yellow wall.”) – and they are great, but…. Another suggestion might be to touch base with your local school system to see if any of the school libraries could use your treasure. I hope you can find it a good home.

  21. says

    I once visited a house that had the following sign framed and prominently displayed in the living room:

    “Is it useful? Is it beautiful?”

    Of course, you can clutter your life with useful, beautiful things, but I thought those two questions were a good way to put a check on importing and maintaining loads of junk in the house.

    • Courtney Carver says

      Zach, That is a great filtering system but sometimes we have too many useful and beautiful things. It becomes hard to decide what is most useful! Once you let go of as much as possible, the really important things begin to shine.

  22. Carolyn says

    Wow, Courtney, what a great article. This is a real eye-opener for me. I’m a clutter bug and I am in the process of de-cluttering my house. As I look around my house I can see alot of the clutter is from free stuff. It’s taking my time, my space and my attention. This is the first time I’ve read your blog, it’s great!