There Is No Such Thing As Free Stuff


If there’s one thing I remember from high school economics, it’s that acronym. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

And I think I know why it’s stuck with me for so long – it’s true.

In college, I loved getting free lanyards and water bottles and coozies (I’ve never even used a coozie) from career fairs and other campus activities.

Once I got my own apartment, I often picked up furniture that was left by dumpsters and brought it home with me. I didn’t even do anything cool with it, like my friend Meg does over on her blog – her buffet and mini chest are breathtaking.

I still have a hard time resisting the “free stuff” I find sitting out by the curb. But it’s not really free.

There is no such thing as free stuff

How we’re paying for this free stuff

Free stuff can actually be really expensive when you do the math.

We pay for it with our time – picking it up, cleaning it, moving it around in our homes. Even the time we spend considering whether to take it or not is time we can spend doing something else.

We pay for it with our space – the bigger the item, the more physical and mental space it takes up. It takes up space that could be for something more intentional, or even nothing at all. It’s also stressful to think that I have something in my life that’s irrelevant and unnecessary – but I keep it because it was free.

Finally, we pay for it with our energy – we have to make decisions about each one of our possessions every time we move. Actually, every time we look at our possessions we have some sort of response. Do you want negative responses to the free “junk” in the garage to continue?

Where does it come from, anyway?

Free stuff is all around us. There are signs in store windows and banner ads all calling out FREE! FREE! FREE!

Here are a few places to watch out for free stuff – and remember, not all of it is good free stuff.

  • Yard sales & curb alerts – These are traps for free and super-cheap junk. Seeing free stuff on the side of the road can impair your judgment and make you more impulsive – I’ve been known to pick up dirty & broken (beyond repair) things that I don’t even need. Make sure it’s worth it!
  • Hand-me-downs & clothing swaps – I think clothing swaps are an amazing way to get new clothes. However, they can be too tempting if you’re not really in the market for something specific or don’t fully understand your personal style. Hand-me-downs are also the beginning of the end for many childhood closets – it can be uncomfortable for children to get rid of things that have been passed around in the family. So it stays.
  • Promotional items – This stuff is sneaky. It’s easy to take it if everyone’s doing it, but know that it’s fine to pass on this junk if you don’t need it. My husband and I have some Coca-Cola word magnets we got for free a few months ago…and our fridge isn’t even magnetic.
  • BOGO – The most deceitful of them all. Unless you need both things, avoid at all costs – guys, the second item is not free. The first item is marked up enough to warrant the second item’s free-ness. It’s a trick to get you in the store, and if anyone tells you otherwise…then tell them politely that they’re wrong.

A cautionary nail tale

Free things can cost in other ways, too. When I moved into my first apartment, I was in need of some furniture. I was lucky enough to find a full dining table, a beat-up side table and a weird green set of drawers that had no knobs.

I really only needed the table, but it was all free, so why not?

My friend Stephanie helped me carry each piece across the long parking lot and into my apartment. In our fits of laughter, we didn’t check the set of drawers before bringing it into my apartment. What could go wrong?

There was a toenail in the drawer.

A giant, yellowed toenail.

toenail drawer

And yet…I kept it. I cleaned everything thoroughly with Clorox wipes and proceeded to move it around with me for three more years. I didn’t even like it.

So this set of drawers cost me years of moving and a weird toenail, but I did get a free story out of the deal.

There is some good news about free stuff

Of course, not all free stuff is bad. And not all free things have old toenails in them.

I recently picked up a bedside table, a corkboard and a chalkboard from the side of the road. The bedside table replaced an old box that I had been using, and the other two have become little information hubs for my husband and I.

What I’m trying to say is that free stuff can truly be helpful and add value to your life.

It’s just the trap of thinking that “free” means that it comes with zero strings attached. It’s up to you to weigh the options.

And most importantly, it’s up to you to decide when the item no longer belongs in your life – just because it was free doesn’t mean you have to keep it “just in case.” I’ve spent so much of my time, space, and energy on free stuff over the years that hardly any of it was truly worth it.

What’s your best free find, and what’s your worst?


30 thoughts on “There Is No Such Thing As Free Stuff

  1. My husband was a household mover for over 30 years, and you can only imagine how many things he had given to him thru the years. He/We lugged this stuff everywhere over several states and several moves of our own, he refused to part with it. At one point we had 3 hutches, 8 dressers just to name a few items. Eventually I was able to get some of that stuff gone but now I am left with the daunting task of the rest. And there is a lot. 3 buildings full and the house is ridiculous.
    But one of the oddest to me are the beer cans. 20 years ago a man was moving and he had made his basement into a man cave before it was fashionable. This cave was lined wall to wall/floor to ceiling with shelves for all the beer cans he found, bought or however he came across them. Yep, you guessed it, when he moved my husband took them and right now I have 15 dish pack size boxes full of beer cans to get rid of. Are they worth anything? Not that I have found, so these cans will be crushed and all I can think is what a waste of time and energy. He always felt like these would be his retirement fund. Have I mentioned the Ertyl cars he collected and how no one wants them, and he really wanted to leave it to his grandkids, this giant hobby and all those boxes as well. He never looked at these things they just remained unused all this time, it breaks my heart when I look at this daunting task in front of me, and it has to be done so I can move next Spring to a smaller house but hopefully a more fulfilling life.

    • Wow, Terri what a powerful story. It’s true, we do spend our lives collecting more and more stuff, but in the end it’s really our relationships and the stories we share with others that are the most important. Best wishes in the upcoming move and thank you for sharing your story!

  2. Ahh this post speaks to me! I LOVE free stuff, but I’ve also been getting really into minimalism. I’ll bring something home and then suddenly wonder why the heck I brought something else into my house. I’m a recovering free stuff addict. But you’re right! It takes time to maintain free stuff, clean around it, and it occupies space in our minds too. I was surprised how it just felt good to get rid of things I never used.

    • It’s so important to find a balance! There is most certainly a time and place for free stuff, but often free stuff comes without intention. Also, it’s nice to know that free stuff can move on to someone who can really benefit from using it. Thanks for reading & glad you enjoyed this post!

  3. We are junk collectors at our house and I am desperately trying to stop this. Everyone of us is so tuned into free stuff by the side of the road. My best find was a set of small, stained glass window pieces that are still hanging in our living room windows. The worst? Too many to count, but currently my husband is in the garage where he has spent hours and hours, (plus dollars) working a “free” lawnmower he picked up by the side of the road two years ago.

    • It’s a tough habit to break for sure! Ooh the stained glass sounds lovely – my favorite find was actually my husband’s: he found a vintage button down shirt for me that has license plates all over it. Not sure why, but I love it and wear it often.

      Phew! That lawnmower sounds like quite the project. Hopefully it gets up and running soon OR that it can move on to a new owner! Thanks for reading and sharing 🙂

  4. I couldn’t agree more, Emily! Your article sparked my interest to see how much free stuff (and stuff in general) costs once we take it in to our house. I devided our monthly rent by the square meters we live on. Then I multiplied that by the square meters of a couch we recently gave away and I was blown away about how much it has cost us! We hadn’t used the couch in 4 years, in that time it has cost us €175 ($200) in rent! I will definately think of this next time I take in a “free” piece of furniture!

  5. I love this post! I’ve actually started to find that I get annoyed when I’m offered free things because usually I don’t really need them but I feel that weird obligation to take them anyway. This is such a great reminder that even if you don’t pay money for something, it still has a cost attached to it.

    • Thanks Sarah! Yeah, that obligation is such an odd feeling. Especially if other people around you are taking the free stuff too…I’m glad you enjoyed the post & stopped by to comment 🙂

  6. Mhmmm…. Darn the BOGO. I always fall prey. I totally agree, there is no such thing as free. I put a lot of love and elbow grease into my free or cheap stuff to make it what it becomes, thanks for linking to me! Cross your fingers I have another makeover for you this monday!

    • Hah! It’s such a tempting offer! You truly work wonders with your finds and they become such beautiful pieces in your home, that I couldn’t resist sharing what you do 🙂

  7. Ah, yes, the free stuff routine! I am familiar with this… there are two that stand out in my mind.

    One of my biggest (& arguably best) free finds was a papasan rocker chair (do you know how much those go for at Pier 1?!?! << That's me being a sucker) that I found at the end of someone's driveway about 8 years ago. I stuffed it into my car and have subsequently dragged it to and from 4 different apartments since then. But I can probably count the amount of times I've actually sat in it on both hands. The past 2 years it has served primarily as a resting spot for our two cats, so we are reluctant to get rid of it. That damn chair needs to go in the trash though!

    The second best free find was a perfectly decent cat tower in a construction dumpster right outside our apartment. We snatched it before the construction started for the day, and gave it a good clean to kill whatever bugs may be embedded within the carpet. The cats love it, so I consider that find a win!

    • Oh wow, those things are awesome! They are definitely quite the free find. There’s a time and a place for free, and it sounds like you hit the jackpot 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  8. Reblogged this on Enjoy the view and commented:
    This post brilliantly explains why I am trying to extend my Buy Nothing Year to things with a $0 price tag. Why does money influence decisions so much? After the money is paid or not paid there is absolutely no difference to your long-term happiness and enjoyment of your home. So why do we forget to question whether we really want the item just because it’s free?

    • Thanks Ania! It’s so funny how we let free things into our lives that we wouldn’t have if the price had even been just a few dollars. Cost and value come in many different forms 🙂 thanks for reblogging!

  9. Pingback: The "F" Word | Setting My Intention

  10. The toenail drawer has me rolling on the floor laughing!
    Hi there! My name is Bianca and I am a current college student. Your words ring so true regarding the “stuff” crunch our generation is in. I recently decided to start blogging about it as well, hoping to provide financial tips and other pieces to brighten the day. I would so appreciate it if you would take a look and provide any comments or critique.
    Thank you!
    -Bianca B

  11. Pingback: Gratis is niet voor niets | Minimalisme

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