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?


A Minimalist’s Guide to Following Trends

Chambray. Crop tops. Neons. Gold-dipped everything.

As I’ve been simplifying my life in the past couple of years I’ve watched these trends drift by without partaking in them.

I found myself on the cusp of diving in to certain trends – especially if I saw their bright displays on endcaps at Target. They seemed irresistible.

And that’s the point.


Trends are irresistible

The popularity of trends is based on that old line: “everyone’s doing it.” We’re peer-pressured into having certain colors in our homes and pieces in our wardrobes.

Think of the windbreakers and color palette nightmares from the 90’s. Did anyone actually enjoy that? Apparently they did, because some of it is back in style these days.

Magazines and Pinterest make them unavoidable, and soon they show up in our homes and closets. We think we’re making our homes unique, but that’s the trick of trends. You’re supposed to feel like a unique “trendsetter,” despite the fact that thousands of other people have the same piece.

What’s the point of trends?

Looking at them from a more removed standpoint, I’m finally seeing trends for what they are: money-makers.

With all the dirt on the fashion industry (I love John Oliver’s piece on fast fashion), it’s obvious that we’ve been lied to.

Trends aren’t that great after all.

The best way to follow trends

I’ve decided to adopt a new mantra when it comes time to shop for garments or anything for my home:

The best way to follow trends is to not follow them at all.

I truly think that’s the best approach. Ultimately, sticking to what feels right and beautiful to you will always be in style.

It’s worth taking an afternoon to examine what you own and what you like in order to determine your true style – like the saying goes, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

Stay away from them in the first place

I know it’s no small task to keep yourself from the trends that spread like wildfire these days.

But if you’re prone to impulse buys or feel pressured to follow along with current style, then try to limit your exposure to certain outlets.

Sign out of Pinterest and unsubscribe to those magazines. Stay away from malls or anywhere windowshopping can tempt you. It sounds cynical, but if you’re trying to simplify, these occasions can be consumer traps.

But if you must…

Maybe, after plenty of thought, you feel the trend might actually add value and beauty to your life. If you do find yourself drawn to a trend, there are ways to really tell if it’s right for you.

  1. See if it matches. First of all, ask yourself if it really matches with your style and personality. If you’re shy and prefer mostly dark, neutral colors, then maybe neons might be too big of a jump. If it doesn’t fit into your lifestyle, you’ll use it less. And why would you buy something just to put it in the back of your closet?
  2. Wait it out. Let the trend play out for a couple of months. Don’t jump in right after it’s spotted at fashion week. Basically, see how others are wearing or using the current trend and decide if you can see yourself following suit. If you end up taking part in the trend, then this will give you an idea of how to use it/wear it best.
  3. Ask if it’s worth it. This is where you need to be honest with yourself. Can you see this having a long-term place in your life, or will it fizzle out in a few months? Is the price worth the value you’ll get from it?
  4. Find an alternative. At this point, it’s likely that you’re on board with the trend. Instead of going to Target and purchasing it immediately, check out your alternatives. DIY and secondhand are great options, and vintage is even better (you’ll look like you liked the trend before it was cool). Plus, this prolongs the search and makes you think more about what you’re seeking and why you’re purchasing it.

Personally, I’ve started to stick to basics: simple dresses, jeans and t-shirts. I also keep a floral romper and a sequin butterfly shirt (both which will never be truly in style). Why? Because I love them.

Wearing and buying only things you love and that add true value or beauty to your life is the best way to keep from getting swept up in current trends.

I’ve read arguments where minimalism in itself is a trend, which may be true (it’s been such a buzzword lately). Minimalism is on the rise, especially among Millennials, and it seems to be a bit scary for marketers. But honestly, who cares if simplicity falls out of style?

Isn’t simple living reward enough?

The Aunt Trap (or, Christmas for Kids Who Aren’t Yours)

In the midst of all this packing, my husband and I have also been trying to figure out what to do for our families this Christmas – seeing as we’re trying to save money and get rid of more possessions than we’re comfortable with, it’s kind of nerve-wracking to go Christmas shopping.

However, here’s the situation (it’s most certainly not a problem, it’s actually quite a blessing): I inherited six small nephews when I married my husband. Like, small enough to not fully understand the impact of getting rid of all our “grown up” things and moving across the country. Small enough that we want to give them gifts that will awe them. All of them are under 11 years old, and precious as can be.

When my husband and I have kids, we’re definitely going to try and keep Christmas low-key and focus more on family time than on presents (this I say now, years away from having kids). But what do you do when you don’t want to force your lifestyle on half a dozen young children that aren’t yours?

I’ll admit, we caved. But it brought up some very interesting conversations.

What we did

Birthday Toy

Yep, that’s a Nerf gun for Zombies.

My husband’s godson just turned 4 this week, and we wanted to find something he’d be able to enjoy now. And we also wanted to start making more of an effort to recognize the nephews’ birthdays.

So, we spent an overwhelming amount of time at Target (which is anything more than 15 minutes for me these days), where I paced the aisles and wondered aloud, “how long will these toys even last? Junk! It’s all plastic junk! Why do we do this to ourselves?” I’m sure my husband was pleased with that…

After deciding on a Nerf gun for the little guy’s birthday, we decided on books for Christmas. I know books aren’t usually the “dream gift,” but they fit into our budget and I at least knew that they’d get something of value from it (let’s be honest: I enjoyed the heck out of my Captain Underpants book, and I still got a kick out of paging through the one we got for our nephew).

We’ve also been playing Where’s Waldo, another of the books we got for our younger nephew. Two “grown” people, loving the heck out of a book made for children. I love it.

What we’ll do next time

So next year, we’ve decided that we’re going to plan ahead. Books are still a viable option, especially if we’re still on a budget (and again, a moment of honesty: we’re going to be living in LA, so we’re most likely going to be watching our expenses). But hopefully, time and money restraints considered, we’ll be able to offer more “experience” gifts than material ones for Christmas.

I’d love to take the boys for a day of tobogganing and hot chocolate at a nearby state park. I’d love to get them games and learn with them. Maybe spend a day volunteering with them. Heck, I’d even take them to a movie. Something that gives us time with them, especially since they’re all starting to grow up so fast.

Plus, I want to be a cool aunt that’s present – get it? Present? – and memorable.

What we won’t do, though, is get super preachy about consumerism and waste and all that good stuff, because lifestyles should only be shared openly, not forced. Kind of like a vegetarian coming to Thanksgiving dinner and forcing everyone else to eat tofurky – don’t do it. It’s your choice, let them have theirs.

Holidays for minimalists

What the rest of our Christmas looks like

This year, we’re forgoing Christmas gifts for each other, with the intention that furnishing our new apartment will be our gift to each other! I’m getting overwhelmingly excited for our new adventure (which begins exactly one month from today).

For our parents and families, we’re making candles and getting wine. Who doesn’t love wine, and how fun/dangerous does first-time candlemaking sound?

When it comes to asking for gifts, we’re simply reminding everyone of our upcoming journey, and not requesting anything specific. Ultimately, we just want to go home and play games and spend quality time with everyone before we take off. And drink wine.

What does your Christmas look like? Do you have suggestions for us and our nephews for next year?

A Quiet Holiday

For tomorrow, I know, all those Who girls and boys
Will wake bright and early.  They’ll rush for their toys!

And then…all the noise!  All the noise, noise, noise, noise!
If there’s one thing I hate…all the noise, noise, noise, noise!

Dr. Suess, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Sometimes I wonder if the Grinch was right.

All the noise surrounding the holidays has been getting to me this year – even the Christmas music on the radio (anything that’s not decades old immediately annoys me). Commercials, billboards, traffic – all obtrusive reminders that this is a holiday that has become more about gifts (read: stuff) than anything else.

I know that’s not what it’s supposed to be about. We all know that. But then why does Black Friday get worse every year? And why can’t I drive a few miles to a friend’s home without getting stuck for half an hour in shopping traffic?

This year, I’ve been blessed enough to have the week of Christmas off to spend with my family. Some of my most treasured moments so far have been quiet conversations and crafting silently by the fire.

Why should the noise that we’re already bombarded with throughout the year be amplified and even more stressful around the holidays? What happened to that Silent Night?

Christmas Tree

For your sake, and for the sake of your friends, family, and coworkers, take an evening off from the noise of the commercial world. No television, no Pandora or Spotify with their obnoxious ads, no shopping. Try to not even leave the house or log on to Facebook. Have a quiet night at home with your family and read books, or play a game with your kids (although in my house, my parents and brothers and I are anything but quiet when it comes time for board games).

Allow yourself a few moments of refuge from the commercial noise of the holiday season. It’s rejuvenating, and it’s a perfect way to close out the year of madness.

The Story of Stuff – Recommended Video

I recently discovered Anne Leonard’s “Story of Stuff” project, and I’m hooked. Now, it’s been available since 2007, but it’s perfectly relevant to me at this time in my life (17-year old Emily would’ve only been marginally interested in this video).

Our rate of consumption is getting increasingly out of hand, and it’s not enough to simply sit by and watch videos. Agreeing with ideas is not the same as following through with these theories. Stuff is destroying our earth, health, wealth and sanity. Why do we love it? What can we do to break this addiction?

I ask this the day I purchased a new iPhone case and drank coffee with creamer from a plastic bottle. I’m often at a loss when faced with this question. It’s as if we don’t have a choice about this cycle – how can we opt out? Something to think about tonight; I’d love to know your thoughts!

Shop ’til you Drop

Freedigitalphotos.netI heard the most unsettling statistic shared by a radio DJ a while ago, and I thought I’d share what she had to say about it:

We burn, on average, 15,000 calories a year shopping. In fact, the heavier bags we carry, the more we burn! It looks like it’s not that I’m eating too much, it’s that I’m not shopping enough.

She laughed as she shared this. At what point is this not funny anymore? Will you choose to be like the DJ and continue to shop and eat more and more, hoping to see yourself skinnier? How can we be happy if we justify one gluttony with another?

In a country where average credit card debt lies over $15,000 per household, and the average person is 23 pounds overweight, I don’t see anything comical about this statement.

There are a couple questions to ask yourself that stem directly from this:

  • Do I shop only when necessary, or do I purchase to fill time or to amuse myself?
  • Do I justify things that I know are wrong with others that are hardly any better?

The Cleanse: Pinterest

You have a choice to make, right now. Before you pin your next pin, before you browse your next DIY Board, you have to make a choice. Will you use Pinterest for good or for evil?

I’m feeling rather cynical, so I’m assuming you’re using it for evil. I’ve used it for evil. I still do, when I’m in the mood.

Is there a wrong way to use Pinterest?

Yes. Pinterest is a beautiful, well-designed inspiration tool that can help you design your life. Down to the colors of your throw pillows and accent doilies, it can help you visualize your new home without lifting more than a finger. Some power pinners can plan every detail, while those of us who more casually browse can get general ideas and color schemes from images we find beautiful.

But here is what Pinterest is not: an escape. If you are using Pinterest as an escape pod from your everyday “ugly” lifestyle, you need to shut it down. Turn off your computer and run very far away from it. Do not spend one more minute on the site.

Rilke Quote

Rilke telling it like it is. I may pin this image out of irony.

But I like Pinterest better than real life.

I did too for a while. My life isn’t nearly as rose-colored and beautiful as the lives of people on Pinterest. I had to break it to myself, and I’ll break it to you too. The secret of their happiness? Professional photography. Excellent lighting. Great makeup. Tons of spare time. Photo filters. Photoshop.

If you’re measuring your happiness up against what Pinterest offers, then you’re doing it wrong. People in pictures on Pinterest are smiling  because they’re not thinking about how good this will look on Pinterest. Amazing DIY projects are not the result of hours spent on the site—they’re the result of hours spent working on a craft.

How do I reduce my addiction to Pinterest?

First of all, find out if you have an addiction. Then, identify if you leave the site with a plethora of new ideas, or if you come away wondering why does my life suck? If it’s the latter, it’s time to cut down.

I still go on Pinterest. I love it. However, I’ve changed my use of the site. How often do you go back to your boards to see something you’ve pinned? (Especially if it’s not a link to a useful post or cool DIY project). If you’re like me, the answer would be never.

minimalist Pinterest board

Does anyone else see the irony in having a Pinterest board devoted to minimalism?

So instead of overwhelming myself with weird digital baggage, I stopped pinning to many boards. Right now, I’m pinning minimalist images that inspire me to further reduce clutter in my life. If I find a link particularly useful, I pin it to my secret boards along with the engagement ring ideas I stored up to give my boyfriend (not a joke. I’ll talk Pinterest and weddings in a later post). By using secret boards, I don’t feel like I’m broadcasting my general good taste (please read that sarcastically) to others.

Instead of browsing everything, I turn to specific keywords or particular boards, to avoid overwhelming myself. If I find myself clicking through to a retail site in order to purchase something, I call it quits. Shut it down. I’m not on Pinterest to shop. I’m on Pinterest to be inspired. For free.

That leads me to my final point:

Did you know that Pinterest is a goldmine for marketers? Consumers spend more money and purchase more things more often as a result of Pinterest use than any of the other top social media sites. There’s tons of Pinterest marketing info on how best to get casual pinners to convert. You may think you’re on Pinterest for inspiration, but oftentimes you’re actually there to be marketed to (that’s why I try to avoid browsing consumer products).

Give Pinterest a break. Use your time wisely, and actually start working on one of those projects you pinned months ago. I know I should.

Are you a friend or foe of Pinterest? Let me know in the comments.