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?


Simple Dorm Living (What I Wish I Knew)

This week marks seven years since I moved out of my parents home and into a lovely little dorm room in Bloomington, Indiana.

We packed a giant SUV to the brim with all my “necessities” and before I knew it, they were driving away without all the stuff and without me. Dorm life had officially begun.

I was so excited. But I was way, way overprepared.

To the point that I didn’t even know what to do with half the stuff I bought because Target told me it was a dorm essential! I ended up carrying a lot of that junk around with me, unused, for the next 5 years.

Since a lot of students are moving in this next week, I thought I’d share what I would do differently if I had the chance.


Pare down before and after

Packing up a childhood bedroom to move away for college is a perfect time to ditch some of the stuff you don’t need.

Here’s what mine looked like when packing up:

Room Before Dorm Move Out

Actually, this is what my bedroom looked like most of the time anyways.

Keep a trash and donate bag handy when you’re sorting through everything. Don’t just put things back into storage because it’s your parents house and you think you don’t have to deal with it. Trust me, you’ll have to deal with it eventually.

Then, when you’re unpacking at your new space, don’t be afraid to toss things into a donate or trash pile. Especially when you start to realize that you’ve just brought way too much.

Don’t shop beforehand

I know this sounds crazy. But when I got to my dorm room, I realized it had more than I anticipated – it came furnished with a chair already, so why did I need the butterfly chair?

Dorm Desk in Read

I ended up with “dorm essentials” that really didn’t even fit with my dorm room.

So do only the bare minimum of shopping beforehand – I’m talking notebooks and pens at most. If you can swing it, shop a few days or a week after you move in so that you can make more conscious decisions about what you really need.

Don’t have a car? Dorms should accept packages for you, so online shopping is a great option (and you get to avoid all of the tempting ads for “dorm essentials” at your local Target).

This is especially important for storage. Don’t shop early for the “just in case” items. Instead, get a good feeling for what you’ll need storage for and where it will fit.

Finally, this gives you a chance to find out more about the building you live in – do you need a full set of dishes and a mini fridge, or do you have access to good dining halls?

Basically, don’t just buy stuff because a store says you’ll need it.

Dorm decor

I was kind of a mess when it came to decorating my dorm room. I just brought a bunch of stuff and taped it to the wall like a maniac.

It stressed me out and it didn’t look very good. Did I ever tell you guys that I wanted to study Fashion Design? Yea, that was a weird time.

So, I encourage anyone moving into a dorm room to keep it simple.

Start small. Bring only decorations that you find beautiful or meaningful. Let yourself get a feel for your dorm room before you just throw stuff on the walls for the sake of having stuff on the walls.

Avoid the campus bookstore

As a former campus bookstore employee, I can tell you this: it’s all overpriced. Look online for used versions of your book and don’t be afraid to ask your professor if you can use a slightly older version. You will literally save hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

If you’re not sure about whether or not you’ll stay in the class, wait on buying the book until after the first week.

Do not buy school supplies at the bookstore unless you’re really in a bind. They’re marked up way past what’s even remotely reasonable.

And finally – I know I’m going to sound like such a Debbie Downer – avoid school-branded swag. Shirts, tumblers, bags…slap a school logo on it and it’s 3x more expensive.

I accumulated so much IU stuff through clubs and free giveaways anyway that I still looked like I had school spirit.

Hoo – hoo – hoo – HOOSIERS!

If you’re moving: how are you handling it? If you’ve done it before: what do you wish you would have done differently?

The Jewelry Box

What costs less than $5, looks cool for a season, and falls apart when you think you need it most? Trendy jewelry.

I’ve always liked the idea of accessorizing to really make an outfit pop, but I haven’t acted on that inclination in years. In high school, I had a dozen sweaters I circulated through and each sweater had a corresponding pair of earrings. And there were sequins – on both the sweaters and the earrings.

Looking back, I’m slightly mortified. I mean, we’re talking seventeen-year-old Emily. Seventeen and sequins everywhere.

I know some like their accessories, so in line with what I’ve said about trends, keep it if you love it and if it adds value.

But I challenge you to go to your jewelry box right now and see if there are pieces that you just have “in case.” My guess is that there are some.

Wedding Earrings

Earrings are my bling of choice, but even then I only have one or two pairs that I wear on a regular basis. These are my treasured wedding earrings that a dear friend made for me.

Thoughts on jewelry & simplicity

I’ve started to see jewelry, much like makeup, as less of the star of the show and more like a supporting character. I use it as a way to compliment what’s already there.

Earrings are my go-to piece, and most days I keep it super simple with just (fake) diamond studs. I don’t even wear earrings in my double piercing or my cartilage piercing anymore. Mostly because I forget.

I think we tend to use jewelry as more than just a complement to our clothing. We wear it as a sign of social status, as a way of self expression, and (my favorite) because “everyone is doing it”.

It has become a powerful social barometer to measure just how in touch we are with trends.

The good news is that no one will call you out if you’re wearing something understated, simple, or even not at all. What will grab attention is if you’re wearing something you clearly look uncomfortable in.

And when it comes to sentimental pieces (which is most of my collection), I wear them when I want to. They don’t even really have to match – for me, I love looking in the mirror and being reminded of the memory that each one stands for.

Those memories make me feel more beautiful than the jewelry alone does.

My jewelry box

Here’s what I’ve pared down to in the past few years:

Getting rid of your treasures

Years ago, I couldn’t fit all my jewels (mostly cheap plastic costume-y pieces) into a large jewelry box.

They would get tangled and broken and I still wouldn’t get rid of them. Even when they were beyond repair.

Jewelry is small, but it can add up. Allow yourself the luxury of opening up an uncluttered jewelry box filled with only the pieces you absolutely adore. You deserve it.

Here’s what I did:

  • Immediately toss broken, tangled or otherwise unusable pieces.
  • Toss uncomfortable earrings. They’re not worth it, and you know it.
  • Look at the pieces objectively. Are they even practical? Do they have real-world use?
  • Toss or donate pieces you haven’t worn in over a year. Don’t worry about what’s in style – just keep what you like and what you actually wear.
  • Sentimental items can be hard to part with, but they can really build up if we don’t watch it. If you wear it regularly, keep it. If you don’t, consider selling it (if it’s valuable), gifting it or donating it.

What’s most important to remember is that getting rid of the piece doesn’t mean the memories go with it. You don’t have to hold on to things – even small things like jewelry – to remind you of important people, places and events in your life.

What’s in your jewelry box?

Junk in the Trunk (and the Drawers and Bins)

Junk drawers. They’re like Lay’s potato chips – you can’t have just one!

They’re under our beds, in our kitchens, our offices, bathrooms, you name it – there’s probably a junk drawer there.

The number and type of junk drawer that we have says a lot about us – mine make me look like a just-in-case fanatic.

Last year, I counted at least three bins that I considered “junk drawers” in my apartment, mostly filled with half-blank pieces of paper for later use. I’d been carrying all this crap around for years without knowing it.

Drawers and storage solutions are perfect for intentional storage. But they can be dangerous too – we leave things hidden for so long that we start to forget what we own and why we own it.

A peek inside my junk drawers

When we moved seven months ago, I avoided storage specifically because I don’t want to go back to having multiple junk drawers. But junk drawers always find a way, don’t they?

We have a little built-in vanity and dresser area near our bathroom and we quickly made use of two tiny drawers to fill with everything that didn’t have a home.

IKEA happened, and we got more little booklets and pseudo-tools to add in. Soon, I could hardly open the drawers anymore because they were stuffed with God knows what.

Here’s a look at our junk:

Junk Drawers

I separated our drawers into one for my husband and one for me – before it was anyone’s guess as to whether or not there was any kind of organization.

How to tackle junk drawers without going crazy

As you can see, my junk drawers are very small. However, they really were the start of something much bigger and I wanted to bring them back to a manageable size before they got out of hand.

Start by identifying the offending storage pieces around your house. I would define a junk drawer as any drawer that has three or more different types of things – say tools, pens and playing cards or toys, rubber bands and electrical tape.

Before you get started cleaning them out, there are two things you should know:

  1. Know that you can’t get rid of them completely. Honestly, I think having one dedicated drawer to miscellaneous items is useful. Especially when trying to keep surfaces clear of clutter around the house.
  2. Know that all drawers should not be junk drawers. Don’t let this mentality creep beyond one drawer in your household. Be intentional with your junk and give it a nice home.

Once you’ve identified the drawers, take everything out of them and sort them into piles:

  • Trash
  • Not in use (think of The Minimalists 20/20 rule)
  • Like with like (all tape stays together!)
  • Redistribution pile (junk that needs to go to another part of the house)

What’s most important is to keep all like items together. If you have a designated place for paperwork elsewhere, then why is your utility bill in the junk drawer?

Return things to their rightful homes. When you’re done, take a look at what’s left.

Are there duplicates? If you have more pens than you could use in a lifetime, get rid of them. Toss anything that is broken, about to break, or that you just don’t use.

When you go to put everything back in, you should have significantly less. Put things in as orderly as you can so you can see everything easily and the drawer closes without putting up a fight.

Why bother with junk drawers?

First, the obvious – you don’t need to be carrying around literal useless junk whenever you move.

But there’s more to it than that. I’m guessing that you visit your junk drawers just often enough to get frustrated with them. I know when I opened my drawers to find something, it would stress me out. Not a lot, but enough to warrant a good cleaning.

If there’s a drawer that stresses you out even a little bit when you open it, it’s time to rethink it. There’s no reason for these little things to add stress to our lives.

What’s in your junk drawers?

Why I’ve Never Made a Capsule Wardrobe

I have too many clothes.

I remember thinking this over and over again as I walked down my rickety apartment stairs towards the car. I was carrying two 50-gallon trash bags filled with clothes – and that wasn’t even all of them.

I had another 50-gallon trash bag filled with shoes upstairs waiting to be packed into the car for the move from Bloomington to Indianapolis, Indiana. I even had a couple armfuls of hanging clothes already in the car.

I estimated that my clothes weighed at least two times what I weighed – I felt so encumbered and overstuffed. That’s when I started looking into how to simplify.

Capsule Wardrobes

My first exposure to a minimal blogger

A quick Google search led me to discover my first minimalist/simple living blogger: Courtney Carver.

I started to learn about Project 333 and started to realize all the things that weren’t necessary in my closet (I had a beaded evening gown thrift store find that I just couldn’t get rid of – but never wore).

I found out about capsule wardrobes and was really excited by the idea!

Learning about capsule wardrobes

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a capsule wardrobe is when you select a certain number of items (including jewelry, accessories, etc, but excluding essentials like underwear and workout clothes) and only wear those items for a set amount of time.

It’s an excellent practice to get into when you’re trying to live with less. Although I’ve never tried it, it sounds really fun and challenging!

Here’s why I never did it

I’ve never done it because I’m (a former) packrat. I’m the “just in case” type of mild hoarder – the person who keeps notebooks for years just because they have five pages of free space.

(I guess that should be “kept”, because I finally parted with all my old high school notebooks a couple years ago. They’d been unused for ten years.)

I felt like, for me, a capsule wardrobe might encourage me to keep the hundreds of pounds of clothes just out of sight. They’d still be there, like a safety blanket (which, ironically, my “blankie” is the one childhood thing that I will not get rid of).

And it was having too many clothes that drove me crazy in the first place.

What I’ve done instead

I have taken concepts from capsule wardrobes and applied them to my everyday wear. To keep a piece of clothing, it needs to meet one (or more!)

  • It reflects my personality
  • I find it beautiful
  • It fits well, looks good, and/or feels good
  • I love wearing it
  • It has high emotional value and I still wear it
  • It’s versatile (this one is essential for me)

Notice that these are not reasons to keep clothes:

  • I got a great deal on it
  • It was a gift or hand-me-down
  • It has emotional value, but I don’t wear it and I don’t think I will
  • I’ll fit into it again someday
  • It reflected my personality at a different time in my life
  • I’ve never worn it
  • I might need it for

I’ve gone from having a packed dresser and an oversized closet stuffed with clothes to only needing two drawers and about 2 feet of space on the clothes rod.

It’s not hard! And in fact, it’s amazing – I didn’t realize how little I cared about my clothes before. Now, I cherish each item and can’t wait to wear it. I love every piece.

A note on versatility and seasonal items

“But you need to change for the seasons.”

Yes and no. If style is important to you and having cute season-specific clothes fulfills you, then by all means, wear your fall scarves and Christmas sweaters.

But a basic dress looks great in all seasons – just add leggings and cardigans when it gets cold.

My non-expert advice: stay away from super-trendy colors unless they’re really colors you love. Pick pieces you can see yourself wearing to holiday parties and to summer cookouts. If you must, choose reversible or season-less scarves and stick to neutral jewelry.

Having a lot of clothes doesn’t make you stylish. Having few clothes doesn’t make you boring. It’s all in how you wear them.

Have you tried a capsule wardrobe? What did you think?

Pretty Little Things: Cutting Down on Cosmetics

Makeup is something that I’ve written about before, but I think it’s worth revisiting because this stuff accumulates like snow in the Midwest. I end up with more of it all the time and often don’t know where it comes from.

And then I realized: I impulse buy cosmeticsEspecially if they’re on sale, or if it’s a new color that I think is kind of fun. I got red lipstick last year and guess how many times I’ve worn it? Half a dozen. How many times have I worn it out of the house? Zero.

Let’s take a look at what I found in my makeup case:

My makeup collection before downsizing

My makeup collection before downsizing

I’ve trimmed it down in the last few years, and I’ve started buying less expensive products (seriously, I love E.L.F. from Target and I won’t deny it).

I think, too, that my face needs much less covering up when I’m eating and drinking and sleeping right. Not to say that’s the only fix for healthier skin, but it helps.

It’s the little things that get to us

My “collection” didn’t take up much space before I started cutting down, but I realized that’s not what this is about.

When I get ready in the morning, I have to fumble through less-used products to get to the one I always use. If you don’t have makeup, the same might go for your paperwork. It could be extra pens or a cluttered kitchen drawer.

Wouldn’t it be better to just get rid of the unnecessary things that get in our way? Instead of letting yourself run into a dozen mini-obstacles every day, get rid of what causes the trouble.

How I cut down on my makeup supply

So I took the same tried-and-true approach to cutting down on cosmetics. Is it useful? Is it beautiful? Does it bring me joy?

I also employed these cosmetic-specific rules when deciding what to get rid of:

  • Is it old? Like, embarrassingly old? I just read about how long to keep makeup and I’m way out of range on some of my powder and lip products. Yikes.
  • Do I use it or do I enjoy using it? Does it still have a place in my daily routine? If I use it regularly (or look forward to using it for a special occasion), I keep it. If not, toss it. If it’s a product I just don’t like using (for me it’s lash curlers, for others it’s eyeliner or foundation) I’ve decided to ditch it too.
  • Does it fit my complexion or my overall style? Like I said with the red lipstick, some items just don’t work with my face. I just finished reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, and she explains that these items have already served their purpose: their purpose was to let you know that they’re not the right choice for you. No regrets in throwing these away.

Now if I need to travel anywhere, my makeup case is already packed and ready to go. It all fits in a small box, including any brushes I need and my three shades of nail polish. I feel lighter and more ready for last-minute adventures this way.

Here’s what my makeup collection looks like now:

What remains of my makeup "collection"

What remains of my makeup “collection”

How I’ll buy makeup in the future

If I decide that it’s time to add a new high-quality cosmetic to the rotation, I have some advice from my best friend. She’s more patient with makeup (and much, much better at it) than me! Here’s what she recommends:

  1. Research. Makeup can be expensive. Since it’s good to use for months at a time, know what you’re getting into before you buy. Read reviews and watch videos on application so that you don’t just buy random products in your quest for the perfect look. You can even look for videos or reviews for drugstore alternatives to more expensive brands.
  2. Get Samples. Samples let you know that you like a product before committing to it. They’re free, they’re small and they’re a good way to curb impulse buys. My friend recommends Sephora, where the products are high-quality but the prices can be intimidating. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and give the product some thought before tossing it in to your shopping cart.
  3. Check return policies. If you’re skipping the drugstore brands and going for more specialized brand names like Sephora, check the returns policy. Don’t keep something just because, well, maybe you’ll get used to it. A fifty dollar bottle of foundation isn’t something you just want to “get used to.”

I hope this gives you a good start in going through your own makeup and creating the rules that work best for you.

Remember, there’s no magic number to minimalism. It isn’t about extremes either. It’s about living with only what you need and what sparks joy.

It’s about making more space in your life for what really matters to you.

The Bathroom Cabinet, Round 2

Last year, I wrote about how I went about decluttering my bathroom cabinet. I did a pretty solid job of organizing (and yes, getting rid of things), but I didn’t truly streamline or minimize my toiletries and bathroom sundries. Probably because I was working on getting married instead of moving across the country.

But this time, it’s for real. And not only is it real, it’s real bad. For someone who claims to be a minimalist, toting this amount of toiletries anywhere should be, quite frankly, embarrassing.

But for anyone aspiring to simplify or minimize, the most important thing is to remember that it’s a journey! I shouldn’t be ashamed of where I’m at, because I’ve come so far already. Frame every part of this journey with positivity, and your momentum will be far greater.


The starting point

Here is what has been lying in the cabinet, waiting in the shadows to torment me a week before a move.

The Bathroom CabinetLooks like it could have come straight from an I Spy, right?

I spy homemade toothpaste, a hook and Listerine 

A ton of tampons, a mug, and some old blue jeans

Yes. So I’m going to go through and toss/donate/rehome things again! This time with the mindset that I will only be taking a small bag of toiletries in the car with me. I’ll repurchase anything that is absolutely necessary, but next time around I’ll be able to be a lot more conscious about what comes in to and goes out of my home.

If you’re not moving but have a bathroom filled to the brim, it might even be a good idea to start completely over, too, so that you only ever have what you absolutely need and use regularly. Just my two cents.

Noting what I need

I started making a list of things I really need to have with me at all times, and it’s helping me narrow everything down so well. This list could look very different for you, but here’s what I have come up with so far:

  • 1 Lotion
  • 1 Perfume
  • 1 Facewash (which I’ve been actually loving Witch Hazel and Rosewater as an alternative to storebought stuff)
  • 1 Body spray (optional, really)
  • 1 Deodorant (preferably homemade, but I’m not there yet)
  • 1 Hairbrush
  • 1 Comb
  • 2 Toothbrushes (a backup is handy for traveling)
  • 2 Contact solution bottles (nothing worse than realizing you’re out of solution and it’s 11PM)
  • My minimal makeup collection – this time it has to all fit into one small container
  • Travel sized versions of many of these things (in fact, any consumables I’ll have travel sized version while we’re making the move, so the bigger versions will be out too)

Note the general rule of thumb: if it’s super necessary, I keep two for myself in case I need backup, but for the most part one of each thing is preferable.

I’m nixing the hair straightener and blow dryer, because I don’t use them often enough to keep them around. Especially now that I’ve cut my hair into a short pixie cut (in a future post, I’ll talk about how I cut my own hair). That means I need very few products and hair accessories, which is awesome.

The result

It’s so different, and I love it. I still have to use up a few products, and some of the larger things that we don’t use up will be handed off to family and friends (who wants the mouthwash?!)

Here’s what it looks like now:

Under the bathroom sink

Yikes, now that it’s nearly empty this cabinet is actually pretty gross looking.

The bathroom cabinet

And for comparison, here’s what it looked like a year ago:

Before - Cluttered Bathroom

What a day. What are your bathroom must-haves?