When “Free” Things Aren’t Free: Beware the Hidden and Indirect Costs

free adj. \ˈfrē\ Costing nothing.

Free Grand Slam at Denny's

There’s been a lot of “Free” promotions going on lately – Free Denny’s breakfast, Free Quizno’s Sub, Free Arby’s burger, and I’m sure there have been others – but I haven’t gone for any of them because it wasn’t worth the time nor cost.

If they’re free, how do they cost money?

If …

  1. you have to go out of your way to get it, especially drive.
    Unless the location is right on the way to and from your daily activity, consider every extra mile you drive out of your way as a cost of $0.55, the IRS mileage rate for business use which includes gas and associated costs of wear & tear/maintenance.
  2. you have to buy something, i.e. a drink, to get your free item.
    Even if it’s only $1.39 for the drink and you get a $4.00 burger for free, you’re still spending money.
  3. there is a limit to how many free items you can get.
    You have family at home, and it wouldn’t be right to just pick up a sandwich for yourself. But you’re limited one free item per customer, so you have to buy the rest of the sandwiches.
  4. you dine in (i.e. Denny’s).
    You have to tip. Or feel really funny for dining and dashing without tipping.
  5. you arrive to find the store isn’t participating in the promotion.
    You’ve wasted a trip. And because you’ve gone all the way there, you might end up buying something anyway because now you’re starving.
  6. you could be making money in the time it takes to wait in line.
    Especially if you’re self-employed, make money blogging, etc.

Living where I do (in a fairly isolated part of the Mojave Desert), and working where I do (at home), the prospect of going out espeically for a free sandwich or breakfast just isn’t worth my time and money.

The closest Denny’s from my house is a 15.3-mile drive, so a 30.6-mile round trip could count as an expenditure of $8.42, which I believe is more than the face value of the free breakfast. Even if I were going grocery shopping a mile down the road, being a dine-in only breakfast, I would’ve at least had to spend money on tip. It just all seemed like too much of a hassle.

There is actually a Quizno’s in our town, but chances of it participating in the promotion were nil to nil, because we’re somewhat isolated. Subways here don’t participate in the Subway Card program, so I didn’t want to go down to Quizno’s and find I’ve wasted my time and gas.

Free things are great. Just make sure they really are by defintion “free” before you jump.

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17 thoughts on “When “Free” Things Aren’t Free: Beware the Hidden and Indirect Costs”

  1. Great post! It’s so true. I live close to a lot of these promotions, but for me, the kicker is the waiting in line. Plus it seems like these promos are always for food and food that’s not good for you. Come on, where are my free fruit salads? I live within walking distance of a Ben & Jerry’s, for example, but I have never even considered going to Free Cone Day. Not worth my time. Even if I just use that time to relax, to me, that’s worth more than a tiny free ice cream cone.

  2. The old saying, “You can’t get something for nothing” is still very true today.

    I’m always leary when something says FREE on it. Always looking for the fine print to see what the ‘catch’ is.

  3. Shirley Q. Liquer said it best…

    “99 cent is not a bargain if I don’t have 99 cent”

    The call of FREE is at times a tempting sirene song but rarely is it the nothing it’s trumped up to be.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. so true! I went to Walmart the other day and had to pay .40 as tissues weren’t free as coupon was for a dollar and they were 1.39 plus the tax gets you too like for soda…I got the flat wrigley’s gum free though. My eco-canteen was not really free as I ahd to write a nice review on the stainless seel biotle but is ok as i like it and will use it rather than plastic ones and save at store from buying drink and using either drink from frig. when i travel or water from the tap as tastes good and cold too!

  5. You need to change your mindset.
    1.You could have scheduled errands in the area to save gas.
    2.Do you never buy a drink? See #4.
    3.Consider it a date/alone time with a family member.
    4.Instead of thinking “free”, think “breakfast only cost a tip”.
    5. Assuming, a phone call to Quizno would have given you the answer.
    6. Everyone deserves time off from making money.

  6. @ Brenda I’m not saying that one should never, ever spend money on a meal out or should be making money 24/7, but just pointing out that what is often assumed to be by definition “free” – “costing nothing” – isn’t always the case. I am merely pointing out the facts; you offer the “glass is half full” analysis for when one chooses or wants to spend.

    Update 3/27/09:
    Follow-up post: Why I Will Not Change My Mindset, Plus the Difference Between Justifying and Being Optimistic About Spending

  7. We adopted a puppy for “free”. Shortly thereafter we realized that he had hip dysplasia and would require thousands of dollars worth of surgery. When we reviewed the records from his previous vet, there was no mention of the ailment, so it’s not like we were just given a dog with an issue either. You should always expect the unexpected costs that MAY be associated with freebies.

  8. I recently received a “free” $10 gift card from a local restaurant. Upon close inspection, “free” was $10 off a $25 meal. Since $25 is basically what I spend on groceries per week (we are a couple) I promptly threw it in the recycle bin ( it was plastic). Bad thing is, I couldn’t even pass it to someone who may want to use it because it was personalized. I’d never been to this restaurant so I have no idea how my name appeared on a list.
    The only great freebies I’ve found are at my local Kroger. They ship coupons to me for free items (coffee, cake mix) that I routinely buy. Now THAT is a freebie I can live with!
    Love these posts and am really enjoying this blog!

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