“Free” Stuff Can Cost You
Every spring and autumn, I vacuum out my car. There’s a car wash near me that has free vacuums, but when I tried it recently, the vacuums had barely any suction. Then they stopped working completely.
I drove to another car wash that charges $1 for a few minutes of vacuuming. And you know what? The vacuum worked perfectly. I was done before the time ran out. Paying just a little bit saved me a lot of time and effort.
The difference between $1 and $2 is hardly anything, but the difference between $1 and $0 is staggering. Once people decide to fork over money, the actual dollar amount doesn’t matter so much. It’s bridging the gap between “free” and “pay something” that’s tricky.
Companies leverage this by giving free samples in supermarkets. It’s free, so we take it. If we like it, we grab the item and put it in our cart. We seamlessly cross the gap.
They also do this in salons, washing your hair with shampoo and conditioner that they sell.
As long as we’re aware of it, there’s not a problem. Everyone likes trying before they buy.
But are we really aware of it? One study found that pharmaceutical companies' gifts to doctors can change what they prescribe. That’s one instance where limiting free stuff has helped patients.
And sometimes, we look for free stuff too often, and miss a really good deal.
I recently tried a discount grocery store, and I liked it. When I told friends about it, though, they balked. The reason? You have to put a quarter in the machine to unlock a shopping cart.
“You get the quarter back when you return the cart,” I explained. The parking lot is small, so returning the cart takes barely any time. But people refuse. Pay to rent a shopping cart? That’s unheard of.
They can’t cross the gap. Because shopping there requires a 25 cent rental, they’ll pay 30 percent more for groceries.
Though it seems easy to rationalize, it’s hard to put into practice. For example, I really should invest in a PO Box and software to set up a mailing list. It will be a recurring cost every month, but the ability to directly contact my fans is priceless.
It’s something I plan to do in the future, but haven’t pulled the trigger on yet. But how much is it costing me to not start now?
You can flip this principle around, too. If you provide a service for free, people may take advantage of you. Charging a small fee lets people know you’re a professional.
There are some exceptions, some truly good deals. Libraries come to mind. I save a lot of money by borrowing books from libraries. I also use the app Libby to borrow ebooks for free through Overdrive.
But generally speaking, “free” is a trap. Think of social media sites that provide a “free” service, then scoop up all your information and sell it to advertisers. As the saying goes: “You’re not the customer. You’re the product.”
When something’s free, you can enjoy it — but look for what strings are attached.