Why “Free” Costs You a Lot More Than You Think

Image Courtesy of Vintage Roadside’s @ Flickr

Did the word “free” in the title grab your attention?

We live in the internet age, where we’re growing more and more accustomed to getting things for free. Whether it’s information from blogs and online newspapers, services like email and Twitter, or images, videos and music tracks, it’s all free and it’s there for the taking.

The problem is, “free” could be costing you a lot more than you think.

“Free” Short-Circuits Your Brain

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely discusses the power of “free” – and how it seems to short-circuit our logical thinking:

In one trial of one study we offered students a Lindt Truffle for 26 cents and a Hershey’s Kiss for 1 cent and observed the buying behavior: 40 percent went with the truffle and 40 percent with the Kiss. When we dropped the price of both chocolates by just 1 cent, we observed that suddenly 90 percent of participants opted for the free Kiss, even though the relative price between the two was the same. We concluded that FREE! is indeed a very powerful force.

(The Nuances of the FREE! Experiment, Predictably Irrational)

The word free often makes us ignore other options, even if these would represent extremely good value.

How often have you gone for something free… when spending just a dollar or two might’ve saved you a lot of time and effort? How did that free thing work out for you?

“Free” Costs You Time

It’s easy to assume that anything free is a no-brainer: you can’t lose by having something that’s free, right? Actually, you can. You could end up spending a lot of time and energy on something which would’ve been a lot simpler if you’d paid a few dollars.

I remember spending, literally, a whole day struggling to accomplish a task that would’ve taken seconds if I’d been willing to bite the bullet sooner and pay for software instead of using a “free” version.

How much is your time worth to you? If you work for yourself, there’s a very direct relationship between how much time you spend working and how much money you make. Sometimes, the “free” options actually works out a lot more expensive.

“Free” Draws You In and Gets You to Buy

Marketers have been using free to get people to buy for decades. In the age of the internet, this is becoming even more prevalent. Perhaps you can get a free DVD in return for your mailing address, or a free report in exchange for your email address. You can read blog after blog without spending a dime. At some point, though, you’re likely to be sold something.

In some cases, that’s not a bad thing at all. The “free” sample or product or service gave you a taste, and you loved it so much that you know purchasing will be a great decision. Sometimes, though, you can find yourself getting pressured into spending on things you don’t really want. Maybe you start using a “free” service and then have to upgrade to a premium one in order to get the features that you need – if you’d shopped around in the first place, you might have got something better.

You don’t need to avoid everything that’s free … just be aware that marketers know what they’re doing. They aren’t giving away valuable information or products just for the sake of it: they’re trying to convert you from a prospect into a customer.

When “Free” is Good

I’m certainly not suggesting that we all turn our backs on free products. Sometimes, a freebie is high-quality – it could even be better than something which you pay for.

I’d suggest that free options are a good idea when:

  • You’re just dabbling your toes into a new area (whether business or hobby), and want to get a feel for whether you enjoy it
  • You’re deliberating between different options and want to try out several
  • The person or organisation offering the free item has a great reputation
  • You’ve got the willpower (and organisation strength!) to cancel your trial before the free period runs out
  • You have plenty of time on your hands but not much money

In most cases, though, give some serious thought to whether the lure of free is really going to represent good value for you. Would it be better to spend a few dollars … and save a few hours of your life?

It’d be great to hear about some of your own experiences, whether good or bad, with getting things for free. The comments are open!

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Related Articles:

Time is All We Have: 3 Ways To Increase The  Return On Investment

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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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