The true cost of FREE!

I just finished reading this wonderful book: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. It describes how we systematically behave irrationally, hence making it predictable. Although I consider myself a fairly rational person, I must confess I’ve acted rather irrationally a few times in the past (Ah, to be young and foolish). I would’ve thought that those were erratic, one-off cases but the book presents a case that there are patterns underlying our fallibility. One pattern that really resonated with me was how we behave irrationally around zero cost. There’s a particular allure for free stuff.

Off the top of my head, I can easily imagine following scenarios:

  • I often eat a lot in office lunches. I mean a lot! I prepare myself for them by not having breakfast. I’m sure others do the same, no? That can’t just be me. If something is free, we just can’t stop ourselves from over-consuming it and end up paying a lot more indirectly (doctor visits?).
  • All those free t-shirts? They don’t fit very well and you can’t wear most of them outside home but we still keep accumulating every promotional t-shirt we can get. I can’t get myself to buy a regular t-shirt because I remember I already have 20 or so at home.
  • Free crap at expos? I attended an expo recently and there were so many stalls, handing out stuff. There was a queue moving through the stalls, everyone pushing every food sample down their throat and everything else in bags. There was no time to judge if I needed something or not and now I have a shit ton of crap at home I can’t throw out, including a handheld battery operated fan which doubles as a torch but sucks at being both. Wow, that rhymes!
  • Companies have caught on to how excited people get around zero. So you see deals like LED watch for 0 bucks, and then its entire cost in shipping charges. I guess it must work on some people. It doesn’t on me though. Why would you not check the total amount you are paying? I would rather pay the cost of something than for having it delivered to me. What does work on me is free shipping. All of these e-retailers have a minimum order value above which the shipping is free, which encourages putting more and more stuff in the cart to be eligible for free shipping. I can’t believe how much crap I’ve bought from Amazon to be eligible for free shipping, crap like this, this and this.
  • We pay far more than our fair share for free stuff with our time, by waiting for a long time in a queue to get a free ice cream, or going to free events. I recently went to a free community event. I had no idea what it was but it had the allure of being free (There aren’t many free things to do around here!). So I spent 5 hours in buses to, drum roll, sit on grass for 15 minutes and eat a teeny tiny protein salad. To be fair, I didn’t know how far away it was, and that’s the problem, isn’t it? I was so blinded by it being free that I didn’t care to find out more about it. No more!
  • Snacks and drinks which proudly say “zero calories” or “zero trans fats” in big bold labels! We get so fascinated with that zero that we don’t care to find out what else is in there.

The point is that FREE! is not a price point, it’s a magical place. We get really excited around it and do stupid things. It would be wise to be extra vigilant when dealing with free things.

This was just some introspection for me and food for thought for others. Dan Ariely has an excellent youtube channel. Head over there to learn more.

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