When Free is Too Expensive

by Katy on August 1, 2009 · 21 comments

free-signIf there’s one things that unites all income levels, it’s getting something for nothing. Whether it’s garbage picking a perfectly good mop, (guilty as charged) or getting a swag bag while attend the Oscar ceremonies, it’s hard to turn down a freebie.

But in a society where one in every ten Americans has overflowed their belongings into a self storage unit, should we be looking for more, more, more belongings?

I live in a pretty big home, it’s four large bedrooms plus a full basement and a large unfinished room at the back of the house. There should be enough room for all of our stuff and still allow for a bit of an echo.

Such is not the case.

My husband used to have his own commercial photography studio which he closed down eight years ago, this meant a whole lotta stuff entered our house. He was pretty good about selling off the majority of the furniture, but there’s still a large amount of photography equipment gathering dust in that back bedroom. He’s also the equipment manager for our local soccer club, which has over 1000 players, which means that goals, nets, T-shirts, first aid kits and other flotsam spill forth from our basement.

Our great big house is filled to the brim.

So what does this have to do with free stuff being too expensive?

Our backyard neighbors moved out of their rental house due to the landlord not paying her mortgage, and left a lot of stuff, (okay — crap) behind. The landlord unceremoniously dumped all of it onto the parking strip in front of the house, and propped a “free” sign against it all.

I knew it was there but really felt like:

  • These lovely tenants got a raw deal, and I shouldn’t  look to benefit from their misfortune.
  • I have enough stuff in my house, and shouldn’t be looking to accumulate even one. More. Thing.

My steely resolve lasted until around 3:00 P.M. when I strolled over to check it out. I daintily picked through the stuff and found:

  • A snap-on lid for a Pyrex bowl.
  • A sprinkler.
  • A vintage wire basket, meant for flowers that is currently holding vegetables.
  • A vintage pressed glass creamer.
  • A dish towel.
  • A couple of Country Home magazines, which I secretly really like.
  • A plastic deck chair, which I will use in the backyard while we have house guests this week and then give away when they’re gone.

This may seem like I exercised little restraint, but I actually did. There was a decent couch, which would have been a nice addition to my 13-year-old’s band practice space in the basement, as well as countless other tempting tidbits.

As I browsed the piles, at least four people stopped their cars to have a look. I felt that most of the usable items would go home with those lucky enough to have chosen this route.

I could easily have found much, much more to bring home, because hey — it’s free! But what would be the actual cost of adding that much more crap into my life? A house that requires too much work to keep clean and tidy, that’s what!

I have worked very hard to declutter my home, and I am not going to let all that effort go to waste just because there’s an enormous free pile a few steps from my house.

That, my fellow Non-Consumers is a price I am unwilling to pay.

Make sure to watch Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff as a reminder as to why the buy more, more, more mentality has got to change. It’s twenty minutes long, but worth every minute.

Do you have a hard time turning down stuff when it’s free? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer August 2, 2009 at 7:04 am

That statistic is mind-blowing! 10% of Americans have a storage unit?!?! I don’t even have a cellar or an attic. I have a tiny space next to my washer in the laundry room, to store Christmas decorations and the like. Our air conditioners are stored in our bedroom closets in the off season.

This is the reason I am ruthless about purging. I will not pay someone to warehouse my blongings. Out of sight, out of mind. I wonder how many people have no idea what they’ve put into storage.


FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com August 2, 2009 at 7:40 am

If they are useful items, why not?

I’d rather pick them free from someone’s home than buy something new

But if they aren’t useful, or not things I’d read, I don’t bother. I suppose it’s the same thing with you 🙂


AJ in AZ August 2, 2009 at 8:20 am

Yes, I do have trouble turning down free items, whether I need them or not. But I’m getting better. I really do feel better about life, etc., when I can actually see the horizontal surfaces in my house and can walk into closets without have stuff rain down on my head from the overstuffed shelves. My house isn’t too cluttered anymore, but I must admit that my studio looks pretty crowded. Craft supplies are always my downfall because every time I get rid of everything related to a particular craft, I want to take it up again a few months later.


Nadia August 2, 2009 at 8:33 am

I am with Jennifer, astounded by the stat that 1 in 10 have a storage unit! All that money to store mostly junk that people don’t even really want.
I live in a great college town and mid June is great for my version of “curbside recycling”. My best find was a 1/2 full Costco sized jug of organic laundry detergent because some students were moving out.
It is hard to make the distinction between do I want it, or do I want it because it’s free.
I am in the process of purging a lot of my apartment to get ready for our first baby later this year. I have gotten rid of a ton of stuff/junk that had accumulated, and all the cabinets and drawers are still full! No more bringing things in without moving something out (except baby, of course!).


Jill August 2, 2009 at 8:39 am

Oh heck, Katy – why give yourself such a hard time? Your thoughts about the past tenants are admirable, and I’m sure they appreciate them. Free stuff is free stuff without a home, so it might as well go into yours. Maybe you would feel better if you adopt that policy you have talked about – for every ‘new’ thing coming in, get rid of an ‘old’ thing.


Cyndi August 2, 2009 at 10:15 am

I don’t have a problem with free stuff. I’m just careful to keep it moving.


Rebecca August 2, 2009 at 11:35 am

I’m a college student.

Need I say more?

Fortunately, I’m at a time in my life where free stuff is not a problem, because I don’t have a whole lot of stuff to begin with! My stuff can fit into a 100 square foot dorm room, and I’m going to be moving into an apartment this fall, so I’m all about getting free furniture, free dishes, etc. I’ve actually been in a position to benefit from the one in ten Americans with storage units, because my roommate’s family has been all kinds of excited to give the stuff in their unit to us (we’ve actually had to turn down free stuff).

I wouldn’t say I have a problem with free stuff, just a healthy respect for it that I need to keep from turning into a problem later down the road by being conscious of how much space I have, how much stuff can fit in that space, and how much time I can afford to spend keeping all of it clean!


Hillary aka Deal Squirrel August 2, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Wow, I just preached a sermon at my church on this last week. There has to be a point where we all say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! I’m not a perfect de-clutterer, however, when you can’t walk into an entire room because of the junk something needs to change. When will we be satisfied with what we have? The sermon text you ask? “But godliness with CONTENTMENT is great gain.” Being a non-consumer makes contentment a lot more possible, at least in my opinion. Blessings as you pursue your contentment.


Hydra August 2, 2009 at 2:25 pm

I’ve been wrestling with this lately, in a parallel way–food waste. How to effectively not waste food, but yet not overeat. I really hate to waste food, but there are times when there is literally one or 2 bites left of a dinner, and it’s really not enough to save, but to eat it would just go to my waist. This especially happens when we’re already on the 2nd or 3rd meal of some leftovers, and they’re just not going to make it another day. They’re ‘free’, but at what cost?


Sandy August 2, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Oh, yes. I know what you mean. Free is tempting. I have limited my freecycling because I was not as discriminating as I could be. Plus I wasn’t giving enough way. Now I feel I need to give away at least three items before I can collect on another freebie. It’s only frugally ethical in my opinion 🙂


Maniacal Mommy August 2, 2009 at 3:59 pm

I once spotted a rug put out for the trash. I thought it would go great on my hardwood floor. My grandma and I loaded it up into my tiny car and took it home. My cat then spent an hour sniffing it, and looked at me as if to say “I am peeing on this the moment you fall asleep.” A sniff test confirmed his verdict, and we loaded the rug back up and dropped it off where we found it.

Sometimes free IS too expensive!


Janet Texas August 2, 2009 at 5:54 pm

We moved from NJ to California 7 years ago. I still have boxes of stuff in the garage that I’ve never opened!! How badly did I need this stuff if I haven’t looked for it and have lived without it for 7 years. This is crazy. I’m cleaning out the garage now and everything is going 1. to recycling, 2. on Craigslist for free, 3. in the garbage. By the end of the summer the garage is going to having nothing in it that is not being used.


Alyssa August 2, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Probably the only complaint I have about my otherwise terrific father-in-law is regarding storage units.

As the only child, my father-in-law inherited his parent’s estate. He immediately brought all the special, sentimental, and valuable things to his home to display and enjoy. The rest, including decades old mattresses/sofas/blankets/kitchen wares, he placed into a storage unit. He got a “deal” at $100/month. Fifteen years later, he brought my husband and me to the unit and proudly said, “Take anything you need to start a home.” The stuff, housed in a non-airconditioned facility just a stone’s throw from the I-5 freeway in California’s Central Valley (read: 100+ degree summers and lots of freeway grit), was filthy and smelled. It was unusable. What a shame. Someone else could have used this stuff fifteen years ago when it was sanitary (albeit dated). With the money he dumped into that storage unit, he could have bought us a houseful of brand-new furniture. Or, better yet, he could have saved and invested wisely to protect himself as he aged.

To those with storage facilities, I point out: you’re going to have to open it up at some point and deal with your stuff. Why not do it now so that someone else can get use and enjoyment out of the things while they’re still usable? And wouldn’t it feel great to NOT pay the monthly fee? I would never have the guts to ask this of my father-in-law (nor is it any of my business, nor is it in good taste)… so I bravely type it out here instead.


Pat August 3, 2009 at 5:32 am

My niece and her husband bought brand-new furniture and put in storage for their ‘future’ home. I was amazed. Fast forward 14 years – yep they still have that stuff in storage. I asked her about it just recently and she told me she visits it regularly and still wants it when they get they new home. I am perplexed why they would want 14-year old furniture but even more so because they aren’t even looking for a new home. They’ve paid for that furniture over- and- over- and- over…….


Sierra August 3, 2009 at 7:18 am

When I did the Your Money Or Your Life home inventory a few years ago, I realized that nearly everything in my house had come in without money changing hands: every piece of furniture, every kitchen item, 90% of the clothes and all the toys. It was all gifts or hand-me-downs or trash-picked treasure.

Since we moved into a smaller house last year, I’ve become much pickier about what freebies I accept.


Kate August 3, 2009 at 8:26 am

I’m still stuck on the fact that your neighbors (the tennants) were kicked out because the landlord didn’t pay her morgage. That should be illegal, and I believe is. There is plenty of help for them, and I hope they’re not homeless now.


Stacy August 3, 2009 at 11:44 am

I live in a big apartment complex, and when people move out they tend to leave furniture and boxes of unwanted stuff next to the dumpster. Just last night I had to force myself not to take home a bunch of stuff I don’t need — gift bags and boxes, an easel, etc. I used to grab everything, but learned my lesson when an ottoman I brought home had a huge weird beetle living inside of it. That definately dampened my enthusiasm for free stuff.


Angela August 3, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Alyssa- Great story. I have seen similar things occur, and have done it on a small scale myself. I saved my girlhood saddle, and when I finally accepted I probably wasn’t going to have a horse again, I went to sell it and it had become unsuitable for riding due to sitting in storage too long. Luckily, an old man paid me $200 for it because it was so beautiful he wanted to display it in his house. But I should have given it away 30 years ago to someone who could have used it. Lesson learned.

My parents just spent $500(!!) a month, for seven years, to store furniture when they moved into a condo. That’s $42,000, which makes me sick to my stomach. I am working hard NOT to become like my mother. In our garage, we have tools and out of season items, along with hiking and camping gear and that’s about it. I want to always know what’s in there and where it is.


MichaelL August 26, 2009 at 2:31 pm

The way I see it everything is relative:

Some people try save a lot and loose a great deal, others give a way a lot and gain even more.

I don’t rush at free stuff, because I’ve learnt to associate free with (crap).


John Middleton January 15, 2010 at 2:25 pm

I loved reading this post, especially the comment by Alyssa, especially where she stated “To those with storage facilities, I point out: you’re going to have to open it up at some point and deal with your stuff. Why not do it now so that someone else can get use and enjoyment out of the things while they’re still usable?”.

That’s the whole idea behind my new business! I’m a 25 year old living in Portland, Oregon and I’m totally for moving those items OUT of storage.


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