Free Stuff


A funny thing happened on the way to being a professional: At conferences and lectures and continuing education courses, organizations just give away a ton of free stuff. Some of it is even useful, the pens and pads of paper, maybe. Others . . . not so much.

We’re talking headphones of dubious quality, tote bags that manage to be bulky and at the same time have so little available space, and drink koozies. Like, hundreds of them. You know, those things used to keep your drinks cold.

Behold! The pinnacle of human ingenuity!

Does anyone actually use these? If so, leave a comment because I’m curious. They just never seemed useful to me.

Anyway, I do have a point here, and that it’s this:

Why do we feel compelled to grab something, no matter how chintzy the quality, just because it’s free?

I’ve seen this at expos and whatnot, where various vendors will set up a table to hawk whatever good or service the offer, often with the aforementioned trinkets emblazoned with their company logo. I know that the idea is that every time someone looks at the pen or uses that flash drive, they’ll think of your company . . . but many people go to these expos for the sole sake of grabbing the free stuff.

You know those little containers of tiny breath mints made of some sort of artificial sweetener that almost approximates fake sugar but more closely resembles a flavor that can only be called “chemical”? I’ve seen people hoard those like there’s a blizzard coming and they need to buy all of the eggs, milk, and bread at the supermarket, now!

Do human beings have an in-born scarcity mindset? I can see that in my Depression-era grandparents, for example, and my one grandfather who grew up in Greece when it was occupied by the goddamn Nazis, and then later during the Greek civil war against the goddamn Communists. They knew privation, and as a result they are, to this day, very thrifty.

But they don’t go ga-ga over free stuff.

This article from Pricenomics lays out the supposition that it’s the emotional charge people get from free–being free makes us think it’s more valuable than it actually is. And yet, a price premium is also something that is used to indicate value, both real and perceived, to the buyer, even if the product isn’t worth the price in the conventional sense (parts and labor, other direct costs, and so on).

So what we have is an interesting phenomenon where people, at least Americans (because that’s who I’m most familiar with) lose their minds at the prospect of getting something for free, even if we don’t want it.

If I may put on my moralizing hat here, I think it’s a healthy to resist the pull of free stuff. For starters, if it’s being given away, how valuable is it, really? And unless you’re actually going to use said free thing, it’s clutter. And clutter in the physical space can translate into clutter of the mind.

And . . . that’s about as deep as I feel like getting today. I’ll stop before you get physically ill.


  1. Here’s my husband’s reason to grab the weird freebies: because he’s too busy while traveling for work to buy a souvenir for the kids, but they are SO HAPPY when Papa brings them something.

    Kids LOVE weird little objects, even when emblazoned with drug company logos. I know because their bedroom floor is littered with them.

    Of course, DH literally grew up in communist run Eastern Europe where lack of useful stuff was a daily problem, so he and I have different views on “stuff.” I’m overwhelmed by it; his family relishes the abundance of life in America!


    • This is an amazing perspective. Being born and raised here in the U.S., I guess what I see as waste others see as incredible, blessed abundance.

      Also, great idea about giving the knickknacks to the kids as souvenirs. Love it.


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