In 2014, beware of the word “free”

Mega Pixel/Shutterstock
Mega Pixel/Shutterstock
How dumb do they think you are?

As the dust settled on the now-finished holiday shopping season, I couldn’t help but wonder. One study concluded it was one of the strongest seasons in recent memory, adding that more than seven shoppers said they plan to take advantage of “free shipping” offers, while nearly half expect “free” returns.

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I nearly choked on my espresso when I read that. Did they just say “free”?

Right about now, half of you are saying to yourself: TANSTAAFL! That’s shorthand for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” and you’re right, of course. Bonus points if you can tell me which Robert Heinlein book it’s from. (Yeah, I grew up reading sci-fi novels.)

The other half? “Grinch!” (Belatedly.) Or worse.

Maybe you’re among them. Maybe you want to believe that the shipping is free, that the returns are free. You definitely don’t want anyone to burst that bubble.

Allow me, please.

I’m not the only consumer advocate who has a bee in his bonnet about the way companies have twisted the word “free” to their own ends. Just the other day, I was talking with a colleague — there are only about five other consumer advocates who do this kind of journalism, so we all know each other — and when I mentioned the little “free” problem, he rolled his eyes.

“Don’t even get me started,” he groaned.

There’s a sense, he explained, that corporate America has won on this issue. It gets to call something “free” when it really isn’t. Challenging the business world definition of “free” is like tilting at windmills, he suggested.

I agree, but I don’t care. I’ll stick with the dictionary definition of “free,” which is: something that costs nothing.

I’m not splitting hairs. If the shipping were really free, then you could go to the big-box store with your holiday presents and get them sent anywhere in the world without having to buy anything. And “free” returns? Well, that’s impossible, because you have to buy something in order to send it back.

It’s more accurate to say shipping and returns are included in the price you pay. But free sounds so much better, doesn’t it?

The truth about “free”

When businesses use the word “free” to promote something, it doesn’t just mean they’re lying. It means they think you’re kinda slow. So you should be doubly offended when someone offers a “free” airline ticket, says your kids will eat “free,” or promises that if you buy one item, you’ll get a second one “free.”

The last time I wrote about the way the word “free” was being twisted by companies, I received a ton of angry comments on my consumer advocacy site. One missive that didn’t appear in the story came from a PR person who wrote to me because she was upset I’d mentioned one of her company’s “free” offers. Why criticize such a good value?

I can’t dispute that this particular offer was a good deal, but that’s not the point. It’s that it was being called “free” when it wasn’t.

The truth? Nothing is really free. There are no free lunches, free tickets — no free anything.

What else are they going to do?

Think about it. A business that claims something is “free” is doing you a favor. It’s warning you. An airline that offers a “free” ticket for signing up for its credit card probably won’t stop at misrepresenting just that one deal, now will it? Chances are it’s truth-challenged in other ways, too. What’s more, odds are it will show no remorse when customers are misled and have to pay a higher price than they expected.

If the word “free” attracts a throng of unsavvy customers, it’s also the thing that drives discerning shoppers away. And rightfully so.

Next time you click on your favorite commerce website or visit the mall, pay attention to the word “free.” Notice the kinds of businesses that use it. Are these quality companies with reputations for great customer service, or are they resorting to gimmicks to goose up their sales?

I’m willing to bet it’s the latter.

This year, do yourself a favor and stay away from “free” offers and the companies that offer them. You’ll thank me for it.

Are you planning to avoid "free" offers in 2014?

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80 thoughts on “In 2014, beware of the word “free”

  1. TANSTAAFL is from “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

    You gotta give us something more difficult than that!!

    Yes, nothing is actually “free” but there is nothing wrong with accepting that “free” offer if you are already doing business with the company offering it.

    1. The only reason you beat me to it is that I couldn’t sign in to make comments on my Kindle tablet and actually had to to leave my nice comfy chair and head to the computer downstairs. Nerds unite!

  2. You bet I’m going to NOT avoid “free” offers in 2014. If the going rate is let’s say $10 for the item I want, and I get free shipping from vendor AtoZ and the price is $5 + $6.95 shipping from vendor not AtoZ, I’m going for the “free” shipping.

    I’m waiting for the deals you inevitably offer during underwriting drives. You generally offer a “free” copy of your book or some such deal if a person underwrites during such a drive. Right? If those books were really “free”, you’d have sent copies to all the other underwriters outside of those drives, or whenever anyone wrote to you and asked for them. Right?

    I really get the point you’re trying to make and appreciate your pointing out that TANSTAAFL. But sometimes we really can figure it out when it is to our advantage, and when it isn’t, since we’ve been so well educated by you.

    1. You are so right. I know shipping is included in the cost when the company says “Free”. But why would I go somewhere else to pay more to a company for the privilege of not getting the “free” shipping? Even the bogus free offers can make economic sense. (Not always, but a good consumer will know the difference.)

    2. I pointed out very recently that although the newsletter box to the right was corrected from ‘free’ the pop ups emploring us to sign up still said ‘free’. Those are gone and now this article came up. Sorry if I had anything to do with it!

    3. And there is this company that mainly sells clothing that is located in Maine and gives included shipping and returns on everything it sells. And it’s not the slow shipping option either, I have gotten most things I bought from them within 3 days. Their products always have been more expensive than other companies selling similar items, but with their “return anything at anytime after purchase and we will replace it or refund your cost” and the fact that a lot of their stuff is actually made in the USA and their excellent customer service (actually getting to talk to a live person in Maine on the first ring of the phone!), I would buy from them anyway.

      Point being that it isn’t really “free” shipping because I know since I am paying more for the items to start with that the cost is factored in.

      1. Same thing with a company that started out by selling shoes but has now branched into other items. If I want to be lazy and order from the Internet the same exact thing that I can get at a department store for the same price, then I’m going to order it. I have saved the gas money that it would have taken to drive me to the store and, if I need to return it, I’m only out the cost of the type it takes to tape it back up and the ink it takes to print the return label. Probably about what the gas would have cost to drive but I get the pleasure of trying on something without having to deal with surly sales people and surly customers.

      2. You are paying more for that Maine company’s chamois shirt that is still made offshore, is now thinner than in years past, at same or higher price. Same shirt made by a clothing manufacturer and retailer out of Woolrich, PA, is thicker, same price, but shipping charges. You are being lied to by the Maine company. They advertise the chamois shirt as the favorite going way back. But not this new product. When I called and spoke with PR, the deflected the topic. Told me it was THE chamois shirt. BS. I no longer buy from them. Nothing. NADA.

    4. TANSTAAFL is not always true. I was walking around down town when some people were calling out “Free Lunch” and handing out box lunches. They said their company wanted to do this as good will, I asked what their company was and they said no need to know, they are not trying to promote themselves, they just want to be nice and do good and not attach strings or even try to entice people. They were very nice, and I ate my free lunch. Of course, I guess the company had to raise their prices to pay for the lunch and their service got more expensive, etc. So maybe its not free, but it was sure a good experience.

      1. The appearance of free is a good thing in this case. The cost of the box lunches they handed out is probably not even what their CEO spends on appetizers for dinner and has the company pay for. 🙂

      2. Used to be that there was a line item in accounting for “Goodwill”, but you probably remember that, from your days working for A/R. 🙂

        1. Hahaha, that seems to be long gone these days. Actually, when the VP told me to “Take care of that charge…” and it was a legitimate charge, I would just debit the VPs general fund. I did have a small balance write off line item. In the event of a legitimate change that needed to go away, I would actually reverse the transaction in full. This of course would reduce our revenue which the VP didn’t like.

    5. I think you made his point exactly.

      Start with ‘free’ isn’t free and go from there. How much is the added freebie worth, do you really even want it, and compare the total value you are getting amongst the various vendors from whom you buy product. The key question should be “What value am I getting and how does it compare with the price I’m paying.”

      Many times Southwest is more expensive than competitors, but for the INCLUDED value of checked luggage and more lenient change / cancellation policies, I’ll pay the higher dollar price for Southwest. With Southwest, the overall VALUE I receive is better even though the price is higher.

      1. I’m glad Southwest works for you. It has never worked for me and has only worked for my husband once. We don’t check luggage and all the fares that show up as available by the time we get around to buying a ticket are more than $200 more than the competition, so that negates the change fee differential. But my admittedly limited experience does not negate the positives experienced by so many others.

        If CE would stick to the value idea you expressed so well, great. But as my husband said when I showed him the article this morning, “Language is a phenomenon that requires healthy synapses to process.” I appreciate the education, but I don’t appreciate the flagellation of a deceased equine.

  3. This “free” set of articles is dumb. It’s understood that you have to buy something to get a “free” added benefit.

    1. The intro to this one is certainly as dumb as they come. It starts off talking about free returns…which truly are free virtually all the time. (I can’t remember the last time I paid a restocking fee or anything like that. And some retailers I frequent don’t even require a receipt, as they can look up the purchase on the CC I used to make the purchase.) It also mentions free shipping, which was also readily available this past shopping season with no strings attached. (I think I may have paid for shipping once or twice the entire Christmas shopping season.)

  4. A huge NO for the poll. I like free and I am a big person who gets how to play the game to get my freebie and I am ok with the games!

  5. So here’s my problem with this entire line of articles. Everyone knows “Free” means in a consumer context. It’s not a secret. it’s not deceptive. So I fail to see the purpose behind them. Its almost like a solution in search of a problem.

    1. Except not everyone knows what “free” means. P.T. Barnum possibly said, “There is a sucker born every minute.” Some people are simply not smart enough to take free into context and do their homework. Though I agree with you and think most people do understand “Free”.

      1. Have you actually met someone who believes what the article claims?

        If the shipping were really free, then you could go to the
        big-box store with your holiday presents and get them sent anywhere in
        the world without having to buy anything. And “free” returns? Well, that’s impossible, because you have to buy something in order to send it back.

        I must confess I have not.

        1. Haha Okay, I admit I read that before I had my coffee. Although, I have met a few people who were dumb enough to believe that. But this was when I worked at a university that was rated as a top party school, and it was mostly new students who would hear such claims and believe them in that context.

      2. Judging by the lede paragraph, Chris can’t even decide what “free” means. Even if you buy into his premise that the phrase is ambiguous and frequently misused, who could argue with the two first examples he uses, which are free shipping and free returns? Those absolutely are free in most cases. Just not a very well constructed intro to the article.

    2. While I hear what you’re saying, I don’t have a problem with Christopher’s ongoing rants about companies that use the word “free” so “freely”. I actually DON’T think everyone gets it. I think he’s right that there are too many consumers who get sucked into the “free” thing without doing their homework to find out what it actually costs. And that is the point of his article: free never means free, and you need to actually find out what it costs.

      Where I disagree with him is in assuming that every company that offers some sort of “freebie” is, in doing so, identifying itself as an inherently dishonest company which should be avoided by smart consumers.

      Not all freebies are actually bad deals, and many of them are GOOD deals…provided you do your homework and learn what the true costs are, and how to take advantage of the deal without ending up paying more. That, I believe, is the message we should take from this line of articles: free doesn’t mean free, there’s a cost somewhere. But free doesn’t also mean bad deal, go elsewhere. Free might mean a good deal IF you do your homework and don’t get sucked into whatever it is they are trying to suck you into.

      As for assuming any company that does this is dishonest…that’s just being a Pollyanna. EVERY company practices dishonesty to some degree. That’s called “marketing”. Some use the “free” strategy, others don’t. But to assume that companies that DON’T offer freebies are somehow more honest, or less dishonest, is poppycock. They all will all try whatever works to get your business.

      1. Fair enough, there are a few truly disreputable industries such as time shares, where the may play fast and lose with words. But that’s the overwhelming exception.

    3. For me, all this rant about free is like someone who wants to improve the mouse trap. Those who know how it works are fine with it. It is the novices that complain 🙂

  6. I got notification from Target that I got a “FREE” year of credit monitoring from Experian (the one that anybody can just go get).

    So my question is: who pays whom in that setup?

    It costs Experian basically nothing to add another customer….but in the process of getting perhaps millions of warm leads of targetees (pardon the pun), it’s got a huge marketing and spam opportunity. When redeeming the Target code, one of the very first things you see is a pitch to get your credit score — for a fee of course.

    And when that “free” year is up, how likely is it that everyone will get another reminder, and an offer to switch to the $5 per month paid service; $60 a year for a whole lot of nothing?

    That doesn’t include the marketing emails checkbox – in which you are, of course, opted in by default.

    If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d say that companies drum up these kinds of scares just for the marketing opportunities.

  7. So can you thing of anything, anywhere, in any context, that meets your definition of free? Your example of being able to take your presents to a big box store and ship them without having to buy anything doesn’t work, because you still had to go to THAT particular store. Shouldn’t you should be able to go to any store and ship your presents and just charge the shipping cost to the first store for it to really be “free”?

    In this article you seem to imply that something can’t be free if you have to buy something to get it. But previously you have also claimed that something can’t be free if you have to hand over personal information to get it, such as signing up for a loyalty program or credit card to receive a “free” gift. This was your “no strings attached” definition. But in your big box store example, you suggest that the condition of having to go to THAT particular store isn’t enough of a condition to violate your concept of free. The point is, you have now accepted that “free” includes at least some conditions; you’ve just drawn your line in the sand at which conditions you think are acceptable. It seems disingenuous to suggest that if I choose to draw the line in a different place then I’m somehow not a “discerning” customer.

    I fully understand that my Amazon Prime shipping isn’t “free” in the sense that I have to pay $70 per year for it or whatever it is, plus I have to actually buy the items from Amazon. Given the amount of actual cold hard cash it saves me every year, I’ll take that deal.

    1. Amazon Prime is the greatest. Amazon already sells a lot of their stuff for cheaper than you can find in big box stores, plus I don’t have to deal with traffic, parking, etc. It’s such a win-win.

    2. Air isn’t even free anymore, all of my local gas stations now charge for air. That used to be the one think I always knew I could get for free.

  8. I think it’s pretty reasonable to call something “free” when it’s available as an addition to something I’m already going to buy for no additional cost; you are making a mountain out of a molehill here. There are certainly far more deceptive uses of the word “free” than Free Shipping on an Amazon order.

  9. Yeah, but sometimes the “free” actually IS free. Look at Amazon. Their videogames sell for either at standard retail rate or below. If I don’t care that it will take 5-8 days to get to me, it will ship for free. So, I’ve just saved myself the hassle of:
    1. Driving to a Gamestop
    2. Dealing with the 18-yr-old pothead behind the counter that wants to sell me some stupid magazine subscription
    3. Driving home

    Because I got the exact same item, with free (legit free) shipping from Amazon.
    And that’s how I shop.
    Drunk and naked.

    …well, maybe not those last two…

  10. To bar usage of “free” seems a tad extreme, but there are definitely situations where it is used inappropriately. Amazon offers Free Shipping with a min $35 purchase. The tradeoff for the savings is that processing takes longer. This isn’t deceptive and is disclosed up front, and consumers can choose to take advantage of it or upgrade shipping options. What I have a problem with are the Free Credit Report ads on TV, which advertise a Free Credit Report but don’t mention it involves signing up for their credit monitoring trial which renews automatically.

    1. Agreed. I’m a huge fan of some kinds of “free” (Amazon shipping) but I run far, run fast with other kinds of “free” (e.g. the two “free” cruises I won this week). I like to think that most people know the difference, but if that were true I guess the scamming-type free offers would die out. There are always conditions with “free.” And I do agree with Chris that sometimes those conditions are not as readily discernible as they probably should be.

    2. I’ve ordered things on Amazon with “free” and paid shipping. I’ve never noticed a difference in how long things take to get to me. Except for right before Christmas, I’ve always received my orders in 2-3 days no matter what kind of shipping I chose. Could be that I live only two hours from a major distribution center though.

      1. Maybe they’ve changed it. I’ve had Amazon Prime for about 2 years now and never looked back after that. I remember ordering video games and books from Amazon using Super Saver Shipping and waiting 10 days for them to arrive, which wasn’t an issue because it was disclosed upfront. And this wasn’t during any kind of holiday period.

      2. The difference is that with Prime it’s guaranteed. With regular shipping it may come sooner depending on where you live.

  11. I’m not sure on this. Amazon offers free shipping (slow) and paid shipping (quicker). The cost of my item is the same regardless which shipping option I choose. Then again the ‘kids eat free’ is misleading and I’ve seen more ads recently where it clearly states ‘one kid’s meal per adult purchase’ (and not in fine print) which is then completely accurate. I am an adult and my meal would cost the same if I had a wee one with me or not. I am not sure if I’m missing something here? I feel silly but I’m confused. Granted that’s my typical state of being so I’m not feeling out of sorts, luckily. 😉

    1. There is a museum near us who advertises that children under two get free admission. No other terms are listed. I’ve gone with my toddler, and I do pay as I want to go in with him, but I am curious what they would say if I just dropped him off and said he would be going in on his own as I didn’t want to pay for admission for myself.

  12. Good post! I’m definitely all for not being duped by the “free” stuff. Some stores jack up the price before marking the 2nd in a Buy One Get One “Free” offer anyway. Airlines offering “free” flights as a rewards card member are really thinking the American public are slow. I wouldn’t totally avoid “free” as sometimes the promo is a better deal. Just good to use sound judgement.

    1. Kohl’s is notorious for the jacked up “buy one, get one free” crap. I saw coffee in there twice the cost of what it is in the grocery. So. Not free.

      1. I like Target, but I go often enough that I have started to notice that crap no one needs that isn’t selling for $4 gets marked “down” to 2 for $10. I asked an employee once, and she said that that is one of their ways of clearing items that aren’t selling, and often gets people to buy it. She also told me to go first thing Sunday morning as that’s when they really mark down items.

      2. Yes, you should to do your homework before you make your purchase. But that, Buy One, Get One Free, is a good deal to the person who doesn’t have the time to go from store to store checking out prices and needs to make a quick purchase and gets 2 for the price of one. If the purchaser is happy,. then who are we to pop their bubble?
        I use to work as a price comparison employee for a local business.

  13. Depends on what’s being offered for free. Free shipping on Amazon or elsewhere, I’ll take advantage in exchange for waiting a couple extra days. Offers in the mail for “free vacation” or “free airline ticket” go straight to my garbage.

  14. I voted no, I love free 🙂 Actually, I took advantage of free shipping too. When I wanted a specific item, and the price was the same at multiple on-line retailers, I went with the one with free shipping, if it was less at one place after shipping, than at the place with free shipping, I bought it at the place where I paid shipping. I also have a shoe store I use, and its about an hour from me. It always has the best prices, better than the close stores, and better than on-line. They also offer free shipping and free returns. If I find my shoes cheaper elsewhere, I’ll buy them elsewhere, but until then the free is a great deal for me. So while its not really free, if the “free” makes the total coast less, then I am all about free. If the “free” still costs more, I won’t use whats free. I guess I agree with Chris on this, except I don’t get offended when they say “free” I still figure out the best deal.

  15. Not going to avoid “Free”. Just going to do my research and do what I think is the best deal for me. If that has something “free” in it so be it, if it doesn’t then that is fine too. And the best deal may not always be the cheapest, as I do consider factors other than just cost. Works for me….

    1. That, to me, is the value of this article: assume there is a cost to anything that is “free”, find out what it is, and determine if it’s a good deal or not. If it is, great…do it! If it’s not, fine, don’t do it. But I personally will not avoid a good deal just because the company used the term “free” instead of “included”. Yes, “included” is more honest, but…do we really expect for-profit companies to be boy-scout honest? I sure don’t.

  16. Here’s another way of looking at it I didn’t see below:

    Consider the outrage expressed here by many over the debundling of airline concessions such as baggage, meals, drinks, and seat assignments. All of those things in the past weren’t “free” either.

    They had significant value. The biggest for me was the seat assignment. Getting a window seat over the middle is a big deal and airlines _gave_ those away based upon consumers being saavy enough to check in or reserve early. Imagine going to a Rolling Stones concert early to sit in the front row.

    What I like about “bundling” or “free” such as shipping is that it often simplifies transactions. For example, a “free” checked in bag costs the airlines money to schlep around but then again, what’s the cost of dealing with planes taking much longer to board and the complications of boarding? Free meals cost money but passengers who are well fed are easier to deal with.

    One freebie I think is a net loss, and it’s sad to say because I love it so much, is alcohol. Flying for me is always a treat and I love a nice drink to kick it off. But a lot of people can’t handle their alcohol and the FA’s would be just as happy to not pass it out.

  17. This is getting silly. You should LOVE free shipping? Why? I remember when you used to order things in the wonderful system you seem to want to advocate, where nobody had “free shipping”; you paid for the shipping when you ordered. You never knew how much something was going to cost until you had gone though the entire order. Suddenly, the $15 in items cost $29 with shipping. You could not comparison shop very easily. As a consumer advocate, I wonder how much money you throw away over silly quibbles with the word “free”.

    What does “free shipping mean”? It means that the price I see is the price I pay! That’s why people like it. People rose up against airlines saying one price in their ads and omitting the taxes, fees, etc. from their quotes. I can look at 10 sites to choose what I want to buy and those with free shipping I can easily compare prices on. Those without are going to take me extra time. And, those without don’t seem to be winning the price war when I try them, anyway. Frankly, the companies that are most likely to rip you off are the ones that do charge for shipping. While you complain about “free shipping”, there are tons of companies that will gladly give you an item for super cheap and bury the price in a shipping and handling charge.

    Go to Tell me how much the $39.99 Magic Moments bouquet costs? I had to go through the entire checkout system to determine it would actually cost $56.98 with shipping and handling. But, they don’t have your evil “free shipping”. Go to Tell me how much the $37.57 White Elegance Bouquet is going to cost. Guess what? It’s $37.57. Your evil “free shipping” sure beats the hidden shipping at

    I’m going to ask you the same question you asked: “how dumb do you think we are?” Do you really think people have any illusions that the shipping is not included in the price? We are not stupid. We know what “free shipping” means. We know what “free” means. It’s defined as “without charge”. If I go to Payless and “buy one, get one free”, I know what that means. If I buy a pair of shoes, I can select a second pair without an additional charge. Everyone knows that that’s a 50% of sale and that the sale requires you to buy an even number of pairs of shoes. If I order an item on with free shipping I know there will be no additional charge; they have told me what it costs.

    1. I have to agree with you on this, especially regarding “free shipping”. To me, the cost of shipping has to be added in to determine the total cost of the item anyway. We have a home based business and we buy lots of our supplies on Ebay. So often I’ll think I’ve found a great price on something, only to realize that they want $25 for shipping, which totally blows the cost of the item from the “great deal” category into the “rip off” category.

    2. Online florists are run by the flower mafia.

      If they charge $40 for a dozen roses, then they ought to make the shipping free. If not, then what’s the $40 for?

      Option: Consider going to safeway and paying for delivery and just ordering flowers. $13 or so for a dozen roses and then $10 for delivery. What a bargain! When they first opened up, I couldn’t find the floral department included for purchase. I got a feeling that Tony Soprano went over with a baseball bat and convinced them to drop that department. Later, I found it there.

  18. Since you titled this one “In 2014 ..” I thought I’d post a comment here about all I’ve learned from your site in last year (intended to be satirical). But first, an acronym: DRSs (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).

    We like to travel, and this year we’ve got one trip on the radar. Flying makes the most sense, BUT WAIT! Can’t fly two of the airlines because they merged (DRSs). AND, can’t fly the ones that add a bunch of fees either (DRSs) so that leaves just one.

    Okay, fine, BUT WAIT! I’m gonna need help with my carry-on luggage, and airlines (DRSs) don’t pay flight attendants for that, so I guess flying is out. Bummer …

    Well then, I’ll drive. BUT WAIT! Can’t rent a car because they’re gonna hit me with a bunch of bogus repair charges (DRSs). No problem, I’ll take my own car. OH WAIT! That means I have to stay at those hotels that will lose my reservations and hit me with resort fees (DRSs). Dang …

    Maybe I’ll just stay home and spend the travel money at my favorite restaurants. NO WAIT! The owners only pay the servers $2.13 an hour (DRSs), so I gotta boycott them. Sigh …

    Alright, then, I’ll just stay home and order a bunch of “stuff” on Amazon since I can get free shipping. OH NO! That’s not free, so I’d have to pay for shipping. Daggnabbit!!

    Whew. Only one option left: sit at home and read travel blogs while eating a dirt sandwich. Oh woe is me …

  19. Chris: I luv ya but:

    We all understand that “free” shipping doesn’t mean we can have Best Buy ship our packages to Grandma for free. We all understand that “free” shipping means we have to buy something in order to get it shipped at no extra cost. Come On!

    We’re all smart enough to do the math. If Southwest has “free” bags but a fare more than $25 higher than United ($65 if we need to check two bags), then all else being equal we’ll take United. (That’s rare, BTW, but I always check.) We all understand that “free” bags means when you fly — again, we can’t ship our packages to Grandma for free. For Heaven’s sake, we’re not that stupid.

    I can’t determine your exact birth year online, but I think it’s possible that I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress before you were born. I also studied a lot of economics. I understand TANSTAAFL.

    But I don’t see anything wrong with using the shorthand “free”, as we’re all smart enough to understand what it means, and to calculate whether the deal offered is one we want to take. In other words, I don’t feel the least bit misled by the word “free” as I know what it means. People are at least that smart – it’s not a very hard concept.

    I personally appreciate that Southwest includes checked bags when I buy a ticket, and don’t care at all whether they call it “Bags Fly Free” or “checked bags included in the cost of the ticket” as they mean the same thing to me. “Bags Fly Free” is quicker and easier to say, so that’s what they say in their ads.

    I also appreciate web merchants who offer “free” shipping (excuse me, let me rephrase that: shipping included with the purchase) on expenditures over a certain amount. Just last night I ordered some shavers from They have “free” shipping with a $25 purchase. After comparing the product and price (it being my second purchase from them) I concluded that it was a purchase I wanted to make. If they’d added on six or eight dollars for shipping it wouldn’t have been. I understand that they still have to pay to ship (though the actual cost is usually less than we’re charged) but it’s worth it to them to absorb that cost to induce me to spend a bit more, and it’s worth it to me to buy a little more too. Win-win!

    Chris, I’ve read you for years and really appreciate your work, but you’ve gotten downright obsessed about this. It seems you’re seriously hung up on the semantics. Among all the problems you encounter and address, this one is well down the list in terms of importance.

  20. I thought two quotes from this site would go together nicely:

    “The truth? Nothing is really free. There are no free lunches, free tickets — no free anything.”

    “I‘m here to help you. My advocacy work is, and always will be, completely free.” <– Note the use of the word "free".

    Do you ask anything in return for your advocacy? From that same page:

    "Please note that your story may be used in a future article, and that all emails to me and comments left on the site are considered “on the record” conversations."

    If you intend to take this particular parsing of the word "free", I suggest you edit your site appropriately.

    1. Good point. There is a cost associated with posting here, up control of our comments. I guess another duplicitous use of the word “Free”

  21. I just won an Apple Ipad by rubbing off the scratch-off and matching the number. When I went to the dealer, they said I was looking at the wrong matching number, all I won was a scratch off lottery ticket, I filed with the State of WV Attorney General. 3 Months later, I won my case and received an Ipad. So, yes free is free if you feel that you are right and pursue your rights. I also got the letter for 2 free air tickets, and another the next day for two free air tickets and a RCCL cruise….all I had to do was attend a 90 minute meeting at the “local timeshare” and pay all of the taxes. The taxes were 3 times the legal amont and that case is pending resolution. If you have time on your hands, after work I do, then screw with their heads. Make the con-persons suffer. Talk to the guy on the phone about your free security system and then ask for the supervisor. After that waiver back and forth and have them re-explain it all to you again. If they can waste my time, I shall get it back in spades.
    Always tell the supervisor to remove your name from their list!

  22. Oh, and the Houston Fine Arts Museum is FREE to anyone who wants to visit on Thursdays. Really free. Parking is free, too.

    So there ya go.

    1. Laughing because I envision Chris’s response: “But if it were REALLY free, they’d transport you to and from your house”.

      But I do agree with your example …

    2. Chris will say it isn’t free as others are paying for it via subsidized taxes. I know, I know, just sayin’…….

      1. That museum is not supported by taxes or any other public money. It is a private museum.

        But the “free” Thursday is supported by those who pay the rest of the week. As an example, an upcoming exhibit (which may be excluded from the “free” portion of the museum on Thursdays) will cost $45 to enter during the initial few days.

  23. I just though of more free stuff:

    My grocery store gives out free samples. You don’t have to buy anything. You don’t pay to enter. They don’t charge for parking.

    Also most of the car dealerships near me give out free lunch on Saturdays. No parking fee, don’t have to buy a car, and if you tell the sales people you are only there for the food, they leave you alone.

    1. If you drink a certain brand of coffee at home, you can get free cups of coffee with those empty bags. We keep those empty bags in the car and never pay for a cup of coffee when we are out and around. Yes, there are less expensive brands off coffee, but we do like this one, so it is an added benefit that we enjoy.

  24. I must be one of those fools who believed in “free airline tickets”!!
    I applied for Ryanair’s credit card attracted by their free tickets offer. I spent £3000 and got two return tickets voucher. I rang (10p/min) to check availability for six choices and none was available. I was asked to ring again and “luckily” this time there were two flights available from London to Rome. The trick is, I need to pay £157 tax/service charge for that. The cost of booking online without the voucher is only £65 each, return. What a fool I was!

  25. There is a large supermarket chain here in Florida called Publix. Every week they run specials on items that are “Buy One, Get One free”. (BOGO) Our family takes advantage of some of these legitimate offers each week. Let’s use a jar of peanut butter as an example. Publix’ regular price on this product is $2.99. This week, I am able to go to Publix and purchase TWO jars of peanut butter (same brand, same ingredients, same weight) for $2.99. What’s wrong with that? It’s a free deal with no downside.

    I believe that Publix uses their 800+ store chain as leverage to get the manufacturers to sell them certain products, for a limited time, at a much lower than regular wholesale price. They are then able to sell the BOGO items at a near break-even price. They use the BOGO items to draw customers into the store and hope that they will purchase additional merchandise at normal profit margins.

    1. And I don’t think you need a discount card to get the sale price either. That would have been Chris’ comeback.

      1. You’re correct. Publix does not have “discount cards”. Since Chris lives in the Orlando area, it is likely that he is aware of Publix’s policies.

  26. Haven’t read the all the comments yet, but TANSTAAFL didn’t originate with Heinlein. He just put the saying out there.

  27. we have airports in major cities in Australia (like in Sydney & Brisbane where the parking is 100% free & incredibly close to the terminals, eg. 10 metres away (that’s just over 10 yards) + these airports are in central locations. The one in Brisbane (a city of around 1.5 million people) is closest to CBD !!! (there is talk of charging $2-$4/day but this might cost more to collect than it’s worth.

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