Free Is Not Free

Society in general has this notion that they are entitled to “free” things.  We ask for them; we get them; we expect them.  I’m not saying everyone is an awful person because of this, I’m simply pointing out that we, as a society, have been conditioned to expect, dare I even say, believe we deserve free “things.”

This has been something I’ve wanted to write about for a couple years now.  It’s a topic I never truly considered until I started my own business and suddenly I was accounting for every expense, and understanding exactly how much every item cost me to make.  I do not write this post as a rant or in an accusatory tone.  I’m simply sharing some ideas on how we perceive two words: Free and Gift.

Let’s look at some definitions:

Free (adj.): provided without, or not subject to, a charge or payment.

Gift (n.): the act of giving.

As a side note: I looked up the word “free” in the dictionary and got 42 different definitions to the word! 42 different meanings!  The first 7 or so related to freedom (liberty) and the next few to freedom of choice.  There were many more definitions (there’s a lot of meanings to free), but in the middle of all of those definitions was the definition of “free” that I was talking about.  But think about that: 42 ways to interpret and use the word “free”.

Back on track now! How often have you seen: free shipping, by one get one free, spend “x” amount and get one free, free samples…

These things cost us nothing.  And if we look at a strict interpretation of the definition of free  we can argue that these are all indeed “free”.  They were provided to us without charge.  But I want to argue that these are gifts.  They were “given” to us (with nothing expected in return).  We use the word “free” very often when what we really are getting is a “gift”.

I realize this is a perception on how to view the terms and their use.  Yes, either word would work (and be correct) in most situations, but do you ever hear anything called a gift?  I know I rarely do.  I argue that we’ve been condition to use the word free.  We’ve been mentally conditioned to expect and view anything we receive free of charge as “free” as opposed to a “gift” and the word choice changes our perception on how we view these “items” we are given.

I argue that the true definition of free (in terms of cost) means it wouldn’t cost anyone anything.  It would be free to the retailer and the consumer.  There are very few things I’d argue that are truly free.  The air we breathe is free maybe. Most everything else cost someone something.

I am asked (more often than I like to admit) for “free samples.”  I get request along the lines of this: I have really sensitive skin and I want to make sure your soap doesn’t irritate me before I buy it can you send me a free bar of soap?  Or: Do you have any free sample (at shows).  Now, if I gave out soap every time I was asked some of these might truly lead to a future sale, but I know most are just people looking for something they don’t have to pay for.  My point is that people ask and expect me to give them soap.  They see nothing wrong this.  They don’t see that the free bar of soap they’re asking for might be what pays for one of my meals.  Think about that for a moment.  If we make that comparison would you ask me for a free meal?  Probably not, so why ask me for a free bar of soap?  This is especially true for small business owners.  Every little bit makes a difference for us.

A fellow graduate and classmate of mine wrote about this in 2015 too.  She’s an author and is constantly asked for a “free book” usually in exchange for a review.  She faces the same problem many of us face.  I’ve made it a policy of mine that if I get a free book (for whatever reason) if I like that book I make sure I BUY something else that author has written, because (as a writer myself) I know the time and effort that went into that book and I want to support that author. I want him/her to keep writing. This “expecting” free stuff happens across the spectrum from soap to books to so many other products (even services).

I include samples with every order.  I don’t call them free samples. I say enjoy the gift. Because those samples cost me.  When I give them (which I do so happily) I am giving you a gift.  It’s a little “thank you” for your support. I appreciate it. And I want you to know that!  But every sample I give costs me in materials and time (making/packaging/labeling).

I’m guilty of using the term “free shipping”.  But trust me it’s not free.  Shipping is expensive and it hurts to eat that cost, but I do it because I’ve evaluated my business and my customers and I deemed it worth the costs on my end.  (Again, it’s a form of saying thank you to my customers).  I’m sure that this holds true for many other companies out there whenever they offer free shipping too.  Someone is paying for that shipping!  It’s not “free” when it comes down to it.

I realize that this doesn’t always hold true.  And that many (large) companies can get their costs down to a fraction of small businesses and that they can charge twice as much (with consumers willing paying it) as the small business owner for an item.  And so marking down an item or doing a buy one get one free promotion still means they come out ahead.  But there are more and more small businesses in our society today competing for your support.  This means they have to (to some degree) be competitive, offer incentives, and gain your loyalty.  And when they do that by offering free shipping or a free product please appreciate it!  Because they’re doing it for you :).  They’re saying thank you for your continued support!

What I wish we could do we replace the word free with gift.  I know I won’t change a movement (word) so ingrained in society, but maybe I can make some people think twice when they hear the word free.  Maybe other small business owners can change with me.  Maybe we can make a small difference.  Maybe then people will stop and go, that’s really not free, it is a gift.  I appreciate that.

Free is not free.  It costs someone something.  Please remember that the next time you see the words “free” on something.



4 Responses to Free Is Not Free

  1. Eva says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    Thanks for your courageous sharing of your point of view. Yes there are many definitions, and my husband & I have marveled at sales tactics for some time now. ‘Free’ or ‘BOGO’ does cost something up front to be gifted the ‘free’ item. On both ends of the transaction.
    It doesn’t feel good when someone doesn’t appreciate something we give them, soap or otherwise. However, when our sharing a piece of ourselves through our craft creates a bond with our customers & friends, it is well worth it!! This drives me to continue gifting ~ because i enjoy sharing.
    Words are interesting aren’t they? I have always loved looking up definitions, and enjoyed your well written expressions on “Free”.
    : ) Thanks again!

    • Jennifer says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts too! I love sharing a part of me and I do understand that “free” is part of the cost of doing business, but yeah if we look at how we use our words we can appreciate things a little differently! 🙂

  2. Debbie says:

    Great job Jennifer! We are on the same page! When I do my open house next month I was already planning on using the words “Gift Bag” for my thank you gift! I couldn’t agree more with society “expecting” something for nothing! We all work hard to get where we are & today’s attitude of “entitlement” really gets me! So, great words of advice! Thank you! 👍😻🐾🐾

  3. Aunt Patty says:

    Enjoyable read as I finish my “free” cup of coffee! 😉

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