The cost of free

Posted on Monday.5.18.2009




Over the weekend Amy and I had dinner with some old friends we haven’t seen in a while. We had great conversation over delicious food and my personal favorite, beautiful wine. It was fun, even though the description sounds like I’m 50 years old.

One of the things that I started thinking about after the dinner was the idea of “free.” Everybody loves free and/or things that are extremely cheap. That’s a given. But have you thought about what it means to get something for free? Or more importantly, to do something that has no cost?

My friend, who works for a university and does recruitment events, observed this phenomenon (I may be paraphrasing): “We would have sodas for free for people to come and get but no one would come. [The second time] We sold sodas for 5 cents and people were in line out the door, or buying 20 at a time.”

It made me think about the cost of free. I’m sure everyone would love a free Macbook or a free 52″ LCD TV. What I thought about though was the cost. It’s free right? There’s no cost. I think there is…

The cost of free (something with no cost):

  • If you get something for free, would you take care of it the same as you would something you saved up months for?
  • When you don’t pay for something, or you have no investment in something, there is often much less return. For example, if you’re not willing to spend time and sacrifice for your friends/coworkers, do you find that they magically sacrifice for you?
  • The nation and the world for that matter, has moved to a new wave of social service and justice. A lot of people say they care about justice and compassion for the world. If you’ve put no time or money into those things…do you really?
  • There is no ownership or obligation to something that’s free. Think about your church or temple…if you want it to, they provide a free service. You show up, you hang out, you leave. Should you have a right to care if it moves locations or it doesn’t serve your needs anymore? It’s a free service to you … so instead you’ll find other means of receiving for free.
  • If something is free, too easy or has no cost, what makes it valuable? Why would something like that mean anything to you?
  • Free makes for inflated supply. I’m not an economist, but I do know that when the supply is high, the demand tends to drop. It’s no longer rare and it’s no longer desirable.

We all think we want something for free. But when something is free, we tend to not desire it anymore. The things with most value are things we’ve paid for, worked for, and put time into.

Go back to the soda example. I’m sure a lot of the students thought there was something wrong with the sodas, or the people giving them out were a bunch of freaks or a cult wanting them to drink a “special” soda. There had to be some catch right? We’re weary of free because we know that anything of value has a cost. What do you think?

Posted in: work