Don't Allow 'Free' Online Offers to Make You 'Go Broke'

Don’t Allow ‘Free’ Online Offers to Make You ‘Go Broke’

freeFew words inspire more distrust, skepticism, and sometimes, outright contempt from me than the word “free.” Whenever I see a commercial or other promotion offering me something for free, the first thing I think is, “You must think I’m Boo Boo The Fool.”

Take the “Free Shipping” gimmick for example. You know what I’m talking about: To avoid paying $8.99 in shipping charges, you are invited to order a second or third item you hadn’t planned to buy, costing you an additional $35. You didn’t save $9; you spent an extra $26–and you can bet that’s still a significant mark-up on the wholesale cost of the additional item you bought to avoid paying for shipping. (Do you hear snickers from Amazon and other online retailers, or is it just me?)

Now on the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with marketers giving up something in order to motivate someone to spend more money. It’s also fine to point out that what you are offering for sale is at a lower price than what the guy down the street is charging for the exact same thing. That’s just good business.

What really bothers me is when these “free” offers are presented as some kind of expression of love for me as a consumer, like they’re doing me a favor, implying that they are making an economic sacrifice in order to reward my loyalty or some other such nonsense. At it’s most egregious, it can be disingenuous to the point of being unethical and disrespectful to consumers. I’d respect marketers a lot more if they were open and honest about their true objective, which is not to help me to save money, but to get me to spend even more, specifically with them. I can and do respect that. But please stop the nonsense about how much you love me as a customer. If you did, I wouldn’t have to run an obstacle course of button pushing, recorded prompts and data entry to get your “love” when you are my problem, or when I’m trying to get money from you, instead of the other way around. (Addressing the fact that, with rare exceptions, the term customer service is more of an oxymoron than ever will have to wait until a later post.)

As a rule, watch out for any offer of a so-called free good or service that requires you to purchase another good or service–or provide an e-mail address, birth month and day and other information–to get it. (No, they don’t really celebrate your birthday. In the age of Big Data, paying with information is just like paying with money, because they will be using it to target you later as well as sell it to others–all while protecting your privacy, of course.) When it comes to selling you something, there is no such thing as free, no matter what they say. That includes shipping.

And another thing: Convenience nearly always costs more than it’s worth, so pay attention, and know the price up front, before you buy. Then ask yourself: Is it really all that convenient? Especially if you don’t actually need it and had not budgeted for its expense? I’ve already said in a past blog post that you can’t fix your finances if you have trouble with the phrase, “I can’t afford this right now.” Similarly, two of the most important words in personal money management and smart budgeting are “No, thanks,” said in a firm tone designed to get the sales person (ahem, customer service associate), to stop talking and back the heck up.

Here’s what I know: In commerce, free never means free, because you pay for everything you get, even if you’re not paying with money, or not paying at the time you take possession of it, or if you don’t know what it really cost you until sometime in the future, if ever. If you understand that up front, and decide the value of whatever you pay for that free thing is worth it, great. But please, for the sake of your ability to control your own spending, don’t believe in the fairy tale of free offers.

Stop allowing yourself to be tricked into spending more to “save.” It’s not just free shipping. Sometimes it’s that buy-one-get-one-free (BOGO) offer. Other times it’s coupons, or shopping in bulk to supposedly get more for your money. Whatever. If you are buying stuff that is not in your budget or that you don’t truly need, you are not saving money at all. Don’t spend money just to experience the thrill of getting a so-called deal.

The definition of a great deal is simple and immutable: You have a true purpose and benefit for buying the good or service beyond merely owning it or the pleasure of spending for it, and you actually budgeted for and can afford the purchase–meaning you didn’t have to borrow money (use a credit card or defer another financial obligation) to buy it.

Free means that your are about to be upsold–or even being sold yourself. (By now, you’ve probably read or heard the often repeated and paraphrased quote: If you’re not paying for it, you’re probably the product, not the customer.) Any one who believes otherwise really is Boo Boo The Fool. And boy, do marketers love you. Really.

Black Enterprise Executive Editor-At-Large Alfred Edmond Jr. is an award-winning business and financial journalist, media executive, entrepreneurship expert,  personal growth/relationships coach, and co-founder of Grown Zone, a multimedia initiative focused on personal growth and healthy decision-making. This blog is dedicated to his thoughts about money, entrepreneurship, leadership and mentorship. Follow him on Twitter at @AlfredEdmondJr.